Can the Thunder win the NBA title this season?
Back in December I said no, although I did have them facing the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. After watching the Thunder cruise to a 40-12 overall record thanks to Sunday’s 92-78 thrashing of the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls, and putting the rest of their season into perspective, I don’t see why Oklahoma City cannot win the title this season.
Full disclosure: I’m a former Thunder employee, having worked for the franchise during its first 2 1/2 seasons in Oklahoma City as their in-house beat writer.
So I was there for that 3-29 start in 2008-09, a 50-win season that followed and almost three-fourths of last season’s 55-win campaign.
I saw them struggle, never quit, continue to improve and stay humble throughout it all.
I’ve seen them mature, all right, and continue to mature faster than few people outside that organization would have expected.
Being resilient in the face of adversity and staying humble in victory are two of the most often repeated phrases within that organization, and the players have followed them to a T. No, they do not have the years of playoff experience that the Spurs, Lakers or Mavericks have, but those Thunder young guns arrived in Oklahoma City with a certain level of maturity and understanding that few others in their draft class possessed.
The Thunder prides itself on bringing in high character, high basketball IQ players, and players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are all prime examples. For all the room they have to grow as players and individuals, they’re already wise beyond their years.
If there is a team that will break the mold of past NBA champions – that is to say, a team comprised of grizzled veterans – it’s the Thunder.
This Thunder team has an identity, one of an explosive offensive unit that, when it chooses to, can also employ one of the league’s best team defenses. For proof, look no further than last Sunday’s impressive win over the Miami Heat, when Oklahoma City’s defensive rotations were as on-point as they have been all season. And having a roster where each player accepts and fulfills their roles, as mentioned above, is crucial. Role players James Harden and Nick Collison will be the most called upon reserves this postseason, and both had stellar showings a year ago.
What Durant will give the Thunder in the playoffs is a given, as the league’s two-time leading scorer is as automatic and as difficult a matchup as they come.
But come playoffs, this won’t be the same Westbrook we saw a year ago, when he was chided for his decision making and made national headlines for a heated exchange he had with Durant on the bench during Game 4 of their first-round series against Denver. This year, the argument could be made for Westbrook being the league’s best point guard. He’s improved that much, and he’s going to be the biggest difference for the Thunder this postseason.
Harden, meanwhile, has developed into the most dependable third option and bench scorer in the league while remaining an underrated playmaker.
Two months ago, columnist Jan Hubbard wrote on this site about how he wasn’t sold on this Thunder team. One of his arguments was that the Thunder still hadn’t defeated a playoff team seeded in the top four.
That will change this postseason, but even so it’s not something I need to see to be convinced they can win it all right now.
From a 23-win season to 50 wins and a near upset of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, to a run to the Western Conference Finals last year, the Thunder has been on a meteoric rise. It’s also been an unconventional one at that, which proves there really is no recipe for reaching the top.
Maybe this Thunder team doesn’t need to endure years of playoff frustration like Michael Jordan did; maybe they don’t need a complete veteran supporting cast that Tim Duncan had when he won his first title at age 22.
Over the last four years, this young Thunder team has had its share of veteran players pass through their locker room, all brought to Oklahoma City to lead by example and contribute whatever they could on the court, and it happened without stunting the growth of its core players. Having a veteran locker room presence is something that cannot be overlooked.
Two years ago it was journeyman Kevin Ollie. Last season, Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed were brought on board. This year it’s Derek Fisher. Their impact isn’t always accurately measured in box scores, but if the Thunder wins the whole thing this year, those veteran teammates both past and present will have played a part in them reaching the pinnacle.
I believe the Thunder has the makeup to win both now and in the immediate future.
By makeup, I’m talking about talent, maturity, role players and intangibles. It all boils down to execution, but I’m saying that the current Thunder roster is good enough to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Right now, all the Thunder can do is take care of business and surge past the Chicago Bulls to take the league’s top record by the end of the regular season. No team will want to play at Chesapeake Energy Arena in the playoffs.
Having the road to the NBA Finals come through Oklahoma City is another reason why this could be the Thunder’s year.
Chris Silva, former Pistons beat writer for the Detroit Free Press and Kevin Durant’s de facto biographer for thunder.nba.com, covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @silvawriter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.