It is the mid-point of the NBA season and the Oklahoma City Thunder have already matched the number of wins they managed last season. Unless something goes seriously wrong, they will improve on the wretched 2008/09 season by a sizeable amount. That means the Oklahoma City market will witness two of the greatest turn-arounds in NBA history first hand.
Few will forget that when the New Orleans Hornets first arrived to temporarily play here, they were coming off one of the worst seasons ever performed by an NBA team. In 2004/05, the Hornets managed just 18 wins (five less than the Thunder did last season). Playing 37 of their 41 home games in Oklahoma City during 2005/06, they finished just out of the playoffs with 38 wins… more than doubling the total.
While we in OKC like to take a good deal of the credit for the improvement, much more changed for the Hornets than playing in front of actual fans. For one, the 2006 Hornets had one huge advantage over the 2005 team: Chris Paul. Paul, drafted in the Summer of ’05 had, very likely, the best season any rookie point guard has ever produced. He instantly came in and gave the whole roster a swagger and confidence that they could win. They also finally got to see David West play everyday after he spent his first two seasons mostly on the injured list.
As for the Thunder, you cannot point to any such factors. The home crowd this season is the same as last year’s and the roster if very much the same. The entire starting five is identical, as well as the same sixth man. In essence, the only way to explain the sudden change in fortune is instant maturity.
Of course, there is little precedent for a National Basketball Association team muturing this way. For instance, look at the “Baby Bulls” from the early ‘aughts. Chicago went with a similar plan for building their roster as Sam Presti had for OKC. They traded their one established player (Elton Brand) to the Clippers for a draft pick that became Tyson Chandler and two picks later used their own pick to take Eddy Curry. Their plan was to build the team around two teenaged centers, and other young players obtained with high lottery draft picks. They drafted Jay Williams and Luol Deng from Duke, Kirk Hinrich from Kansas, and Ben Gordon from Connecticut. The experienced college perimeter players from winning programs, though, never came to fruition of making the team a winner, though, until they gave up on their expected franchise cornerstones. (Chandler was practically given to the Hornets and the Knicks were ripped off in acquiring Eddy Curry.)
For a similar experience to what the Thunder are accomplishing, I looked at baseball. After the jump, find out how the 2009/10 Thunder are so much like the 2001 Minnesota Twins, and what the similarities might mean for this team’s future.
After the 1991 World Series Championship by the Twins, things did not go so well. The team stars aged, retired, went blind from glaucoma, or demanded trades to the Yankees. By the end of the decade, the team was perenially in the basement of the American League’s Central Division and one of two teams targeted for elimination from Major League Baseball by Commissioner Bud Selig. The low point was the year 2000 when their paltry 69 wins made them the worst team in the sport.
There was little optimism in 2001 with the team fielding a starting line-up with a majority of its players younger than 25 and only one starter who had been in the league long enough to qualify for arbitration. Except, the thing was, those young guys got their taste of the big leagues and were not intimidated. They had the cockiness of young men and were too inexperienced to realize they were too green to make a playoff run.
But make a run at the playoffs, they did. A late season swoon allowed the Cleveland Indians to take the Central’s spot, but the young Twins stayed in the hunt well into September. Hopefully, this will be one way that Oklahoma City is not similar to the team. From a roster standpoint, though:
- The Twins started Doug Mientkiewicz, a defensive specialist, at first base. For those who aren’t completely familiar with baseball, the first baseman is typically a position where you hide a power hitter who can’t play much defense. Much like shooting guard in the NBA. So Mientkiewicz was basically Thabo Sefolosha.
- As time progressed, someone looking at the roster now would think that David Ortiz was the best player on the team. He barely played for Minnesota who released him that next off season. Ortiz went on to be the offense-only heart and soul of the first Boston Red Sox team to win a World Series since Babe Ruth played for them, three years later. That’s my impression of D.J. White’s career trajectory.
- One player on the 2000 Twins was not expected to be much. The Twins stole Johan Santana from the Houston Astros in the “Rule 5” draft. The Twins could not put him in the minors, or else he would return to Houston. He turned out to be surprisingly good…much like Serge Ibaka has done for the Thunder this season.
- The “old men” for Minnesota were 29 year old Matt Lawton and 28 year old Corey Koskie. Much like old man Nick Collison (all of 29 years old) these guys were not stars on the team, but provided solid play.
- Like Jeff Green, the player whose statistics make it difficult to explain his impact on the game, the Twins intangible guy was catcher A.J. Pierzynski. He ran the pitching staff and came through with clutch hits, but looked like a run-0f-the-mill backstop in the scorebook.
- Torii Hunter, the starting centerfielder, was exciting and exasperating all at the same time. Basically, he was the precursor to Russell Westbrook.
- The one player that Minnesota did not have a good equation for is Kevin Durant. For that, you have to go with the first overall draft pick they received for having the worst record in 2000: Joe Mauer. But he wouldn’t play with the team for a few more seasons.
As one can see, the two teams have some reason for comparison, the primary factor being that they seemed to mature overnight. So, it might be interesting to see how things have played out the rest of the decade as a possible blueprint for what we might expect.
In 2002, the Twins won the Central, and even knocked off the heavily favored Oakland A’s in the divisional playoff series. They managed to repeat as Central champions in 2003 and 2004 before slipping to third in 2005 (still over .500). They also won the Central in both 2006 and 2009, but lost the 2008 title to Chicago by one run in a one-game playoff.
That is a pretty good run for a small market team, one the Thunder can actually improve on thanks to the collective bargaining advantages the NBA has over MLB. While Minnesota had to slowly tear apart their young core as the big market teams came sniffing around (replacing them with new young prospects in need of development and using the savings to hire veteran role players), the Thunder actually have the advantage in keeping the stars they develop in-house.