We have heard the what-if or the what could have been of the Oklahoma City Thunder a thousand times. The OKC superteam broke up when KD departed to the Warriors and the Thunder have never been the same without him. With Russ being eliminated from the playoffs and KD’s Nets facing an uphill climb to make the playoffs one could only wonder what this team could have been. Could Russ and KD still be winning championships today? Could they have replaced the Warriors as the team to beat? Let’s Rewind the Tape.
OKC would be in the prime of their franchise in 2016 and after leading the Warriors 3-1 everyone assumed they would run it back in the 2016-17 season. Although James Harden wasn’t on the team the Thunder still looked primed for another run. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook led the team in points with KD averaging 28.2 and Russ averaging 23.5. The team looked good in the playoffs and at the time I thought there was no way they would blow the lead they have against Golden State. They could have easily closed them out in game 6 with a lead for most of the game but the shooting of the Warriors sent Oklahoma City into a rebuild. They would get chances with other stars being paired with Russ, but none of them quite matched as KD did.
So what if KD didn’t leave Oklahoma City? Well, let’s start with the 2016-17 season. Oklahoma City was already primed for a run based on the way they ended the previous season. The only team that would be in their way were the 2016-17 Warriors. The only other major offseason acquisition would be the Pelicans getting Cousins which I don’t think would get affected by KD staying. Both of these teams would finish as the one and two seeds in the regular season. The Thunder got the upper hand in the regular season which had a lot to do with Russ improving by big margins in the offseason. Although let it be known that Russ doesn’t come close to the season that he ended up having in 2016-17. In the playoffs, Kawhi Leonard never gets hurt and forces the Warriors to beat the Spurs in 7. Meanwhile, OKC cruises through the playoffs and eventually takes down the Warriors in 6 games. Playing the extra games against the Spurs is the real season-ender for the Warriors as the well-rested Oklahoma City ends up outlasting them. Lastly, they head to the finals where they take on the defending champions the Cavs. Things get interesting but the Cavs aren’t the same team they were last year. OKC prevails behind stellar performances from Russ and KD outlasting a stellar performance from Lebron James. Perhaps the most interesting change from this year is James Harden winning the Most Valuable Players Trophy.
2016-17 Champion: Oklahoma City Thunder
The following year OKC never does acquire Paul George leading to him having an extended stay in Indiana. This doesn’t quite work for the Pacers as at this point the East is pretty competitive with the Celtics, Cavs, and Raptors all being strong teams atop the conference. Oladipo also starts to make the Magic a playoff team behind the young core of him and Vucevic as well as some veteran presence including Evan Fournier. Meanwhile back in the West, OKC would continue their dominant run in the regular season, getting the one seed before falling to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals in 7. In the East, King James is a first-round exit as a feisty Indiana team takes down Cleveland with Paul George turning into Playoff P. Toronto can get past the Lebron hurdle that has been tripping them up for so many years and make it to the Finals where their momentum would win them the series against the Splash Bros in 7. The NBA would crown the Champions from the North much earlier than modern reality. It isn’t that the Warriors weren’t good enough to win this series, it’s all the other elements combined with Toronto’s momentum that leads them home.
2017-18 Champion: Toronto Raptors
With the trophy from a successful 2017-18 season, the Raptors never get rid of DeMar DeRozan possibly leaving Kawhi in San Antonio for another year. Since Leonard was extremely unhappy, the Spurs would end up sending him to Indiana to team up with George and Victor Oladipo would head to the Pacers in a three-way trade with the Magic. Kawhi would ultimately get what he wanted playing alongside Paul George but the new duo would take the first half of the season to figure out how to play with each other.
The Pacers would gain the one seed by knocking off the defending champions Raptors during the regular season. They would continue their momentum into the playoffs and make it into the Finals for the first time since 2000. In the west, OKC and Golden State would reach the Western Conference for the fourth straight year. OKC would prevail in 6 games this time and had had the advantage of better shooting than the Pacers. This would lead to the Thunder winning their second championship in three years. Despite all the glory, this would be the start of the end for OKC.
2018-19 Champion: Oklahoma City Thunder
KD would eventually leave OKC despite the success that they had, but with the Raptors also being one of the better teams in the East KDs options would be limited. The real pull factor for KD would be to play with Kyrie as tensions with Russ were inevitable. Both Westbrook and Durant were budding superstars with multiple championships to show for it and eventually with their personalities, they would want to prove they could do it on their own. Thanks to KD staying the first time around, the divorce would be very clean creating no rivalries between the two after KD would eventually leave for the Clippers. KD said in his decision to go to the Nets he just wanted to hoop and go home to chill and the Clippers feel like the Nets of the West. Not to mention he would eventually be joined by Kyrie and they would rival the Anthony Davis and LeBron duo in Los Angles.
In LA, Durant and Kyrie would find some success in the bubble, but overall they had a tough conference to play in. The Clippers would get the two seed and take on the Mavericks again. Although without the same size Dallas would push them to 7 games this time around. In the next round, the Clippers would fall to the Nuggets as Jokic’s size advatage would prove too much. On the other side, Kawhi and Paul George would have a much weaker conference to get to the Finals. The Pacers would ultimately fall to the Lakers in the Finals after winning the previous year. Although the Laker’s bubble momentum would be too strong for the Pacers to stop them. LeBron would get his repect in a much more entertaining Finals series that what we actually saw between the Heat and Lakers.
2019-20 Champion: Los Angles Lakers
Lastly, we have the the crazy 2020-21 season. Just to recap at this point we have:
Indiana Pacers led by Paul George and Kawhi Leonard
Los Angles Lakers led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis
Los Angles Clippers led by Kryie Irving and Kevin Durant
Golden State led by Draymond Green, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson
Houston Rockets led by Chris Paul and James Harden
Milwuakee Bucks led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kris Middleton
Utah Jazz led by Donovan Mitchell and Ruby Gobert
Then there are a barrage of mid tier teams including Luka led Mavericks, Russ in OKC, Booker in Phoenix, Jimmy and Bam in Miami, and so many others.
The NBA would be at its peak competitiveness of the number of teams that could keep up with each other. The biggest change was that the Pacers would be the new version of the Nets. With the short turnaround, everyone would be decimated with injuries leading to Utah being the one seed in the west again and Philly as the one seed in the east. Golden State would be the two seed in the west and would be the team that knocked out Lakers in the first round instead of Pheonix. The Clippers would make it through the West before falling to Golden State in the Conference Finals. On the other side, the Bucks and Pacers would be the series of the year where the Pacers would prevail. They would take down Philly in the Conference Finals. The Finals would feature the Pacers and Clippers and the shooting of KD and Kyrie would lead them to the chip. Shooting wins when both teams are tired and are desperate for a championship.
2020-21 Champion: Los Angles Clippers
The what-if ends with the city of Los Angles winning twice, OKC winning twice, and Toronto winning once. Russ and KD save their relationship while bringing the Thunder the first and second championship. The Nets and Suns never make it to their full potential and the Pacers become a superteam instead. The Warriors also never make it to a championship and the Thunder become the Warriors in the scenario. Not to mention that DeMar is able to lead the Raptors all the way without leaving. KD never leaving would have completly altered the NBA world.
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