Kevin Durant has left the Thunder. Unfortunately for Oklahoma City, there aren't any replacements in the world for a player like KD. Even if there were reasonable facsimiles, none of them are on the free agent or trade markets at this point. OKC has a top-five NBA player in Russell Westbrook, a really solid frontcourt and some intriguing young pieces. But without Durant, title contention is seemingly out of the question.
So what now?
OPTION 1: PLAY IT OUT
Westbrook will be an unrestricted free agent in 2017 when the salary cap is expected to rise to $108 million or so. That means that, much like this summer, plenty of teams will have plenty of cap space to chase the biggest free agents. Westbrook figures to be the No. 1 free agent teams will believe they can actually grab, presuming LeBron James, Durant and Stephen Curry enter July locked in on returning to the Cavaliers, Warriors and Warriors, respectively.
If OKC isn't afraid of playing this crisis out again next summer (see Option 2), the front office could reliably imagine competing for a playoff spot in the West with a team led by Westbrook, new addition Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams. The Thunder won 45 games in 2014-15 when Durant missed much of the season with injury.
Presumably, the Thunder would do as well with full health for Westbrook, a better developed Adams and Enes Kanter and a game plan that isn't reliant on Durant's presence in the first place. Coach Billy Donovan showed a remarkable ability to adapt to odd circumstances in the playoffs and he could do that again over the next year. There's reason to believe OKC could even win 50 games and fight for a top-four seed (and maybe a playoff series against the Warriors?). It's plausible, if not probable. Westbrook is that good.
If this is the option the Thunder choose, they probably wouldn't want to bring Kyle Singler along as the new starting small forward. A sign-and-trade sending Dion Waiters to the Kings for Rudy Gay (a one-year rental at a fair wage) and Ben McLemore might help. Gay is nothing close to Durant, but he's a 20-point scorer who will be happy to play off Westbrook.
OPTION 2: TRADE WESTBROOK
Again, Westbrook can leave in 2017. With Durant gone, why would Westbrook stay if he sees championships in his future? GM Sam Presti has gotten out in front before, trading James Harden a year prior to restricted free agency in order to get assets back. You can't preemptively trade a player like Durant, not when you reasonably expect his return. (And the Thunder did reasonably expect KD to return ... because he almost did.)
Westbrook would be a different case precisely because Durant's already gone. By not at least looking at moving Westbrook, you're opening yourself up to losing the two biggest stars in your very bright constellation for nothing. You can't do that.
The downside of this option: trading Westbrook means you're bottoming out. While the supporting cast in OKC is good, it's only a supporting cast. We saw Oladipo's limitations as a featured star in Orlando, and Adams is so effective precisely because of his defined, limited role. Even re-signing Waiters while trading Westbrook drops OKC deep into the lottery. Is Oklahoma City ready to root for a bad, bad team? They did once before, but that team had a young Kevin Durant. This one wouldn't.
OPTION 3: THE HYBRID
Keep Westbrook for now, trade for Gay or another starting-level small forward without an onerous contract, be judicious with all long-term deals and see how the first three months of the season go. If you're fighting for your playoff lives in early February (or worse), open up the bidding on Westbrook. The market for a two-month (plus the playoffs) rental won't be really spectacular, but it'll be a market, especially if a team like the Celtics finds itself in the hunt. This option would allow the Thunder to capitalize on a Pissed Off Westbrook for a few months, let him pick up MVP momentum and then cash out when his stock couldn't be higher, all without leveraging the team's future.
The risk here is winning enough games early on to drop the team from a top-five pick in the 2017 draft to the mushy 9-12 range. But Presti and assistant GM Troy Weaver have been excellent in the draft, and the upside of this plan might be the highest.
Whatever Oklahoma City does, there's sure going to be a lot less hope for immediate glory and many, many more losses. Monday's defeat was, unfortunately, only the first.