Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the wake of their season-ending Game 6 loss at home to San Antonio in the Western Conference finals:
1. How sick should the Thunder feel about beating San Antonio nine straight times at home and then finally losing one after the Spurs had lost Tony Parker?
There’s no getting around it. Saturday night was a crushing loss for this group. Making three trips to the conference finals in the space of four years will eventually sound good. Very good, even, when you remember that they didn’t even have a chance last season after Russell Westbrook’s demise.
But not now. Not yet.
Not when it seemed, at 2-2 against the wily old Spurs, that OKC had rediscovered the same mojo that led to such a stunning turnaround in the final four games of the 2012 Western Conference finals.
With time, though, OKC will come around. It’s a team that’s been through a lot in the past 18-plus months, continues to grow up and, truth be told, has a roster and overall bill of health that at least 25 franchises in this 30-team league would trade for on the spot. And that’s the conservative estimate.
The general consensus on Kevin Durant and his Thunder, until they take that final step, is bound to be that they still haven’t done enough or, worse, aren't good enough to get it done. But not here. I can’t forget, coming into the season, that I was expecting a certain slide for them, convinced that the departures of James Harden and Harden replacement Kevin Martin had left Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka with too much to carry.
They shut me up good with 59 wins, despite losing Westbrook to two more in-season surgeries, then saw off Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers in the toughest possible path just to get to the Spurs after KD dethroned LeBron James as regular-season MVP. Not exactly a wasted season.
The reality remains that the best basketball for OKC’s star trio and whoever is in their supporting cast is almost certainly ahead of them. The average age of the threesome, when next season starts, still won’t quite be 26 ... in a league where 27 is often cited as the prime of a franchise player because that’s the age when Michael Jordan and LeBron James started winning titles.
The average age of the three recognized stars on the two teams that did make it to The Finals, by contrast, is 31-plus for Miami ... and 36-plus for San Antonio.
Nothing, of course, is guaranteed. The Thunder can’t just bank on linear progression because their core is still so young. But the wily Derek Fisher wasn’t wrong, on OKC’s dreaded Day After, when he reminded local reporters that “nobody else” has been in the Miami-San Antonio class for these past four seasons “but this team.”
Just compare them to the NBA’s other beaten Final Four squad. Larry Bird’s Pacers pushed in all their chips to the middle coming into this season, lost to Miami for the third successive spring and suddenly have tough decisions to make all over the roster after the Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum acquisitions added nothing. The only similarity, when you shift your gaze to OKC, is market size.
The Thunder certainly still have holes. They’ll also be reminded at every turn, until they do win a championship, that they dealt Harden -- as it stands -- for Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb, one first-round pick to come in the draft later this month, and better long-term financial health. Yet you can’t ignore that they’re also four full years into a cycle of significant success that, as long as health cooperates, shows little sign of cycling the wrong way.
Which is why there won’t be many rivals grieving for them.
2. Scott Brooks says he's not worried about his job security. Should he be worried?
Not unless the Thunder do something completely out of character and start taking their cues from the Twitterverse on who can and can't coach.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that won't happen. I'm going to suggest it's far likelier that the Thunder, who preach culture-building and continuity more than any team in the league outside of San Antonio's city limits, will continue to back Brooks. Strongly.
He's as much a part of the fabric in OKC, after six seasons as the head coach, as Durant and Westbrook and glue guys Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins. He also happens to be a good young coach who never gets proper credit for the positive team environment he fosters as a leader of men. Or how he keeps the group together as opposed to letting it splinter. Or the reasonably safe assumption that, just like his two stars, he's going to keep getting better.
The Thunder regressed defensively after the All-Star break and continue to rely way too much on Durant and Westbrook to carry the offense, which tends to be an issue in the postseason if the opposing team is only required to game plan for two or three weapons. Some of that unavoidably has to fall on the coach.
But the vocal minority that tends to assail Brooks conveniently ignores the steady support he gets from his stars and the consistent buy-in he gets from the whole team. Which matter as much as anything in coaching after overall talent.
"That's our guy," Durant said Sunday after OKC's elimination. "I'm riding with him."
3. How worried should the Thunder be about getting Reggie Jackson signed for the long term?
Based on the available evidence? Not much. I struggle to imagine a scenario where the Thunder fail to lock up their backcourt speedster one way or another.
They'll either get him signed to an extension before Halloween, or, if necessary, set aside the needed funds to match any offers he gets in restricted free agency in 2015.
The Thunder always place great value on players they draft and develop, especially when they're athletic and long and can play multiple positions. They'd surely rather get the extension done during this forthcoming July 1-Oct. 31 window just to ensure that Jackson isn't even exposed to the open market -- and the threat of a lucrative offer sheet in July 2015 -- but they realistically shouldn't have any issues matching offers for Jackson if it comes to that. Not with Perkins' contract dropping off the payroll at the same time.
4. Wait a minute. Isn't this the summer that the Thunder finally amnesty Perk?
But it's still not going to happen.
Anyone watching Durant's time-stopping MVP press conference last month won't soon forget how it was talking about Perk (yes, Perk) that initially triggered KD's flood of tears. The 29-year-old is held in the highest esteem within the group, not only as a leader but for his role in helping transform the Thunder from fun band of ridiculously talented kids to serious title challenger.
He mentors Adams. He also happened to have a quietly positive postseason when you focus on the defensive contributions Perkins made against Memphis monsters Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in particular, without which OKC might not have gotten out of the first round.
The reality, furthermore, is that there's no real salary-cap benefit to cutting Perkins loose now. Wiping next season's $9.4 million salary off the books won't get the Thunder under the cap, so there's nothing to be gained by such a move beyond appeasing Perk-bashers that they'd never listen to anyway.
5. So what will the Thunder do to improve this roster?
They have two first-round picks later this month to either keep or dangle in trades if so inclined.
They'll probably have to get Serge Ibaka through calf surgery ... and then a stint with the Spanish national team at the FIBA World Cup of Basketball unscathed.
They also have a tough decision to make on free agent-to-be Thabo Sefolosha, who lost his starting spot during the Western Conference finals to Jackson and might find himself squeezed out for good, given that OKC -- unlike with Reggie -- appears to have a strong in-house candidate to replace him in Andre Roberson.
History says that the Thunder, most of all, will likely rely on small tweaks and internal improvement (from the likes of Adams, Perry Jones and Lamb) to address the bench shortcomings that led to San Antonio's reserves outscoring OKC's by a whopping 51-5 in Saturday night's ill-fated Game 6. No less than an authority than Thunder lifer Collison said as far back as this column on media day that executing with more precision as the group gets older, as opposed to relying so heavily on the greatness of Durant and Westbrook to create shots, is the next (vital) step in this team's evolution.
But the Thunder proved more versatile this postseason than their critics would have you believe. They banged with the bigger Grizzlies. They ran with the speedy Clippers. They have the tools, thanks to the speed/length/athleticism already on the roster, to play multiple ways. They're clearly not as far away as Durant's deepening thirst might suggest.
He's going to get some flak, like it or not, for failing to extend his MVP campaign beyond the conference finals. But I'd expect Durant to find a way to come back at least one notch better than he was in his best season yet when he returns for season No. 8, since KD seems to have officially barged into that special squadron of all-time sporting greats -- captained by John McEnroe -- who play better when they're mad. I likewise expect Westbrook to continue his promising rally from those three knee surgeries in the space of eight months, fueled by the inspiring support Durant showered on him during that MVP press conference. And since you can be sure he'll be quietly looking to turn his available assets into upgrades no one saw coming, some Sam Presti trade magic wouldn't hurt, either.