Birth of a Dynasty? Yes, the Oklahoma City Thunder can beat the Golden State Warriors...and that'
It was easy to forget about them.
In season filled with drama - from the Golden State Warriors' historic run at the NBA's all-time best regular season record, previously held by 1995-96 Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, to the retirement announcement and subsequent farewell tour of Kobe Bryant, the greatest legend the NBA has seen since the man that led those same Bulls some twenty years ago.
Beyond that, there was still the story of LeBron James in Cleveland, who would now be in Year 2 of "The Return", and the drama wondered by all Cavs faithful - "is this the year?" Stephen Curry's back to back run as league MVP seemed to dwarf every other story. Like Bruce Leroy attaining the final level of martial arts mastery known as the "glow" in the 1985 film The Last Dragon, Curry has the glow. He has transcended the game, and in the process has become the greatest shooter the NBA has ever seen, progressively improving on steady success. Curry reached a new level a season ago when his brilliance was truly unlocked under a first year head coach in Steve Kerr. A tactical student descended from the Phil Jackson coaching tree, Kerr was keenly able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his team to a degree that proved elusive to previous head coach Mark Jackson. Prior to Kerr's arrival, the Warriors were widely recognized as a team that had consistently underachieved - under Jackson - despite consisting largely of the same personnel that Kerr inherited.
The Warriors would indeed go on to capture the all-time record. They posted a regular season record of a ridiculous 73-10. The San Antonio Spurs, in any other season would be the ones making headlines, posting a record of 67-15, better than any of the 80's Showtime Lakers and equal to the Celtics best of that same era. It was a foregone conclusion the two would meet in the Western Conference Finals.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder were an afterthought.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had not been to the NBA Finals since the 2011-2012 season. The popular narrative was that they had perhaps peaked that season, steadily declining; they hadn't made a deeper playoff run since that stinging loss to LeBron's Heat in that year's strike-shortened NBA season of 66 regular season games. The question marks were everywhere. Perhaps Durant and Westbrook couldn't play together. They didn't fit. They didn't compliment each other's game. Like their former all-star teammate James Harden, they were superstars that needed to lead their own teams, separately. While both are incredible scorers, there is only one basketball. Ultimately, the greatest accomplishment that this young franchise had ever seen was losing in the NBA Finals...and in a strike shortened season at that. Maybe they just weren't as good as we all thought they were.
It's a nice story. It's also completely wrong.
Consider this - Durant and Westbrook have been a part of the Oklahoma City franchise since the team's inaugural season in 2008-09. That was Westbrook's rookie season and Durant's second year in the league, having played his first year (and the Supersonic's last) in Seattle. Since then, the success that the duo have had together is nothing short of remarkable. From their first year together until the year following that Finals loss, Durant and Westbrook have led the Thunder to a better winning percentage than the previous season:
SEASON W-L Win %
2008-2009 23-59 .280 2009-2010 50-32 .610 2010-2011 55-27 .671 2011-2012* 47-19 .712 2012-2013 60-22 .732
Following their best regular season effort in 2012-13, the year following their first Finals appearance, Durant and Westbrook appeared poised to finally break through. But when Russell Westbrook was injured and sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs in Game 2 of the first round versus Houston, that hope was all but lost, as they were eliminated in the second round against Memphis, 4 games to 1.
What is truly interesting is this - if you look at the entire playoff history of the Thunder (aside from the injury attributed loss to Memphis), the team that Oklahoma City has lost in the playoffs to has also gone on to win the NBA Championship.
2009-2010 Lost to Los Angeles Lakers in 1st Round. Lakers win Finals. 2010-2011 Lost to Dallas Mavericks in Conference Finals. Mavericks win Finals. 2011-2012 Lost to Miami Heat in Finals. Heat win Finals. 2013-2014 Lost to San Antonio Spurs in Conference Finals Spurs win Finals.
Following last year's injury riddled season when Durant missed the first 17 games, and Westbrook did not play in 14 of the first 17, Oklahoma City did not qualify for the playoffs for this first time since their first season, 7 years ago. In four of the five playoff runs in between, and 100% of the time that Durant and Westbrook were both healthy, it took the eventual NBA Champion to end the Thunder's season. The idea that Durant and Westbrook have played at anything short of elite level NBA basketball, when healthy together, is simply false. It takes all young players time to develop, and largely because of injury - not talent, desire or ability - we have yet to see this duo break through. The disappointment and simmering frustration may have boiled over last year when the team fired head coach Scott Brooks. In his place, Oklahoma City hired Billy Donovan, a fiery, yet cerebral and tactical head coach who has had championship success, albeit at the college level. Donovan's personality and poise has proven to be a perfect fit for these Thunder players, instilling a tenacity and focus that could be a difference maker in this year's run. Like Kerr in Golden State, Donovan is finding success in his first year, inheriting a talented squad that had perennially fallen short of its ultimate goal.
Knocking off a 67-win San Antonio team was no small accomplishment, but the real test is upcoming against Golden State. However, it is also a test for Golden State, perhaps their greatest since Kerr has been at the helm. The matchup of personnel and styles of play are fascinating, and could not contrast more; on the surface, Oklahoma City seems uniquely equipped to topple Golden State. The Thunder won their second round series primarily on the strength of their big men, while Golden State's success has been dictated by their famous brand of small ball, frequently employing 6'7" Draymond Green at center. This year's Western Conference championship will answer several questions - is Golden State's style truly revolutionary? Will the big men or small ball dictate the series? How will Donovan fare in the chess game against Kerr? But perhaps no question is more compelling than the one Durant and Westbrook pose. Should they prevail, how good can these guys be together?
Durant and Westbrook, should they stay healthy and maximize their full potential, individually and as teammates, have the potential to be the greatest duo the NBA has ever seen.
Better than Shaq and Kobe, Stockton and Malone, Michael and Scottie. When asked if any current NBA player possessed the same kind of intensity as he did, Kobe himself named Westbrook. Long and rangy, Durant was frequently compared to another Kevin, Garnett, for several of his first few NBA seasons before establishing his own identity. Had Garnett been traded to Los Angeles rather than their historic rivals after leaving Minnesota, a mature Westbrook and Durant is a close picture of what a Bryant/Garnett duo would have looked like. When put in context, it is not impossible or even difficult to imagine that we may be at the start of multiple championships for Oklahoma City. Durant and Westbrook are both 27 years old, a year younger than Curry, a year younger than when Jordan won his first. They are just entering their prime, healthy together in the playoffs, with the right complimentary parts around them, along with the best coaching staff they've ever had. They have the hunger, drive, and mental strength evidenced in past champions.
In a season filled with drama, Oklahoma City beating the team with the NBA's best regular season record of all time - not to mention the defending champions, led by the back to back MVP - would take the cake. Should they win, the NBA and its fans may look back at this moment and this postseason as the dramatic beginning of something else entirely - when the greatest duo in NBA history won its first of several championships to come.
*Strike shortened season of 66 regular season NBA games.