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Oklahoma City Thunder: What to Learn from Recent Championship Teams

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) and San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green (4) react in the second half of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals NBA basketball playoff series in Oklahoma City, Saturday, May 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Jared PorterCorrespondent IIJune 19, 2014

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 2013-14 season was memorable in many aspects, but it was still a season that came up short by their standards.

Most NBA teams would consider it a huge success to win 59 games in the regular season, put together a postseason run to the conference finals and have a player win a scoring title and league MVP. And just a couple years ago, the Thunder probably would have been happy with that outcome. But after evolving from bottom-feeders to title contenders in only six years of existence, the Thunder will only be satisfied when they are holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June. 

However, for the Thunder to capture that elusive NBA title, changes need to be made. 

OKC has been considered title contenders since 2012, which makes sense since two of the top 10 players in the league are on the team in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. However, the Thunder have come up short the past several seasons, and there seems to be a recurring theme. 

If you take a look at the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs—two teams that have been crowned NBA champions in the past three years—you'll notice some striking similarities. 

The Heat's star-studded trio in LeBron, Wade and Bosh has made four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, and they were victors of two.
The Heat's star-studded trio in LeBron, Wade and Bosh has made four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, and they were victors of two.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

First, they have seasoned veterans and All-Stars. The Heat have their Big Three in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Spurs have their own version of a Big Three in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and—depending on who you want to throw in the final spot—either Manu Ginobili or 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. 

These players undoubtedly make up the identity of their respective teams. They score efficiently and consistently, they make plays and their teams are schemed through them.

Durant, Westbrook and defensive specialist Ibaka have made up the Thunder's Big Three since Harden's departure in 2012.
Durant, Westbrook and defensive specialist Ibaka have made up the Thunder's Big Three since Harden's departure in 2012.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Thunder are likewise in this aspect. With a Big Three comprising of Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have the star power needed for a title run. And with the injuries and age coming into play with the Heat and Spurs' Big Three, it can be argued that OKC has the best dynamic trio in the league.

Still, the Thunder have yet to top the Heat and Spurs in the same postseason, which brings us to the second similarity the Heat and Spurs have shared in the years they went the distance.

Much of the success the Heat and Spurs had during their title runs was undoubtedly due to the superstars shining in big moments, but much of the credit should also be given to the role players. 

For the Heat, unsung heroes came through on multiple occasions in their title runs in 2012 and 2013. Mike Miller's unconscious tear from the three-point line in Game 5 of the 2012 Finals and Ray Allen's late-game heroics in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals are just a couple examples of this:

For the Spurs, it seemed like any player outside of their Big Three had the possibility of having a game-changing performance in this year's playoffs. Players such as Boris Diaw, Danny Green and Patty Mills each had their moments of coming through in various games. And even though I mentioned earlier that Leonard may now be considered the third man of the Spurs' Big Three, I never would have guessed he would be as dominant as he was in this year's Finals and win Finals MVP.

It just goes to show that the NBA is a team sport, even with all the hype that Big Threes bring to teams. It's unfair, even a bit unrealistic, for teams to rely solely on two or three players to lead them to a title.

This is what has hurt the Thunder. Outside of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, the playmakers have been hard to come by. Sure, certain players outside of the Big Three have come through on occasion, but it has not been as consistent as needed. 

To put this into perspective, we saw how fragile OKC was when Westbrook was injured and forced out of the 2013 playoffs in the first round. Once he was gone, the Thunder were stagnant, confused, lacked confidence and relied too heavily on a guy named Kevin Durant. This ultimately led to an early postseason exit, labeling the year a failure by Thunder Nation. 

Thunder general manager Sam Presti understands the team's lack of depth has been a problem that has hindered their ability in the postseason, and he has spent the past several seasons attempting to acquire another player who can take a portion of the offensive load off Westbrook and Durant. 

James Harden's sixth-man role in 2012 helped carry the Thunder to the NBA Finals.
James Harden's sixth-man role in 2012 helped carry the Thunder to the NBA Finals.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

In 2012, James Harden was that player. His scoring ability and consistency allowed Scott Brooks to bring him off the bench in the sixth-man role, and he would carry the offensive reins while Westbrook and Durant rested on the bench. 

It was a recipe for success for the Thunder as they powered their way through the postseason to the Finals matchup with the Heat. But for some unapparent reason, Harden's superb play disappeared, and the Thunder lacked the firepower to keep up with King James and his monarchy. 

Ever since Harden's departure after the 2012 season, warranted or not, which is an entirely different story, Presti has been looking for the piece—or pieces—to complement Westbrook and Durant. 

OKC acquired a reputable shooter for the 2013 season in Kevin Martin and was counting on him to provide consistent scoring. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Martin had brief moments of brilliance that gave OKC fans hope that he could help the team get over the hump to reach their ultimate goal, but his consistency dwindled, as did the Thunder's firepower. 

Outside of Martin, who parted with the Thunder after 2013, Presti has been steady in his pursuit for depth by acquiring veterans such as Derek Fisher and Caron Butler, as well as draft pickups in young scorers like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.

But despite the added veteran support and the development of young players, the Thunder bench still proved to be the Achilles' heel in this year's postseason. The offensive contribution was non-existent for the most part, and it was exploited in the WCF against the depth-reputable Spurs. 

The question now is if Presti and the Thunder should look to acquire another piece. It seems likely they will, since they will presumably be parting ways with Butler, Thabo Sefolosha and Hasheem Thabeet, which will open up a lot of cap space. 

And there is a good possibility the OKC could use its two first-round draft picks along with Lamb or Perry Jones III to package a deal together to acquire a scorer like Iman Shumpert or Arron Afflalo.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti will have a big opportunity this offseason to acquire players who can complement superstars Durant and Westbrook.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti will have a big opportunity this offseason to acquire players who can complement superstars Durant and Westbrook.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Then again, the Thunder could play their cards right and move up several spots in the draft. Presti is known for making genius, maybe even lucky, draft picks that have built the foundation of the organization.

Some may believe that acquiring youth over experience is a fault of Presti's success method. But it should be noted that he was once employed by the Spurs organization, and his management method is merely an emulation of it.  

Simply put, there are a lot of things the Thunder could do. The main priority is to get some sort of contribution from the bench. The Heat and Spurs won their titles in recent years with superb play from their respective bench players. This theme is not only consistent with the Heat and Spurs in their recent championship years, but for all past championship teams. 

The Thunder have been knocking on the door of an NBA title for the past few seasons, but there's a reason they haven't been let in. Just as the Heat and Spurs have shown in the past three seasons, contribution from players around the stars is needed for success at the NBA level. 

Another component needed for success at the NBA level: a willingness to change. That's the point OKC is at this offseason. And it wouldn't hurt to begin emulating championship teams from the past. 

Follow @JaredPorter_BR on Twitter for more Thunder news and analysis.  

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