The dissolution of the Kevin Durant – Russell Westbrook Thunder has caused visceral reactions all over the league, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Fans hate when great players leave their first team, and they hate it even more when those players join a team that looks like a shortcut to a ring — see “James, LeBron” and “Yankees, Players Joining The.” But there’s something underneath all of these surface issues that pains me most deeply of all.
When a collection of young talent — such as the Thunder had with Durant, Westbrook and James Harden — falls into your lap, the future seems limitless, and it feels like you can start getting fitted for rings right away. Early struggles (the 23-59 2008-09 season) are the price you pay for future greatness, and late road bumps (the 2012 Finals, 2014 and 2016 Western Conference Finals) seem like just that, road bumps on the way to the championship destination you’re still sure of.
And then, before you can blink, the final destination couldn’t be farther away. Durant leaves and the Thunder are left in shambles. Shaquille O’Neal leaves and the 1995 Finals are no longer a prologue to the Magic’s domination of the ‘90s — it’s the centerpiece of a tragedy. Alex Smith choking in the NFC Championship Game and Colin Kaepernick getting stopped five yards out from a Super Bowl ring are OK because Jim Harbaugh and Patrick Willis are going to be in Candlestick forever. Then you blink. Harbaugh is wearing maize and blue, Willis is spending time with his family and Candlestick is a soon-to-be strip mall. All of a sudden, A’s fans look around and notice Barry Zito is gone, and Eric Chavez isn’t the same guy. The early Moneyball postseason heartbreaks never end with Billy Beane getting to finally spray champagne in the clubhouse. Those bottles stay corked.
It takes a whole lot of things going right to win a ring. And when you’ve got a young and promising core, it feels like you’re going to have 100 cracks at the title and eventually you’re going to win out. But for most, that’s simply not how it goes. When you get so close you can taste it and you fall just short, thinking you’ll be there again is a great coping mechanism. But it’s just that, a coping mechanism. Ask Oklahoma City, Orlando, San Francisco and Oakland how actually relying on that goes.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the Dodgers are in the middle of one of those torturous “close, but no cigar” stretches and the fans don’t seem to realize it. Three years ago, they had the best 1-2 pitching combo in baseball with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the electric Yasiel Puig and a ownership group that seemed bent on making the Yankees budget look like a Walmart coupon sheet. Yes, that season ended with a heartbreaking loss to the rival Cardinals in the NLCS with Kershaw giving up seven earned runs in four innings — a postseason meltdown for the record books. But going forward, Puig was locked up, Matt Kemp was coming back healthy, and our willingness to throw money around put us at the forefront of every free agent conversation. And don’t forget an absolutely stacked minor league roster.
Flash forward to today. Puig is a injury-prone replacement-level player, a clubhouse nightmare who the Dodgers seem to be desperately trying to unload. Kemp was offloaded for a league average catcher. Suddenly, the money coming from ownership has dried up, so Greinke is wearing a Diamondbacks jersey. The sabermetrics-oriented front office with what feels like 100 executives with some title or other, have tried to fill the hole with 100 injured cast-offs from other teams who, believe it or not, have quite the penchant for being injured at the worst time. Team leader Juan Uribe was traded to save a few pennies. And instead of doing whatever it took to get Joe Maddon, the best manager in the game who had a connection with the front office, they settled for another year of Don Mattingly before reversing course and replacing him with the completely average Dave Roberts. The farm system has produced the stellar shortstop Corey Seager, but young centerfielder Joc Pederson owns a career .218 batting average and not a single other prospect has panned out at the major league level.
And on top of all of that, Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation by a country mile, has finally felt the brunt of carrying a pitching staff on his back, and there’s no word on when he’ll be back after a mysterious back ailment took him out a month ago.
Things are all snowballing toward a disaster, but fans stick their heads in the sand. It feels like just moments ago, everything was in place and the sky was the limit. But that was an illusion, because when you miss your chance, that window doesn’t tend to stay open for long. The Dodgers will use a wildcard spot to act like the illusion is still true. Don’t fall for it. Kershaw’s prime has been wasted with the Dodgers, and all the other stars are gone or on their way out. L.A.’s championship window might be dying in slow motion, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s dying.
Contact Andrew Wild at [email protected].