So Kevin Durant has gone to the Golden State Warriors, and in his wake, the Oklahoma City Thunder will never be the same.
Russell Westbrook remains, but he will be a free agent next summer. The rest of the roster has been constructed around Durant and without him, much of that structure is left hanging. Oklahoma City has never had a team without Kevin Durant. He was a second-year player when he arrived (after the franchise moved from Seattle) and he changed everything about the town and its relationship with basketball. OKC now faces a future in which it has to drastically alter its entire outlook while dealing with the most devastating turn of events, sports-wise, possible.
Here's a look at what this means for the Thunder.
THE WESTBROOK CLOCK IS TICKING
Russell Westbrook can go anywhere in 2017 and he's got very little reason to commit to OKC now. He can head to L.A. and be even more of a fashion mogul, he can go to Boston, he can go anywhere he chooses, and Westbrook enjoys the superstar lifestyle. Plus, he enjoys winning, and there's no guarantee the Thunder even make the playoffs without Durant.
The first thing the Thunder have to do is ask Westbrook how he feels about this situation. If he says he's likely to leave, or if he even hints that he's starting to waffle, they wouldn't be wrong to pursue a trade now before they end up losing two franchise players for nothing. They can potentially get ahead of this and move from a position of strength while the shock of Durant's departure is still going through the league. Call the Lakers first with their bevy of assets, and go from there.
Otherwise, you start gauging interest to lead up to the trade deadline. You can't risk losing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and get no return. You have to know what you're doing and where you're going. If he says "I want to stay in OKC," then great. There are still good pieces there. Steven Adams might be on the cusp of being a star. They just got Victor Oladipo. They have assets. If he says "I'm not against staying in OKC," you can try, but you have to avoid letting Westbrook go for nothing. You know your situation, you have to be aware of it. Starting over is too hard.
NOTHING WORKS WITHOUT KD
The entire Thunder roster was built around Kevin Durant. This is the list of players who now make sense for the Thunder:
Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Cameron Payne.
That's it. Enes Kanter had a great playoff series, and his $70 million deal last summer looks much better under the new salary cap reality. But he's still a defensive liability that was best used as a pricey reserve weapon for a superstar team, not a starting power forward on a rebuilding squad with Westbrook trying to hit ludicrous speed on every fast break.
Andre Roberson came up huge for the Thunder in getting past the Spurs and again in helping the Thunder go up 3-1 on the Warriors, but he was open for shots because of the attention on Durant. He's neutralized.
Ersan Ilyasova, Kyle Singler, Josh Huestis, Anthony Morrow, their value is lowered without Durant. The Thunder can't just pick up this team and go on. They have to reconfigure what is a package of lower-value assets, and do so on a truncated timeline. This will not be easy, and it's why trading Westbrook and going full-tank might be the best available option. Of note, their 2017 first-round pick goes to Utah if it is not bottom-14.
IS THIS STILL A PLAYOFF TEAM?
The Thunder missed the playoffs in 2015 when Durant missed most of the year with a foot injury. Now they at least have Durant's cap space to work with. If they use that to get a free agent (though their pickings are slim at this point) they can at least scrap together a team that can make a run. Remember, the Western Conference was weak outside of the top four last year. The Clippers will still be there and the Grizzlies got better, but the Rockets, Mavericks and even Blazers are still question marks, especially with the changes Portland is potentially looking at.
OKC might be able to cobble together a playoff run. But then, what's the point?
The point is just to keep your pride, to compete, to make sure Westbrook feels like he can compete with OKC. There's some value in this, but OKC's quest to win a title is over. They are, at best, a first-round out barring some sort of miraculous trade or Victor Oladipo or Steven Adams turning into a top-10 player.
Westbrook might be able to push them to a playoff spot, but that's the end of the line for the Thunder barring major moves.
THE WAITERS QUESTION
After the Thunder acquired Victor Oladipo, the assumption was that Dion Waiters, a restricted free agent, would be let go if they kept Durant. Now, faced with no other real option at the position, OKC may feel forced to commit big money to Waiters. But it's important to remember that Waiters thrived in a specific role, as the third scorer and creator with a great big next to him and with Westbrook and Durant doing all the heavy lifting. All that changes in a primary role as Westbrook's main sidekick.
OKC would be best off configuring a sign-and-trade for Waiters to get some sort of package of assets back, even if it's just cap space for the future in a fill-in.
IN THE END
This is devastating. A great sports community lost its best athlete, a franchise is looking at a complete overhaul of everything it has built up. Sam Presti built a four-time Western Conference finalist, dedicated everything the organization had to keeping Durant happy, and he walked out on them, leaving them with nothing. They now have a temperamental superstar who plays with an edge who reportedly they will look to keep, but who could leave in a year, and no clear path to get the kinds of picks that set them up for this situation in the first place.
The Kevin Durant era is over in Oklahoma City, and whatever happens next, this franchise will never truly get over it.