Last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder played its guts out all season long. Led by Kevin Durant’s superfluous scoring, Russell Westbrook’s manic energy and James Harden’s facial hair, the Thunder took the Miami Heat to the limit, eventually losing the NBA finals in five games to the loaded and star-studded dream team. It was a huge relief for the Heat, but most importantly for LeBron James, who got the veritable monkey off his back and also managed to make his “not one, not two, not three…” prediction not only plausible, but probable.
The lasting image for me, however, was not LeBron’s shiny receding hairline reflecting off the Larry O’Brien trophy, but a poignant moment that just preceded the presentation. When Game 5 got out of hand, Thunder coach Scott Brooks pulled his starters out and inserted the corpses at the end of his bench. But during a TV timeout, he shared a long and meaningful embrace with the Thunder’s would-be Big Three: Durant, Westbrook and Harden. In that moment, I thought anything was possible for this team.
Well, we all know what happened in the offseason: The Thunder traded Harden, knowing that they couldn’t afford to keep him and Serge Ibaka at the same time and deeming Ibaka more necessary to the team’s survival. The move seemed to work out for both the Thunder and the Houston Rockets, who gladly took Harden for a relative pittance of expiring contracts and gunner Kevin Martin.
But in the playoffs, when Russell Westbrook got hurt for pretty much the first time in his entire life, the Thunder stagnated. Durant had to resort to hero ball from the opening tip until the final horn and critics across the nation lampooned the OKC front office’s “foolish decision” to trade a would-be superstar entering his prime.
However, this decision is a perfect case of a no-win situation. The Thunder, by virtue of its visibility, would be damned if it made any moves and damned if it didn’t. Harden would get his money at the cost of any financial flexibility, the Thunder would let him walk for nothing or the front office would trade him for pennies on the dollar. There was no way for GM Sam Presti to do anything without getting blasted.
Fast-forward to today and many playoff teams find themselves in similar positions: quite pleased with their young cores, but unable to guarantee themselves contender status without making some unpopular moves.
The Memphis Grizzlies jettisoned Rudy Gay and now see themselves in the Western Conference finals. Conversely, the Los Angeles Clippers stood pat and now stand the risk of losing Chris Paul in free agency.
The Chicago Bulls continue to wait for their messiah, Derrick Rose, to get healthy and guide them to the promised land. On the flip side, the Boston Celtics are stuck between a rock and a hard place with franchise cornerstones Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett entering the twilights of their careers and a young cohort of talent, led by the enigmatic Rajon Rondo, the explosive Jeff Green and the gritty Avery Bradley, waiting in the wings for opportunities.
The Denver Nuggets stood pat after their moves to acquire Andre Iguodala last season and eventually lost a wild series to the Golden State Warriors. Those same Warriors eventually got wrecked by the evergreen San Antonio Spurs and now face questions about the financial viability and contender status of the team as it is constructed today. Shockingly, these questions are only for playoff teams; elsewhere, the Los Angeles Lakers are so high over the luxury tax line that the penalties associated with their high cap number could probably cure world hunger—and they didn’t even make the playoffs (I will take this God-given opportunity to tell Lakers fans to suck it).
The message, then, is that constructing an NBA team involves a ton of luck, even if you exclusively make smart moves. For all the aforementioned teams, the offseason looks to be a place both scary and full of promise. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20-20, which is undoubtedly true.
When it comes to NBA roster decisions, however, foresight is clinically blind. Bear that in mind the next time you get after your team’s front office. Who really knows what the future holds?
Vignesh Venkataraman didn’t start writing this column until two hours after it was due. Make sure you don’t go anywhere near your team’s front office at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at ViggyFresh.