The Oklahoma City Thunder are at a crossroads. Game 6 of their series with the San Antonio Spurs is the most important game in the history of the franchise up to this point.
It may be hard to make that claim if the franchise’s pedigree is extended back to their days as the Seattle SuperSonics, but certainly since re-locating and becoming the OKC Thunder. The outcome of game 6 may very well be the location on the timeline when people can look back and realize that an era had officially ended.
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Some especially contemplative observers can make the argument that the most important day in Thunder history, for better or worse, was October 27, 2012. About 4 months removed from an NBA Finals appearance with a core of 3 budding stars all under the age of 25, the Thunder traded one of those players, James Harden, for pennies on the dollar.
Defenders of the move cited salary cap concerns and the need to make Serge Ibaka a higher priority in shaping the long-term plans of the team.
Whether trading Harden was the correct move is still debatable today, but the fact is that the Thunder haven’t gotten back to the Finals since making the deal, let alone win a championship.
This was a team that looked destined to become a dynasty just a handful of years ago, and now that championship window looks like it may be about to close without ever obtaining the ultimate goal.
NBA history is littered with would-be dynasties that faded away without ever immortalizing themselves with championship hardware.
The Karl Malone/John Stockton Utah Jazz squads of the 1990s, the Shaquille O’Neal/ Penny Hardaway teams of that same era, and the early 2000s Sacramento Kings teams with Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic are a handful of examples of teams that people assumed would get back up after some stumbles, simply due to how bright their futures looked.
Never take anything in the NBA for granted, because unexpected factors tend to dictate the narrative of this league.
Injuries play a role in impeding talented squads, and sometimes spectacular teams just simply aren’t the most talented in a given year. Season after season of not quite being up to the task weighs on the stars that have to carry those expectations, and eventually the championship window seals shut.
Sometimes it’s a gradual thing that only becomes evident a few years down the road when early-round playoff exits become more routine, and others are strikingly sudden and concrete, like a freak injury or major personnel transaction.
Kevin Durant is a free agent this offseason, and it would be a devastating blow to Oklahoma City if he were to leave.
Durant has hinted in the past that what he cares most about is winning, and if he feels as though the Thunder are a perennial semifinals participant without the extra talent to overcome elite teams in the Western Conference like the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs, then he’ll most likely leave. If that epiphany hasn’t been reached yet by him, losing this series to the Spurs certainly will.
The reason game 6 is so crucial for the Thunder is because everybody realizes that this is their main chance to advance in this series. It seems exceedingly unlikely that they’d win a potential game 7 in San Antonio. Objective reasoning as well as the emotional impact of Tim Duncan’s probable final game in San Antonio if they lose makes picking the Thunder to win that game too bold of a declaration to have any faith in.
The logic is that if the Thunder lose game 6 in Oklahoma City, there’s a minuscule chance they win the series. If they don’t win this series, Durant most likely leaves in free agency for a location that he thinks gives him a better chance to compete for championships.
The stakes for game 6 become even more consequential when looking at how Durant’s decision impacts the fate of their other star, Russell Westbrook. An impending free agent after next season, it’s difficult to find any compelling reasons beyond purely monetary persuasions as to why Westbrook would stick around Oklahoma City without Durant by his side.
Superstars of their status make far more money off the court in endorsements than they do from their salary actually playing the game for a team, and it’s starting to sink in for players around the league that money lost on yearly player salary can be easily made up in not only product endorsements, but the added financial opportunities that come from winning championships.
Game 6 can end up having severe repercussions for the future of this franchise, and even if those within the organization don’t acknowledge the direness of the impending game, surely there’s more than a hint of anxiety regarding the changes that can occur if the Thunder don’t advance past this series.