Oklahoma City Thunder: The Next Big Thing, but Is It a Sure Thing?

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Oklahoma City Thunder: The Next Big Thing, but Is It a Sure Thing?
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Ten years ago, a young, exciting Western Conference team seemed to be on the verge of greatness. They were so fun to watch. The guys on the team all seemed like they were best friends. Some teams just have that feeling where you KNOW the guys genuinely like each other, hang out off the court all the time, etc. This was one of them.

They were led by a lanky, uber-talented 6’10” point forward, a 6’8” bruiser of a power forward who scored and grabbed rebounds at an alarmingly efficient rate and a pair of swingmen who just happened to be Michael Jordan’s new pitchmen. They were anointed as the "Next Great Team," one of the best collections of young talent in the league. 

Of course, the Los Angeles Clippers teams led by Lamar Odom, Elton Brand, Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson never really amounted to anything. After going 39-43 in the 2001-02 season and looking very much like a team on the rise, the Clippers were featured on the cover of SLAM magazine under the headline “Roc L.A. Familia.”

The Clips were a popular pick as a sleeper to make the playoffs in 2002-03 after bringing in Andre Miller for Darius Miles in the offseason. But they slumped to a 19-39 start, fired Alvin Gentry and went just 8-16 the rest of the way under Dennis Johnson. So what happened? How could a team with so much young talent fail? They seemed like they were headed in the right direction.

Well, a lot of it had to do with injuries. They got just 62 games out of Brand, 49 from Odom and 59 from Richardson. They also had Michael Olowokandi playing 38 minutes per game. That didn’t help much.

After finishing 27-55, the Roc L.A. Familia Clippers were broken up soon after, and by the time L.A. made the playoffs in 2005-06, it was with a completely different team.

About four or five years later, a young, exciting Eastern Conference team was on the rise and seemed destined for greatness. They were so fun to watch. The guys on the team all seemed like they were best friends. Some teams just have that feeling where you KNOW the guys genuinely like each other, hang out off the court all the time, etc. This was one of them.

They were led by a seven-foot center that had been nicknamed Baby Shaq who they snagged with the first pick in the 2001 draft and a 7’1” power forward (who happened to be the second pick in that same draft) obtained from the Clippers in exchange for Elton Brand. They had a fearless shooting guard who felt he could score on anybody and a point guard with a college championship pedigree. They were anointed as the "Next Great Team," one of the best collections of young talent in the league. 

Of course, the Baby Bulls led by Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, Ben Gordon and the immortal Chris Duhon never really amounted to anything. After going 47-35 in 2004-05, they shipped Eddy Curry and his heart problems to the New York Knicks (inadvertently ruining my life as a Knicks fan in the process).

Chandler subsequently regressed without his buddy around to keep him company. Playing Darius Songaila for 22 minutes a game didn’t help much. Neither did Gordon, Duhon and Kirk Hinrich’s shooting percentages of 42.2%, 40% and 41.8%, respectively.

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It’s now five years later, and the team that looks like a true championship contender bears no resemblance to those Baby Bulls, even if Eddy Curry's trade did provide the building blocks. (Joakim Noah was selected with the ninth pick in the 2007 Draft, which the Bulls got from the Knicks in that trade.)

Fast forward another five years. Right now, there is a young, exciting Western Conference team on the rise. They are so fun to watch. The guys on the team all seem like best friends. Some teams just have that feeling where you KNOW these guys genuinely like each other, hang out off the court all the time, etc. This team is them.

They’re led by a lanky 6’10” forward with ridiculous range and an improbable scoring repertoire, along with his sidekick, the pound-for-pound most physical point guard in the NBA, able to get to any spot he wants on the court at any time. They’re flanked by a 6’9” shot-blocking machine, a shooting-guard platoon featuring a defensive stopper and an explosive scorer and a new guy, the arguably best post defender in the NBA. They've been anointed as the "Next Great Team," one of the best collections of young talent in the league. 

Of course, the Oklahoma City Thunder led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefalosha and James Harden (and newcomer Kendrick Perkins) haven’t really done anything yet. All they’ve done is lose a hard-fought, first-round series to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers last year.

Sam Presti has been building this team for a while. It started in 2007 when he sent Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics for a package including the fifth pick in the NBA draft. The Seattle Supersonics (yeah, they used to be called that) then had two of the top-five picks in what seemed to be a loaded draft.

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The second pick guaranteed them either Greg Oden (who at the time was seen as a surefire franchise center and not yet an injury waiting to happen) or Kevin Durant. The fifth pick would likely net them one of the stars of Florida’s back-to-back national champions—Al Horford, Corey Brewer or Joakim Noah or Mike Conley, Jeff Green or Asian sensation Yi Jianlian.

