What now for the Thunder?

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Chris Mannix
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Sam Presti faced reporters on Monday, and for a man who just had his title-contending team fall apart like a Jenga tower, the Thunder general manager was remarkably cool. He praised Kevin Durant – the now ex-Oklahoma City superstar who will be taking his talents to Oakland in the fall – and thanked him for his years of service. He reminded the room of the presence of Russell Westbrook and rattled off the names of the collection of young players there to support him. The Thunder would not be reactionary, Presti said, but they would move on.

Oklahoma City can't afford to lose two stars for nothing. (AP)
Oklahoma City can't afford to lose two stars for nothing. (AP)

It was thoughtful, eloquent and for a jilted fan base, necessary. Yet the more Presti offered the broad strokes of how the team was going to move forward, the less clear you were on how the Thunder were going to do it.

Oklahoma City is in trouble. The franchise cornerstone is gone, and any hope of competing for anything more than a second-round playoff exit left with him. Presti has done a masterful job assembling a team through shrewd draft picks, timely trades and a willingness to be proactive in dealing with disgruntled stars. He turned James Harden into Steven Adams, flipped Reggie Jackson for Enes Kanter, plucked Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova from Orlando for Serge Ibaka. He built a deep roster around Durant – and one that can’t win without him.

In hindsight, the Thunder could have done … nothing. You don’t trade players like Durant, not from a conference power, not with the connection Durant had with the community. You roll the dice and hope Durant chooses to stay. He didn’t, but it’s hard to see what more Oklahoma City could have done to change that.

Only Durant knows why he left, and if there is more behind it than what he articulated in the 351-word note he penned on The Players Tribune. For sure, Oklahoma City will wonder. The Thunder will be haunted by Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, when a series-clinching win was buried under an avalanche of Klay Thompson 3-pointers. Would Durant have left an NBA Finals team for the one he just defeated? It’s doubtful.

They will relive Golden State’s collapse in the Finals, if only to beat to death the theory that Durant would never bandwagon hop a two-time champion fresh off the greatest season in NBA history. Chasing titles is one thing; grabbing a seat on a steaming championship train is another. With a two-time champ, Durant is along for the ride. With a Finals loser, Durant is the missing piece.

Presti can’t dwell on it long, because he has bigger problems: A 6-foot-3, 200-pound problem, to be precise. Westbrook’s future now becomes a priority. Presti can’t treat Westbrook like Durant, can’t play out the season and hope Westbrook’s connection to Oklahoma City and his desire for the biggest contract on the block keeps him around. The risk of losing a second top-10 player for nothing is too great. Any doubt Presti has about Westbrook’s future with the organization – and, really, why wouldn’t Westbrook want to at least look around – and the Thunder must put Westbrook on the trade block.

Honestly, it’s hard to watch Oklahoma City crumble. This is an organization that did everything right. It drafted talent, developed it and watched it bloom into a title contender. A model small-market franchise. Stephen Curry’s bargain contract helped the Warriors find room to add Durant, but they got an assist from the NBA – and the union, too. The owners’ inability to foreshadow the type of cap spike the new television deal would yield during collective-bargaining negotiations created this climate, and the National Basketball Players Association’s unwillingness to agree to the league’s cap-smoothing proposal rubber-stamped it.

So here are the Thunder: No Durant and perhaps an irresistible offer away from losing two franchise players. And maybe they should. Durant’s defection established a clear NBA alpha. It’s Golden State’s league, and for the next few years everyone else is playing for second place. Trade Westbrook, swim in assets for a few years and resurface when the Warriors storm has started to fade. It took a long time for Oklahoma City to get to this point. It will take even longer to get back.