At the beginning of the season, I wrote that if there was ever a year for the Oklahoma City Thunder to come out of the Western Conference, this was it.
Well, they took advantage, but unfortunately, that only led to them being one painful step shy of the ultimate goal of an NBA Championship.
While the Thunder are, admittedly, still ahead of the typical schedule of progression, being only four years removed from missing the playoffs, the reality is that teams don't just get to the NBA Finals easily. It would have been nice for this Oklahoma City team to take advantage of the opportunity this season.
The Mavericks were reloading, and their offseason moves showed that they had no intentions of trying to repeat, and that they were looking ahead at possible moves to get Deron Williams or Dwight Howard to join Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas.
The Lakers had the pieces at the top of their roster, but everyone knew they didn't have the depth for a championship run.
The Spurs didn't look to be a serious title contender before the season, but overachieved to the point that they looked like an unbeatable force before the Thunder made its comeback in the Western Conference Finals.
My point is, while Oklahoma City will be the favorite to come out of the West again in 2012-2013 (provided there are no major roster shake-ups), there are no guarantees in the NBA. That's why Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing have no championships. That's why Steve Nash, Chris Webber and Mike Bibby have no championships. Even some of the greatest individual players or teams don't always get over the hump.
But, the Thunder's nucleus of players is younger than any Finals team before them. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are likely four or five years away from the prime of their careers. But, while both Durant and Westbrook have committed to the team with long-term extensions, it remains to be seen what will happen in negotiations with Harden and Ibaka.
Harden and Ibaka are eligible to sign contract extensions on July 1. If they choose not to sign extensions this summer, they will become restricted free agents after the 2012-2013 season (meaning Oklahoma City can match any offer by other teams to keep the players) and unrestricted free agents after the 2013-2014 season.
In a perfect world, both players would be signed to contract extensions as soon as possible. But, the new collective bargaining agreement signed this past winter makes the world less than perfect, adding strict luxury tax penalties for teams going over the salary cap.
Without bogging down this column with the specifics, the point is this: Oklahoma City will likely have to suffer significant salary cap penalties in order to keep both Harden and Ibaka, and both players will likely see offers higher than what the Thunder is willing to pay once they become free agents.
That means the Thunder, as of today, has one more year during which it can be guaranteed that the core of players will stay together. One more guaranteed shot at the title before Oklahoma City is possibly relegated to reloading its roster and rebuilding its chemistry.
The Thunder needs to do what Miami did. Take the loss in the Finals, and remember it. Think about it all summer. Remember it during workouts, practices, shootarounds. Because you never know how many chances you get at that stage, and if Harden and/or Ibaka don't extend their contracts this summer, that window gets a little bit smaller.
Oklahoma City has lost to the eventual NBA champion each of the last three seasons. In four years, the team went from the lottery to the NBA Finals. Fans and those in the organization should be proud, and shouldn't worry, because things are still moving right along better than anyone could have imagined in 2008.
But next year, the Thunder need to take advantage. The championship window is as wide right now as it will probably ever get, and once it closes, who knows when it will re-open again.