Anytime training camp and preseason can be seen on the hardwood horizon a certain level of excitement begins percolating throughout a franchise’s organization, the team and the fan base. And that excitement is usually directly proportionate to what level of expectation all three groups have for the team in the upcoming year.
And as commenters justin and Kivman discussed recently, the expectation to succeed and win at a playoff-caliber level will be entirely new to this team and their fans. In fact, you could even argue that this upcoming season will be a better determinant for if the Thunder will compete for a spot at the top of the NBA’s pecking order for the next five-to-six years (at least) because being an elite, championship contending team means having a target on your back.
Last year the Thunder was the surprise of the league in terms of exceeding expectations, a fact accentuated by Scott Brooks winning Coach of the Year. No one, especially not the fans, expected the team to make the playoffs, let alone be only five games back from the number two seed when the season ended.
Everyone except the players. But, honestly, I thought they were crazy. “3-29?! And they expect playoffs?! Oh don’t do that to yourselves.” I’m sure almost everyone thought something similar last year when they heard Durant discussing the team’s goal in training camp.
And it’s this unique dynamic between a team’s belief and the expectations placed upon them by their fans and their competition that can make or break a season, influencing if the year was considered a success and that a team’s future is bright, or if the year was a disappointment and everyone heads into the off-season with a sour taste in their mouth.
Since the Thunder had such low expectations for last year, anything and everything that went right, from Durant’s 25 point streak to Westbrook’s increase in assist production to Ibaka’s surprising development to the 9 game winning streak, it all was icing on the cake. We, as a fan base, had prepared for the worst. Reduced our expectations to a very plausible 34-38 win season and in doing so, lowered our ability to be disappointed. So the euphoria of last year was almost celestial to a sports’ fan who had come to expect pretty egregious basketball.
But that’s all been thrown out of the window now. After a 50 win season, a vastly entertaining playoff series against the trophy winning Lakers, and an off-season that saw the Western Conference finalist Suns take a giant step back while many West All-Stars headed to the East, the Thunder is expected to compete for home-court advantage and build upon last year’s remarkable turnaround.
And it’s not just the team as a whole, either. Durant is considered by many to be the favorite for MVP (some say Kobe), Westbrook’s performance against the Lakers has raised the bar for his development as an impact point guard, Serge Ibaka will be under heavy scrutiny to see if he can take the next step in his progress and plenty of critical eyes will be cast towards Scott Brooks to see if he becomes the next COY victim.
So what do you expect?
Certain Thunder players have discussed home-court advantage as the goal, which would necessitate a much improved record against other Western Conference playoff teams than the team experienced last year but that doesn’t sound unrealistic by any stretch. Another thought resonating throughout the fan base is that this team needs to do their best to construct/become a team that can beat the Lakers, an idea that the Cole Aldrich acquisition lends its support to.
But all of this expectation serves as a potential source for heartbreak and disappointment, let alone the bullseye it paints on the back of the Thunder jerseys now that there won’t be a single NBA team in the league who overlooks the boys from Oklahoma City.
All of these lofty expectations and high goals raise the bar for this team’s upcoming season at a time when excitement and interest for the Thunder are undeniably at their highest level ever. Can the team bear the burden of expectation and bring that same intensity and “hunter” focus that they brought last year now that they will be the hunted?
Will the coaching staff be ready and able to adjust to the many schemes they will see now that teams have had a full season to scout and game-plan for the Brooks coached Thunder?
And one last question begs to be asked that not many individuals want to contemplate. If the Thunder get off to a slow or horrible start, or they experience a dreadful losing streak and maybe even don’t make the playoffs next year, what will the fans do? How will this franchise respond?
Because it’s not a question of if a team, organization or fan base will go through hard times or have their fair share of disappointment; that’s merely a question of when. The issue is how those players, the front office and the fans respond during the midst of their despondence that will reveal not only their character, but if they have any championship mettle at all.
And with the training camp and the preseason drawing nearer and nearer, the expectations will probably increase even more. That’s why this upcoming season will reveal more about the Thunder, from the front office to the end of the bench, and the Thunder fans than anything that we’ve seen thus far.