How lucky did the Sonics get? The Portland Trail Blazers took Oden first overall, allowing Durant to fall right into their laps. Presti then paired him with Green, giving the Sonics explosive scorers at the three and four positions.

As a rookie, Durant was a revelation. He flashed the potential to be one of the top scorers in the game, averaging 20 points a night. He started 80 games and made the All-Rookie team. Green wasn’t as impressive, but still solid, averaging about 10 points and five rebounds a game. However, the Sonics struggled to a 20-62 record and secured the fourth pick in the 2008 NBA draft.

They hit another home run with that pick—Russell Westbrook out of UCLA. They also snagged Serge Ibaka with the 24th pick, out of the Republic of the Congo. But the 2008-09 season wasn’t much better for the newly-minted Oklahoma City Thunder than it was for the 2007-08 Seattle Sonics. Despite improvements from Durant and Green, and an impressive rookie season from Westbrook, the Thunder struggled to a 1-12 start. Coach P.J. Carlesimo was fired.

Enter Scott Brooks, the maestro who now leads the Thunder. They went 22-47 under Brooks that season, ending with a 23-59 record, just three games better than their last year in Seattle.

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But the signs of a breakout were there, if you were paying attention. Durant had quickly blossomed into one of the best scorers in the league, averaging 25.3 points per game on 47.6% from the field, 42.2% from three and 86.3% from the free-throw line. Green upped his averages from 10.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game to 16.5 and 6.7 and improved his field goal, free-throw and three-point percentages. Westbrook showed flashes of the all-around dominant game he has today, averaging 15.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists as a 19-year-old rookie and played in every single game.

With the third pick in the 2009 draft, Presti rounded out the Thunder’s young core with James Harden, the high scoring 2-guard from Arizona State. The 2009-10 Thunder were one of the most surprising teams in recent memory, increasing their win total by 27 games.

Durant led the league in scoring with 30.1 per game. Along with Green, Westbrook and Sefalosha, he started all 82 games and helped make the Thunder the ninth best defense in the NBA. Harden averaged 9.9 points a night off the bench. Ibaka showed off some of the defensive prowess he now flaunts nightly. Presti stole backup point guard Eric Maynor from the Utah Jazz for only the price of taking on Matt Harpring’s contract for the remainder of the season.

When the Thunder were in position for a playoff run at the deadline, many in NBA circles were calling for Presti to make a move for a veteran big man, the better to aid the Thunder in their quest to get a first round playoff victory. They criticized him when he didn’t. Eventually, the Thunder lost a hard-fought battle to Kobe Bryant’s L.A. Lakers in the first round.

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This past summer, while LeBron was making TV announcements and hosting dance shows filled with smoke and championship proclamations, Durant quietly announced his maximum extension with the Thunder via his Twitter account, worked on his game and hung out with his teammates.

Stories started pouring out about how much the Thunder like each other; how they go everywhere together; how they’re always at each other’s houses beating each other in video games. They were quickly anointed as the "Next Great Team," and Durant was hailed as the presumptive MVP.

It hasn’t quite gone that way yet. The Thunder has certainly improved this season, as they already have 47 wins to their name. But they’re not exactly challenging for the No. 1 seed. And Durant isn’t going to win MVP. His scoring is down, and a funny thing has happened—Russell Westbrook became almost as good as him.

This, in my opinion, is a great thing for both Durant and the Thunder. Last year in the playoffs, they struggled to create offense outside of Durant. They won’t be having that problem this year, seeing as how Westbrook gets to any spot on the floor he wants at any time. Durant will also be fresher for the playoff run after not having to carry the whole offensive load on his back all year.

There’s another difference with this year’s team, of course. No more Green. Sam Presti finally made his move for a veteran big man. He sent Green packing to Boston along with Nenad Kristic in exchange for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson (a deal I declared a huge win for OKC). Perkins was brought in to help defend all the big men that Green struggled against. Gasol, Bynum, Duncan, those guys.

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Trading Green has opened up more playing time for Harden off the bench, and he’s responded by averaging over 17 points per game in March. Ibaka now starts at the four instead of coming off the bench, and his shot blocking has really improved the Thunder’s D.

Provided that Presti is able to sign Perkins long-term, the Thunder will be moving forward with a core of Westbrook, Durant, Harden, Perkins and Ibaka. Perkins is the oldest of the bunch at 26.

The collection of talent in Oklahoma City is seemingly much better than either the Roc L.A. Familia Clippers or the Baby Bulls. But we were all so sure that those teams would be the next great things then, just as we are sure about the Thunder now. The "Next Great Team." Are the Thunder it? We’ll see. 

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