It took some time, but the Oklahoma City Thunder finally advanced over the Memphis Grizzlies in a Game 7 grudge match to cap a turbulent first-round playoff matchup.
Despite winning the series, Thunder star swingman Kevin Durant was often picked on and poked at by the Oklahoma media. Memorably, he was dubbed “Mr. Unreliable” on the front page of The Oklahoman newspaper after missing a free throw in Game 5 that gave Memphis a temporary series lead at 3-2. But Durant fired back, averaging 34 points over the next two contests to help his team secure the series win.
But the fracas that was caused over the early week article stirred up enough controversy for several opinions to come forth. Durant’s current contract ends in the summer of 2016 and the harsh criticism has sparked the question: should Durant pull a “LeBron” when his contract is up and leave town for greener pastures? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question.
Green: The possibility of an OKC championship is and will continue to be a strong one as long as Westbrook and Durant are in town. Backed by Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, the Thunder’s talent level exceeds just the Durant and Westbrook combo. The fans are rabid, the team is young and other traditional Western powers like San Antonio and Dallas are fading due to the age of their players. Leaving Oklahoma City would only put Durant in a situation where he's trying to reassemble what he already has in place.
Sure, fans and local media will get restless if titles aren’t being won—but that’s any town. People can be too critical at times. Durant and Westbrook, even for all their talent and playoff exposure, are both just 25 years old. Their title will come soon enough; it just hasn’t come yet. It just wouldn’t make sense for Durant to jeopardize what is as close to a sure thing as you'll get right now in the NBA.
Riley: That theory only makes sense if everyone stays healthy, and just how many injuries has Westbrook suffered in just the last two years alone? His injury history, combined with a middling market in small-town Oklahoma City might be just enough for Durant to feel compelled to explore his options. Plastering a “Mr. Unreliable” headline on the city paper was the ultimate slap in the face, regardless of the ensuing apology. Durant’s done more than enough for the team and the city of Oklahoma and harsh criticism should be scarce.
And when you add that Westbrook’s knees have really been the only “unreliable” thing for the Thunder over the past few years, how confident should any of us be that Westbrook will remain the athletic marvel he's been? For a player whose agility dictates his performance heavily, Durant should definitely be factoring in his running mate’s health as a primary decision. Another Westbrook knee injury/surgery would be devastating for all parties involved. The grass could be greener in a city like, I don't know, Washington, D.C., maybe? The Wizards backcourt is already one of the league’s best and the city loves Durant like the native son that he is.
Green: The amount of distractions for Durant if he were to sign in D.C. would be unreal. Sometimes going home isn’t always the best choice. Besides, a healthy Westbrook is a better player than Wall. I think Wall may be a more consistent point guard and playmaker than Westbrook, but talent for talent, Westbrook is better. Not to mention, Wall hasn’t exactly been the model for durability—he’s missed his fair share of games due to injuries as well.
I agree that, should Durant exercise his 2016 option, D.C. would and should definitely be a frontrunner. But I’m not so sure that Oklahoma wouldn’t have returned to the Finals by then, making the decision to even exercise his free agency clause a tough decision. Another deep playoff run and obviously a title would help the Thunder's case in retaining him. I've always gotten the sense that Durant is a loyal guy.
Riley: The NBA has always been hard-pressed to keep major stars in minor towns. The city of Norman, Oklahoma is actually quite large but the media market is the exact opposite. I do agree that Durant comes off as a loyal guy, but how much loyalty is embedded in the heart of the franchise? We’re talking about the same ball club that broke hearts after it moved from Seattle and a city where even the world’s best basketball player can get criticized over a missed free throw attempt. Durant doesn’t really owe the Thunder anything. He’s played with passion and heart since his arrival while watching some of his close friends and NBA's best ball players leave through drama-filled trades and free agency. The Thunder surprised everyone by moving former stars James Harden and Jeff Green without even giving Durant a heads-up. All things considered, it’s the Thunder and now Oklahoma City that haven’t been reliable to Durant, while he’s done nothing but mature his game into MVP status. Regardless of whether or not Oklahoma City wins a title before his contract ends, I think it’s safe to say that Durant is a goner in 2016.