For the fourth postseason in a row, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s run at an NBA championship came up painfully short of the finish line in 2014. And now reality is starting to set in that the franchise doesn’t have forever to capitalize on reigning MVP Kevin Durant‘s prime years.
Last Saturday, OKC lost in the Western Conference finals to the San Antonio Spurs. In 2013, they were ousted by the Memphis Grizzlies in the conference semifinals. In 2012, KD and crew were defeated by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. And in 2011, the Thunder fell in the conference finals to the Dallas Mavericks, the eventual NBA champions.
Durant has never been better. Just 25 years old, this past season he led the league in scoring for the fourth time, dropping 32.0 points per game while coming close to joining the exclusive 50-40-90 Club — shooting 50.3 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from three-point range and 87.3 percent from the free-throw line. Durant also averaged a career-best 5.5 assists per game.
But Durant only has two years left on his contract, and can become a free agent in 2016. While the low-key superstar appears to love his life in low-key Oklahoma City, too many frustrating playoff losses can give any sought-after player a wandering eye. (Just ask LeBron.)
Which means the Thunder franchise is under pressure to put a roster around Durant that isn’t just good enough to make a deep playoff run, but is good enough to get over the hump and win it all.
So where does Hasheem Thabeet fit into that picture?
Thabeet, a Muslim who hails from Tanzania, is OKC’s 7-foot-3 third-string center behind starter Kendrick Perkins and rookie Steven Adams. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft doesn’t get off the bench very often — he appeared in just two of OKC’s 19 playoff games this year and played less than five minutes a night — but when he does get on the court, he gives the team a shot-blocking and shot-altering defensive presence.
The Thunder have a $1.2 million option on Thabeet’s contract for next season. That’s pretty cheap for an NBA veteran who happens to be one of the tallest men in the league and is by all accounts a great teammate who still has upside at 27 years old. But building a championship team is serious business, with not as much room for “potential” when production is needed.
On Monday, the Thunder players wrapped up their exit interviews before officially going on summer break, and Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman had a few items regarding Thabeet and his future with the team:
* Most think (Caron) Butler, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha are all gone next year. But another guy to keep an eye on is Thabeet. He’s entering the final year of his deal, a non-guaranteed year that could pay him roughly $1.2 million. The Thunder loves Thabeet, everything from his attitude, to his work ethic, size, skills and ability to make an impact when called upon. So my guess is he’ll be back. But if something presents itself, a potential trade or free agent acquisition that calls for the Thunder to shed a little salary, it’s not out of the question that the team parts ways with Thabeet. I think Thabeet is back. But it’s worth watching.
* Thabeet said he plans on returning. “That’s the goal,” he said. “I don’t know anything else. I haven’t heard anything else. I’m going to be here over the summer working out. That’s really all I can say about that situation.”
* Thabeet on how difficult it is to stay ready when you’re not playing: “It’s tough, man. It’s tough. It’s like being on a standby flight.”
If the Thunder don’t pick up Thabeet’s option, don’t expect him to go long without a job. Even though he averaged less than two points and less than two rebounds per game this season, Thabeet is still a 7-foot-3 athlete who can block shots. And NBA teams are always willing to give somebody who fits that profile an opportunity to make an impact.