Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and even head coach Scott Brooks have thus far propelled the Oklahoma City Thunder along a linear path through the NBA's ranks, with each achievement bringing about a new expected evolution.
Initially, a mere playoff berth was in sight. Then a Western Conference Finals came into view, followed by a trip to compete for the NBA title. But each of those progressive steps brought about more than just a recalibration in expectations. As the Thunder scale further and further upward, more and more is expected of the OKC crew—thus leaving more and more room for perceived failure should they at any point stumble.
The pressure on the Thunder is now very tangible, and yet with the Heat looming and the Lakers reloaded, this particularly charismatic and damn effective group of up-and-comers faces its stiffest competition for the title yet.
There's no real rush for their championship aspirations (this core has the luxury of biding its time), but it's worth wondering what might come to pass should the Thunder's eventual and assumed title be delayed substantially by their formidable competition.
The Lakers' window may be relatively brief, but the Heat aren't going anywhere, the Bulls will be contenders again in due time, and Oklahoma City has concerns of its own in terms of balancing the finances of keeping both James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
This is an incredible collection of players poised to do great things, if given the chance. But even the most promising rosters aren't guaranteed the benefit of a ring—greatness needs both luck and circumstance to earn a title, and though OKC has actually done quite well in all of those regards over the course of its ascent, the dynamic of the league has shifted in the short term and fortune can't hold out forever.
There remains a possibility, however dark and dismal, that this Thunder team is consistently edged out in the NBA numbers game the same way that the Utah Jazz were (or the Charles Barkley-led Suns were, or the Gary Payton-helmed Sonics were, or the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Rockets would have been) during the Jordan era. It's simply impossible for every terrific core to win a title, and true championship contention is often much more fleeting than we'd care to admit.
One can only hope, should things not go Oklahoma City's way over the next half-decade or so, that we don't make the same mistakes with Durant that so many did with LeBron James. Winning a title matters, but it's hardly the only thing that does. It takes talent. It takes drive. It takes depth, coaching and near perfect health. It takes ideal positioning, matchup advantages and tremendous fortune.
It's no foregone conclusion, even for the greats of the game. Such is the nature of any team sport, and particularly so for a game so dynamic and so complex.
Championships are an incredible achievement, but the lack thereof is merely a realistic expectation for players in a league where it's so easy to be on the right team at the wrong time. That truth may not be satisfying enough for the hungry young core of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka, but I hope it's enough for those who should take joy in simply watching this fantastic group play, rings be damned.