The 09-10 OKC Thunder: A Lesson in What the NBA Should Be

Justin TaylorCorrespondent IFebruary 11, 2010

ATLANTA - JANUARY 18:  Russell Westbrook #0 and Thabo Sefolosha #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on January 18, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

What’s that I see?  A hint of parity emerging in the NBA?  It couldn’t be.  After all, this is the league where we have become accustomed to seeing certain teams retain power for years—if not decades—at a time.

Even if the Nets have lottery picks for the next three years, does anyone really expect them to challenge Howard and the Magic or James and the Cavs in the East anytime soon?  Of course we don’t, and that’s the shame of it. 

The NFL has shown to be a far more successful league, both financially and in terms of fan interest, for many reasons.  One of the main issues, though, that turns fans like myself away from the NBA is its lack of parity. 

Unless you live in Los Angeles or Detroit, do you really want to see the Lakers and Pistons in the playoffs every year? 

The NBA—like the NFL—has a salary cap designed to keep the playing field relatively equal.  We’re not talking about the Yankees and Red Sox buying their way into the playoffs here.

And yet, teams like the Warriors, Bobcats, and Clippers continually dwell at the bottom of the standings with no real signs of improvement. 

In recent years, NFL fans have seen teams like the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings transform from teams picking in the top 10 of the draft to title contenders.  Are Adrian Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald worth a couple of wins each season by themselves?  Quite possibly.

But one player starting on an NFL team of twenty-two can have nowhere near the type of impact that an NBA player—no matter how young—can have on his starting five.  That’s why if an NBA team has any sort of sense in its front office, it has no excuse to go more than a couple of years drafting in the top ten without showing significant improvement.  

This all brings us to the 2009-2010 Oklahoma City Thunder.  The media is glorifying this team’s success as some sort of anomaly that no one should have seen coming.  I argue that everyone should have seen this coming. 

Sure, they’re the hard-luck story that got thrown out of Seattle, but this team has talent—lots of it. 

Through a blockbuster trade that sent Ray Allen to the Celtics in return for centerpiece Jeff Green and three consecutive lottery selections, the Sonics/Thunder have compiled a core of players—led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden—that is learning to win together.

The NBA’s “most surprising” team has won six in a row, and is currently sitting in fifth place in the highly competitive Western Conference.  The lightning-fast emergence of the 21-year old Durant as a top-five player in the league is indeed somewhat surprising, but it does not take a superstar to turn a team a cellar-dweller into a contender.

Drafting in the top five does not guarantee that the fortunes of a franchise will be changed for the next decade.  But consistently landing in the lottery should—and is designed to—allow all teams to compete.

Not every team can get lucky and land LeBron James or Dwight Howard with the number one pick, quickly revolutionizing itself into a playoff contender.  But teams can do what the Atlanta Hawks have done, and capitalize on their time in the lottery in order to steadily develop into an upper-echelon team.    

The success of recently atrocious teams like the Thunder and Grizzlies should be the norm, but until it truly does, sports fans will have one more reason to maintain their allegiance with the NFL.