Oklahoma City has a huge deadline looming on the horizon — in 2016 Kevin Durant can leave as an unrestricted free agent.
Durant is not your average young star, he’s not just going to chase the bright lights in the big city because he can. He’ll stay in a smaller market — if he thinks he can win there. And that is becoming the big question in OKC, as they are down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies in their first round playoff series: Can OKC win? Or, more specifically:
Can OKC win there with Scott Brooks as coach? Can he elevate them to the level they need to win a title? To keep Durant?
That question has come up again in the wake of OKC’s playoff struggles against Memphis. The normally efficient Kevin Durant is struggling from the field (22-of-55 the last two games, that’s 40 percent shooting) and Russell Westbrook is doing no better (20-of-54 in last two games, 37 percent). We should credit Tony Allen and the stout Grizzlies defense for some of that. And it’s not Scott Brooks fault that viable third options such as James Harden and Kevin Martin are no longer on the roster.
But some of the Thunder’s struggles come back to the coach. He sticks with Kendrick Perkins for long stretches against all logic. Brooks runs fairly simple sets, and when Memphis has taken away the first option — as any good defensive team will do in the playoffs — the Thunder offense has broken down. There is a whole lot of Durant or Westbrook against the world while the other watches. Remember the first season LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were paired in Miami and they just seemed to take turns (with an odd possession here or there thrown to Chris Bosh)? Right now Oklahoma City feels like that. At times it looks like that.
During Thursday night’s Thunder loss in Memphis, a frustrated Ray Westbrook — the brother of Russell — tweeted that the Thunder needed a new coach. He has since deleted that tweet and apologized for it.
But he said what some are thinking.
Durant and other players will back Brooks — they cam into the league with him, grew up in the NBA with him and they like him. But that is different than what is best for them, best for the franchise.
Oklahoma City is not improving, not progressing. They feel like they are regressing (even if they come back and beat the Grizzlies this series, a tough challenge against the Clippers is looming, a team playing a little better each game right now).
If OKC loses in the first round, or even the second, GM Sam Presti and the Thunder brain trust have some hard questions to ask about how this team is built and who is leading it. What moves do they need to make to reach the next level? That may well mean a new coach as well as roster moves.
They will need to do something before the summer of 2016.