Think back to how you defined success for the Thunder two seasons ago. It looked something like this for me: 35 wins, a winning home record, an All-Star game for Kevin Durant and maybe a handful of wins over good teams.
Instead the Thunder blew that all out of the water, winning 50 games while storming to the postseason.So I tried to set the bar high for 2010-11. Something like a Northwest Division title (check), 55 wins (check), homecourt advantage for a series in the playoffs (check) and maybe even a playoff series win (check).
And wouldn’t you know it, they blew that away too. Oklahoma City won not one, but two postseason series en route to coming up just short at a shot for an NBA title.
So when I got started thinking about trying to set a realistic bar to define success, I figured only the wise thing to do would be to stick with the theme and say success is winning the Western Conference and playing for an NBA title. That way the Thunder could blow the top off that and take the whole thing.
See how smart I am?
But seriously, how do we define success at this point? Is it championship or bust? Are we really that spoiled that we feel that the Thunder are in a win-now situation? Or do we all still have our wits about us keeping reasonable expectations within sight?
Last season, it was all about expectations. I even made some awkward connection to movies to try and illustrate it. But last season, those were somewhat tempered expectations. Everyone expected big things from the Thunder, but just in a sense of, “be better than last season and take a step toward a title.”
I’d have to say those expectations were met. Step forward? How does the Western Conference Finals sound?
This season, it’s a whole different level of expectation. Everyone is expecting massive things. If the 2009-10 50-win season and playoff run was Batman Begins, pleasantly surprising us all and last season was The Dark Knight, which set the bar high for satisfaction, then this year is definitely The Dark Knight Rises. The hype, the buzz, the expectation for greatness is quite the burden. It’s hard to keep building on the success of past success. It’s hard to keep duplicating a formula while still doing new things and breaking new ground.
But that’s where this Thunder team is. It’s time to break some more new ground.
It’s funny because last season I was mildly terrified, but it was more because I was worried that the 2009-10 season was an aberration. Maybe it was just a glitch in the matrix where everything fell into place just right and the Thunder jumped way ahead of schedule and did things way out of character. And then the 2010-11 campaign would be a return to the mean. But the team continued on with its upward trend.
This year, I’m scared for a whole other reason. I know this team is good. I know they’ll be playing in May. I know they’re absolutely deserving of all the praise being heaped on them. But to think they’re a favorite? To think that the expectation isn’t just about taking another step in the long drive to a title, but to actually get to that point this season? That freaks me out like I just saw a soaking wet girl crawl out of my TV. I mean this? Makes me feel like I clicked on the link in a “Free Viagra!!!” spam email.
At some point though, this little experiment has to produce an answer. Or at least that’s the idea. Sam Presti built a roster that will, as he likes to say, produce sustainable success. But he also has built one that can win now. That’s the goal, but at the same time, it’s not. I realize that makes zero sense but if you follow the Thunder and pay close attention to this organization, it totally does.
The 2011-12 season has the Thunder as favorites to win the Western Conference. Some feel they’re the team to beat entirely. Those two sentences make me want to cringe every time I read them. Then again, I have to remember the Thunder were in the Western Freaking Conference Finals last season and save a 15-point fourth quarter collapse, Oklahoma City was about to head to Dallas tied 2-2 with the opportunity to bring back a 3-2 series lead and a chance to close the series at home.
So it’s not like this team is just coming out of nowhere. Sometimes it kind of feels like that. I guess the scars of 3-29 haven’t completely healed. I guess it just kind of feels like too much, too soon. Except this has been a process, a road the Thunder have patiently walked. It was a long-term build, one that always included instructions that said, “Not now, but in two or three years….” The Thunder aren’t that chic, under-the-radar, indie band pick that all the cool kids are making anymore. This isn’t like taking the Nuggets or something. The Thunder have earned the right to play favorites. It’s another moment of breaking new ground, but that’s just part of the necessary development. All phases of experience are equally important. Maybe the phase this season is taking one more step and obtaining the experience of a Finals loss. Or maybe the iteration is complete.
Here’s the thing: It’s much better to be considered a favorite and have the burden of high expectations than everyone agreeing you have no shot at all. The Lakers expect to win every season. Same for the Spurs. The Mavericks have always felt good. It comes with the territory, and it’s the kind of territory you want to be in. This is something to get used to.
Someone has to hoist the trophy at the end of the season. And it’ll likely be the best team. Why can’t it be the Thunder? The shoes fits, doesn’t it? The pieces are there, the players want it and there’s no team as focused or as hardworking as the Thunder. Is next finally now? I can’t wait to find out.