Oklahoma City is one of the rare small-market teams that can run with the big boys.
Let's backtrack for a second and take a look at all of the NBA champions over the past 30 years.
In the 1980s, the league was dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. They took a combined eight championships that decade, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons taking one apiece.
That's nine championships going to teams in the top 10 in terms of market size (TV homes as of 2011), and Detroit sits just outside at No. 11.
The 1990s are a similar story. The decade was dominated by a big-market team (Chicago Bulls), and only one team in the bottom half in terms of market size (the San Antonio Spurs) were actually able to break through, beating the New York Knicks 4-1 in the 1999 NBA Finals.
In fact, the Spurs made the first real extended championship run by a small-market team last decade, tacking three championships on top of the Larry O'Brien that they won in '99.
To make matters worse, the new collective bargaining agreement, tailored in part to create market parity, has made matters no better for the league's smaller markets (Sports Illustrated's Joe Flood breaks it down perfectly here).
So that's where we stand today. The league remains heavily slanted toward big-market teams, and all it takes is a glance at the rosters to see that a lot of those teams are set to compete for the title for the next 10 years.
The Miami Heat have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Lakers have Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. The Los Angeles Clippers have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and the two New York teams boast Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
That's a whole lot of talent sitting on just five squads. You might look at those teams and assume that the next five or six titles have essentially already been decided. But then you have to turn to the Thunder.
It's not like the Thunder are the only small-market team with a chance to take the title. The Spurs are obviously still phenomenal, the Memphis Grizzlies have looked as good as anyone this season and the Indiana Pacers, Utah Jazz and New Orleans Hornets could all make serious playoff runs at some point this decade.
But when it comes to creating parity, at least in terms of a small-market team winning some serious hardware, the Thunder are the league's best hope moving forward.
There are some unique cases, but generally the NBA teams that have made multiple-championship runs all follow the same formula.
They usually have:
- A once-in-a-generation player near the peak of his powers.
- A second legitimate superstar who can be counted on to carry the team for extended stretches.
- A third near-All-Star talent who can be “The Man” on those nights when the other guys just don't have it.
- A cast of great role players who understand and accept their jobs.
- A great front office.
- A coach who can make it all work.
The Thunder have:
- Kevin Durant.
- Russell Westbrook.
- Kevin Martin.
- Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and friends.
- A great front office.
- Scott Brooks.
The only real question mark that the Thunder have in this case is head coach Scott Brooks (though you could call the front office a question mark if you really hate how they handled the James Harden situation).
Scott Brooks isn't a bad coach by any means, but it still remains to be seen if he's the right man to lead OKC to a title.
For what it's worth, though, he's improved as a coach every year he's been in the league and did make some key adjustments (like throwing Thabo on Tony Parker) that led to the Thunder rebounding from their 0-2 deficit in last year's Western Conference Finals.
When it comes to having the pieces for a sustained championship run, the Thunder come out way ahead of any other small-market team, especially considering that a good coach is one of the more easily obtainable things on that list (and that's if Scott Brooks doesn't work out).
If you take a look at the other small-market teams that were mentioned before, none of them have near the chance that the Thunder have at sustained success.
The Spurs had a great run with Tim Duncan at the helm (maybe the most underappreciated player in history, by the way), but that run is almost up. To be blunt, Duncan's just not the same player he used to be.
Even if the Spurs get two or three more great years out of Tim, they'll have to spend the rest of the decade searching for another transcendent player, which just happens to be the hardest thing in the NBA to find. Because, let's be honest, a San Antonio team led by Tony Parker isn't going to win multiple championships.
The Grizzlies, Pacers and Jazz are all sitting on the same problem. Unless you're the 2003-04 Pistons, you don't win a championship without a future Hall of Famer. And even if you do win one, winning more than that is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Then there's the Hornets, who definitely look like they have a future Hall of Famer in Anthony Davis. But pretty much everything else is a big question mark down in New Orleans. They definitely have a shot, but they're not like the Thunder. It's not right there for them.
The Los Angeleses, New Yorks and Miamis of the world are set to dominate the league. We all know that.
And in the end, it looks like it will be up to the Oklahoma City Thunder to stop them. They're the league's best, and perhaps last, hope for market parity in the near future. We can only hope they're up to the task.