One of the popular sports arguments in the Dallas area a few years ago was – as most of these arguments are – silly and pointless. In this case, the subject was trading one franchise for another and since that is not going to happen, why waste time?
There are multiple answers to that not-so-great mystery: Newspapers and web sites have space to fill. Talk shows have time to fill. And besides, there is no greater tradition in sports than the unwinnable sports argument. The fun is in the debate.
The discussion centered on the veteran (or “aging” depending on the point of view) Dallas Mavericks and the promising team that had recently moved into the area and played only 200 miles to the north – the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Who would you rather be?
At the time, the Mavericks had choked very badly in the 2006 Finals, losing four consecutive games after winning the first two. They followed that with 67 wins the next season, but lost in the first playoff round to eighth-seeded Golden State.
Then in two of the next three seasons, they lost in the first round. Along the way they fired head coach Avery Johnson and so in the summer of 2010, despite years of success and the greatness of Dirk Nowitzki, it seemed their window of opportunity had become a black hole.
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder had won 50 games and their three stars – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden – entered the offseason at ages 21, 20 and 20, respectively. Their future was limitless.
So in this rather extended argument, some of the eminent basketball eggheads in Dallas said it was a no-brainer: They would much rather be Oklahoma City.
Along with a couple of other contrarians, I said I’d rather be the Mavericks for several reasons.
1. To get Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the Thunder/Seattle SuperSonics had three seasons when they averaged 24.7 victories. Who wants that?
2. It should be remembered that Greg Oden was picked in front of Durant, Michael Beasley was chosen before Westbrook and Hasheem Thabeet was taken ahead of Harden. Even if you get great picks, there are no guarantees of taking the correct player.
3. The fact was that even though the Thunder had extraordinary young players and incredible potential, the Mavericks were closer to winning a title.
Although most sports arguments are never settled, this one turned out favorable the next year when the Mavericks became NBA champions. And those of us who had taken the unpopular stance were rewarded with the right to smirk and gloat.
I thought about that discussion when Doc Rivers went to the Clippers last week. Even though he has won only one championship as a head coach, Rivers has a decent dose of the aura radiating from Phil Jackson – minus the Zen. There is, again, genuine excitement in Los Angeles about a coach making a difference.
During the last two years, the Clippers have stopped acting like the Clippers – primarily because of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. So now it seems that a premier coach is added to a roster bursting with exciting young talent and good veteran role players and we have a possibility along the lines of pigs fly: The Clippers win the Western Conference and play in the NBA Finals.
That’s quite a leap, of course. But Rivers to L.A. is bad news for Western contenders, and the first team I wonder about is the Thunder. They made it to the Finals in 2012 and might have made it again in 2013 had they not lost Westbrook to a knee injury in their first round series with the Rockets.
Before last season, they made the decision to trade Harden because he wanted a max contract and they did not want to give him one. At the time, they had the basic ingredients of greatness – specifically, three superstars. But because of the reality of today’s NBA, specifically a stifling luxury tax, the Thunder made the decision to disband their Big Three before any of them reached age 25.
Three elite players is the goal of every NBA team. It started in earnest with Bird, McHale and Parish and carries on in Miami with LeBron, Wade and Bosh, who were only a tad better in the Finals than the San Antonio version with Duncan, Ginobili/Green and Parker.
The Thunder are still very young, but you have to wonder if they made a huge miscalculation. They have enough good young players and draft picks they hope to develop and Durant and Westbrook have signed new contracts and don’t seem enamored by the prospect of signing with a big market team. So the Thunder should be good for years to come.
But history is replete with excellent teams that got close, but never won a championship – the Jazz with Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Sixers with Allen Iverson, the Pacers with Reggie Miller, the great Portland teams with Clyde Drexler, the Knicks with Patrick Ewing. When you do as great of a job as GM Sam Presti did with the Thunder – Durant was an obvious pick, but Westbrook and Harden weren’t – don’t you keep trying to win one before you break it up?
The West is going to be viciously competitive again next season. We’ll be burdened again with reading stories throughout the season of the “aging” Spurs, but if healthy, they will be a force in the playoffs.
The Grizzlies, Rockets and Warriors have good young teams and are capable of winning a series against anyone.
The Lakers are still a mess but they’re still the Lakers and Kobe Bryant – who will no doubt push himself to recover in much the same way that Adrian Peterson did – always makes them a threat. They’ll be less of one if Dwight Howard leaves, but if he ends up in Dallas, the Mavericks will suddenly be back as a contender. If he ends up in Houston, then the Rockets go from young and good to young and great.
And there are the Clippers with Paul, Griffin and Doc Rivers.
Winning even one championship is precious. Ask Dirk Nowitzki. He is no doubt frustrated by the Mavericks’ last two years, but ask him about his team and he’ll smile and say, “We got our championship.”
Some great teams never do.
CHECK OUT JAN HUBBARD’S ARCHIVE FROM SHERIDAN HOOPS.COM. TERRIFIC STUFF ON THE NBA, PAST AND PRESENT.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.