Posted Feb 25 2010 11:54AM
Tick, tick, tick...
OK, maybe that's too dramatic in a 24 sort of way. Or simply out of scale for the countdown we have in mind. Maybe we'd be more accurate to use the flying calendar pages that were so popular in those black-and-white Hollywood classics, or some sand-through-the-hourglass imagery.
Regardless, the point is the same: The Oklahoma City Thunder are on the clock with Kevin Durant.
While the NBA and its followers hold their breaths over the looming, allegedly transforming free-agent Class of 2010, the Thunder -- though they'll have $12 million or so in available salary-cap space themselves -- are on a different timetable. It's a beautiful timetable, too, one that has seen Oklahoma City's talented young players grow and bond and develop into a unit that has shot from a 23-59 finish last season to 33-23 so far, with legitimate playoff ambitions.
With each passing day, though, the Thunder's timetable increasingly is not their own. Every night that this dynamic team takes toward championship contention, every night the franchise inches closer to model status, every night that Durant dazzles and forces himself into MVP conversations ... inevitably they are followed by a dawn that is 24 hours closer to some serious decisions and threats.
Durant, like his third-year running mate at forward, Jeff Green, can be a restricted free agent in the Class of 2011. By the Class of 2012, he could be unrestricted. So no matter how fast Oklahoma City's current track is, some massive and nonstop remodeling could be forced on general manager Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks before things are fully built.
It's one thing to have the patience to plant, water and nurture a tender garden and wait for things to sprout. It's another to do it with a herd of killer rabbits, fangs bared, staring at you and waiting for that moment when you turn your back.
You don't think the rest of the NBA soon will be lusting over Durant as a possible free-agent target, once the current big names -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest -- are signed, sealed and safely tucked away? Of course they will. Frankly, it's a little amazing the process hasn't already begun. (Well, actually it has, if you check out one Web site -- www.iwantoutofokc.com -- that seems to be the passion of a jilted Seattle Sonics fan).
The details for now go like this: Presti can begin negotiating a contract extension with Durant (and Green) on July 1 and keep talking until Oct. 31. If there's no agreement, Durant would be restricted in 2011, with the Thunder able to match any offer sheet while talking again about the long-term. If that goes nowhere, the blossoming superstar would play one more season in Oklahoma City on a $7.9 million qualifying offer before achieving total freedom. A year later, it'll be the same process with Russell Westbrook.
Granted, keeping Durant is a swell problem to have compared to, oh, Portland's struggles in keeping Greg Oden healthy. And free agency is a two-way street, in theory. While someone looks to plunder the Thunder, the fellas in OKC could be targeting that rival club's players in return.
But it's unfortunate that as soon as things start to go right for this franchise, fears creep in almost immediately about things going wrong.
"I know people kind of roll their eyes at this, but we really do focus on the things that we can control," Presti said Wednesday, after he landed on a college scouting trip. "There's so much in this business that you can't. I understand that the things you ask about will be out there, but we try to limit ourselves to what we can control.
"What we're trying to do is build a team that continues to grow together and evolves. We've set ourselves up to keep our core players together. Obviously, as a business, you don't always know what's coming at you. You have to be adaptable. But that's how we're designed."
That's how Durant is wired, too, at least for now. So much has happened and is happening for him so fast these days, his plate is full on a game-by-game basis. Besides, for any guy at age 21, looking as many as 28 months into the future isn't easy or a big priority.
"You never know what's going to happen," Durant said Sunday before the Thunder's game in Minneapolis. "I'm taking things a day at a time. Worry about things when you have to worry about them. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it. I haven't really been thinking about it."
I told Durant that I covered another talented Kevin, Garnett, during his stay in Minnesota. Garnett was pestered constantly -- at least whenever he was in the final season or two of a contract -- with questions about his future whereabouts. But he brushed them aside ("I'm 'Sota" was a familiar refrain), re-signed twice and stuck with the Timberwolves for 12 years. The guys who openly wonder about playing here, there and everywhere are the ones who find those questions multiplying.
"All I've ever said is, I like to be here," Durant said. "I like being here with these guys and I don't picture myself being anywhere else. That's how I field those questions: I don't picture myself playing anywhere else."
Said Presti: "Obviously Kevin is a real important part to what we're doing as a team, both now and in the future. One of the things that makes him special is his ability to focus on what's in front of him. And what's in front of him right now is this season. He's thinking about what can make him a better player and a better teammate today. We're fortunate that we have a young player with that kind of maturity."
That leaves the other half of free agency: Getting other people's players. Oklahoma City is a fine place full of wonderful people and seriously rabid basketball fans who justify the Loud City moniker the franchise touts. Still, does it have what it takes -- or at least what the Thunder might need, even if all their chosen guys stay put -- to attract critical final pieces to their puzzle?
"Of course," Durant said. "Guys want to win. That's what it's all about. It's not about, 'I want to go to a bigger market to get more money.' I think guys want to win and if you've got a team that's winning, that's going to attract them."
Well, the right guys, anyway.
"Players who are interested in the things we're focused on probably are the players we'll be interested in," Presti said. "There are always going to be guys who aren't interested in us, for whatever reason. That's true for every team. You aren't going to hire everyone who wants to play for you, and vice versa. Trying to find that common ground with guys who want to be part of your organization and fit with what you're doing, that's really what you're after."
Ticking clock or not.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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