By Brian Spencer
This was long overdue. World, meet the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After keeping them in hiding for most of the season, the NBA has taken the shackles of anonymity off the Oklahoma City Thunder and finally embraced what’s been the league’s best story of the year. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but because of a grossly inept national TV schedule, casual NBA fans (read: those who didn’t take the plunge on the NBA League Pass) have had just one opportunity all season long to catch the Thunder… and that was a mid-week game in mid-December against the middling Dallas Mavericks. I’m guessing few made a point to tune in.
(I’ve already mini-ranted about this once, and it’s kind of besides the point here, but they really need to get some forward-thinkers on the scheduling committee next year. Yes, record-wise the Thunder weren’t that great last season, but everybody knew they’d be better this year, right? Maybe not 27 games better, but better. And it’s not like the team was lacking in young starpower. Limiting the nationally televised games to a select few teams doesn’t do the league any good. Obviously, LeBron and Dwight and Kobe sell, and they deserve their fair share of exposure. But do we really need to see the Cavaliers, Lakers, and Magic 25 times on national TV? Or the Spurs 20 times? No, no we don’t. )
That the Thunder drew the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1 is both a good thing and a bad thing. Bad in that they have little to no chance of beating this (flawed) Lakers team in a seven-game series, but good in that they’re facing a primetime opponent, one of the league’s all-time most-decorated franchises, and they’re going to have a lot of people watching for the first time by default. And learning about them. And, hopefully, falling in love with them and becoming fans of them. They deserve it. They’re the Portland Trail Blazers of a few years ago, but way better and with a lot more potential.
It’s amazing what the Thunder has accomplished this season, collectively and individually. After finishing 23-59 last year, they improved faster than anticipated in posting a 50-32 record in the highly competitive Western Conference. They did it under the direction of a general manager, Sam Presti, who’s just 33 years old, and they did it with a team that’s the youngest in the league. They did it by leading the NBA in blocked shots despite being undersized. They did it on the backs of the league’s top-scoring trio of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook, who combined to average just over 61 points a night. They did it with depth, they did it with hustle, they did it with hard work, they did it with excellent coaching from Scott Brooks, my pick for Coach of the Year.
And, yes, they did it with Kevin Durant, the NBA’s youngest-ever scoring champ. He began the season absorbing valid, if not a bit bull-headed questions from some NBA bloggers about his defense and ability to lead, and it’s safe to say that he answered the call and then some. How can you not root for this kid? At 21 years old, Durant already possesses one of the most intriguing skill-sets of any player in the league, and he remains one its most humble, soft-spoken megastars. Fantastic season, LeBron, but Durant is my MVP.
The stats he put up in his third season are silly. He scored 25+ points in 73 of 82 regular-season games, including a streak of 29 straight games at that mark. He led the league in free throws made at 9.2 per–for comparison, LeBron was second at 7.8–and finished sixth overall in FT% at 90%, his career best by 4 percentage points. Rebounds (7.6), assists (2.8), steals (1.4), blocks (1), and three-pointers (1.6) were all career bests too, along with those 30.1 points a night. He’s everything that’s great about the professional game of basketball and has earned every accolade that’s been spoken or written about him. It helps that his “supporting cast” are consummate pros with top-tier talent, too.
As we saw Sunday afternoon in Game 1, Russell Westbrook can get to the hole at will and is well on his way to perennial All-Star consideration. He’s a nightly triple-double threat, and like Durant, he’s only 21 years old and still improving. Starting PF Jeff Green, like Durant now in his third season, is a solid 16 and 6 guy who looks more and more like the New Orleans Hornets’ David West. And though I’m not going to run down the rest of the Thunder’s youthful core (read up on them here) remember the names of rookies James Harden and Serge Ibaka; longtime ETB readers know how we feel about Thabo Sefolosha, the team’s starting shooting guard.
It’ll be interesting to see how far the Thunder extends this series against the Lakers, but in the end, it matters not. They got here, they’re getting their first taste of the postseason, they’re going to learn from it, they’re going to be better and even more loaded next season. The Thunder currently have 3 of the first 32 picks in the upcoming draft (#21, #26, and #32 overall), which they can spend on more young talent or, perhaps more likely, use for trade bait to land an established player or two. And in the much-anticipated Summer of 2010 NBA free agency, they have the sufficient cap space to bid on some of the premier free agents if they’re so inclined to.
The Lakers will beat the Thunder in this seven-game series; they might even do it handily and with relative ease. But they should be concerned, and they should be looking over their shoulder. So should the Mavericks, Suns, Jazz, and Nuggets. The Thunder are coming, and they’re coming strong. The secret is finally out.