With Thursday's NBA trade deadline looming, there's a simmering curiosity surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder and just how active they might actually be.
Because even at 40-14 -- and 37-10 when forward Kevin Durant plays -- the Thunder still currently sit third in the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors (48-4) and San Antonio Spurs (45-8). And with 28 games left in the regular season, the prospect of climbing higher than that appears unlikely.
Everyone knows the stakes attached to this Thunder season. It's why Oklahoma City is at an interesting crossroads as it approaches the deadline, caught in between the urgency of the present and the patience of sustaining the future.
As fate would have it, in the year of Durant's free agency, the Thunder have built a youthful contender that in most any other season would be considered the class of the league. In this one, though, they're clawing just to stay in the conversation.
But that doesn't mean they have to make a trade. The Warriors have caused a lot of teams to self-reflect, to reconsider their status going forward and what they have to change to catch up. The Thunder are in the same boat, but less so. Oklahoma City's roster, while still certainly flawed in some ways, has as much talent as any in the league while simultaneously possessing a unique versatility that few do.
So do the Thunder need to do anything?
The Year of Durant
It's assumed that the Thunder aren't quite good enough to topple the Warriors, so they need to make a bold move to improve the roster and close the gap. Because again: It's the Year of Durant, and the Thunder can't leave any stone unturned. Play every card, fire every bullet. Smoothing out a rough edge would certainly be wise, like adding a solid two-way option while giving up little. (Then again, this thinking applies to every other team in the league.)
The problem with that: Oklahoma City doesn't have many enticing assets to move. They've already traded future first-rounders in deals that netted them Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter last season. They have two expiring contracts -- non-Durant division -- but they're attached to two players out of the rotation, D.J. Augustin and Steve Novak. They have some intriguing youth in Cameron Payne and Mitch McGary, but one is an important rotation piece (Payne) and the other has barely played this season. They have the rights to Alex Abrines, who they drafted in the second round in 2013, but he's signed in Spain through 2019, and the Thunder themselves are very high on the 22-year-old. So in terms of non-core pieces, the Thunder don't have much to offer.
And if you're wondering, the Thunder aren't trading Durant. He was asked about that possibility at All-Star Weekend and joked about not being able to sleep all week.
Suffice to say, know that Durant is not going anywhere: There's no shopping, no calling, no gauging, no considering -- no anything going on. The Thunder aren't trading Kevin Durant.
What to trade?
Still, the Durant angle adds an interesting twist to the Thunder's approach. Maybe they need to be bold and make a play for a blockbuster trade, such as forward Serge Ibaka for Atlanta's Al Horford or something. Something to close the perceived gap. The problem there: Everything is still an unknown. Sure, a championship this season is the best recruiting tool in re-signing Durant, and if there was a magic button to guarantee that, you can bet general manager Sam Presti would be pressing it like a madman on Thursday. But there isn't.
And despite the Warriors, the Thunder are still a title contender this season with the team they have. With two top-five players, they might be good enough to win it already. If not, their next best recruiting tool is to maintain a roster that is built to contend again. And again. And again.
"Sure, a championship is the best recruiting tool in re-signing Durant, and if there were a magic button to guarantee that, you can bet GM Sam Presti would be pressing it like a madman on Thursday. But there isn't."
So trading a promising prospect like Payne for immediate veteran help might or might not improve their chances this season. One thing it'll certainly do, though, is damage their future roster. When Durant surveys the landscape and the franchises that are built to compete, the Thunder not only will be there -- they'll be there with one that's still almost entirely under the age of 28.
The Thunder have been meticulous in staying committed to that plan, resisting tempting offers both on the trade market or in free agency. They've tried to make sure the roster is still young while also remaining a contender. Not an easy task, and the Warriors have thrown a wrench into it, but they're right there nonetheless.
The Thunder still are making calls around the league, canvassing what's available and what they might be able to move on, according to sources. They want wing help, but they aren't actively pursuing anything, because as the organization views it, this team is still mostly new, having only started playing together as a whole in November.
And since Christmas, there have been strong signs of improvement and development, so the front office is hesitant to mess with that progress. They'll keep an eye on the buyout market, like if Joe Johnson or Kevin Martin becomes available. That's something they've done in past seasons, grabbing Derek Fisher and Caron Butler after the trade deadline passed. (They'd have to waive someone themselves to clear a roster spot for that.)
There's an assumed mandate for the Thunder to win now. And that complicates their situation, running in opposition to one of their key tenets of methodical building. The Thunder have clearly altered their approach in some regard recently, breaking over the luxury tax for the first time last season and digging their heels in even deeper this season. But that's also been by design, to have a strong roster in place for when Durant, Russell Westbrook and Ibaka enter their primes.
The Thunder reject the idea that Durant's future is holding them hostage, forcing them to compromise on their core values. They can't control what he does. They can only control what they do around him.