There’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the four seasons the Thunder have been in Oklahoma City, and it remained unchanged after the Heat closed out the Thunder on Thursday. In so many stories assessing the Thunder’s past, present and future, there’s a phrase that’s somewhere along the lines of, “but the Thunder’s future is bright.”
It’s easy for lots of Thunder fans to feel differently today. It’s easy to give in to the reactionary emotions that come with disappointment. Let Scott Brooks go. Use the amnesty clause on Perk’s contract. See what you can get for James Harden. Package him and Serge Ibaka to get a big star. All of that and more has been floated by people who are hurting. It’s tempting to call it all garbage — because, on balance of the facts, that is all garbage — but it’s even easier to understand the mindset of a disappointed fan. So it can be let go.
That’s especially true because anyone who feels that way for very long is simply blinded by their own emotions, or wired in a way that makes it impossible for them to keep perspective when it comes to something they care about. Because anyone who watched the Thunder this season, and even during the disappointing final series of their playoff run, with an eye on the future, combined with an honest look at the present, would have seen what I saw. That future is as bright as has been described. Perhaps even brighter.
It was like staring into the face of the sun. The future of this organization, and of many of the shining stars within it, is as incandescent as it has ever been.
Do not be deceived by mental errors that plagued the Thunder, whether it came in the form of an untimely Russell Westbrook foul or a mistake in judgment on the part of the coaching staff. Don’t think that obvious jitters in some key moments in the Thunder’s first trip to the Finals are unique. And certainly don’t forget that this season turned out almost exactly as nearly everyone thought it would before the first bounce of a ball.
Before the season started, everyone thought the Heat probably finally had enough seasoning and fire to get to the mountaintop. And they did. Also before the season, everyone thought the Thunder had enough to get past the brutal West, but that the sharpened edge of the Heat would be too much to overcome. And it was.
The “problem” with the Thunder is that, as the end has approached to every season the team has been in town, it looks like we underestimated them even more than we thought possible. They’re just that precocious and compelling. When the Thunder had a very late lead against the Lakers in Game 6 of the first round two years ago, there was enough time to think, “Wow, they might already be good enough to make a deep run.” As it turned out, they were close, but not quite there. When the Thunder took Game 2 against Dallas in the conference finals last season, there was enough time to think, “Wow, they might already be good enough to get to the Finals.” Close, but not yet. And, of course, after Game 1 against Miami, visions of parades danced in the heads of Thunder fans. That will have to wait at least another year.
The Thunder prides itself on getting better, every day. And so far, that is exactly what has happened. By any objective and measurable set of comprehensive data, the Thunder has gotten better. If each of those seasons is considered a “day,” the Thunder have taken sizable steps forward with every year they’ve been in town. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Scott Brooks, a relatively young fleet of assistant coaches, Sam Presti — every single person of significance in the Thunder’s organization is better at his job today than he was when the team came to town. By far.
The beauty of all of it? The Thunder have essentially the only organization in the NBA that can get measurably and significantly better without doing a damn thing this offseason. (All the stuff about Scott Brooks and the team being far apart — whatever. He’s coming back.) Almost every player in the Thunder rotation will get better between this June and next June because of where they are on the age and development curve. Brooks has absorbed a lot of blame for how the Finals came out, but because he has indisputably been better as each season has gone along, why is there any reason to believe that won’t be the case next season? Either him or Eric Spoelstra was going to get killed after the Finals — that was clear going into the series. Brooks lost, so he’s the one. His young-ish assistants are improving along with him. And Presti the next roster decision that Presti makes that’s worse than average will be the first one, and even the average decisions have been few as Presti continues to make moves that pay off either immediately or over time or both.
As most have known, and Thunder fans have recently come to find out with disappointing finality, it takes more than just a good roster, sharp coaching staff and heart to win a title. It takes a little bit of luck the Thunder didn’t enjoy in the Finals, and it apparently takes the experience, and perhaps the pain of losing in enough previous big moments, and a sum of little things far greater than the value of the parts to go all the way.
As the gnashing of teeth continues while Oklahoma City fans come to terms with another season’s end, the blame and stats in support of accusations connected to the blame-laying will be parsed out in force. And you should disregard almost all of it. Yes, consideration of individual and unit-based adjusted plus-minus statistics, acronym-heavy advanced stats like ORTG% and eFG%, it all matters. Those numbers have to line up in a certain way, or at least in one of a number of certain ways, in order to feel comfortable you have a team that can compete in the NBA. If you think the Thunder are anything less than on the cutting edge of understanding and using those statistics when making those decisions, I don’t know what to tell you. They obviously are. But those numbers are only what can make you feel confident about being competitive. It’s the other things, those little things, that “more,” that gets you over the top. And that’s what the Thunder have been working on, and might finally have enough by the time the Finals come around again next year or in another season in the near future.
If slapping together a bunch of numbers were the end-all of building a basketball team and winning a title, then the Dallas Mavericks should have probably just sat out of the playoffs last season. The Spurs should have probably been handed the title before they even played a playoff game this spring — or if not them then the Bulls, before Derrick Rose went down with a depressing knee injury. But getting those numbers right is not how you win a title. Getting them right is what puts you in position to win one, and that “more” is what brings a banner to your arena.
And that is why my retinas are figuratively on fire when I look at the Thunder’s future. When you watched the Finals, did you see a Miami team that was too good? A team that, no matter how well the Thunder played, could not have been beaten? Did you see an obstacle that will be so big in future seasons that it will be impossible to overcome? Or did you, like me, see a talented Heat team that was getting the breaks and making the veteran plays it had learned how to make, and a Thunder team that is breathtakingly good, but that made the Heat’s task easier by finding ways to beat themselves?
What I saw was a Thunder team that’s learning how to win, and keeps showing us examples of how it has taken the lessons learned from past experiences and applying them with success on their current endeavors. Oklahoma City used what it learned last year to take another step. It will use what it learned this year to take the next one, whether it’s in the season that is somehow barely more than four months away already or in a future one.
Miami will be back, just like the Thunder. It will be a different look. Some veterans will be leaving, and some veterans will be joining. If the Heat can get someone like Steve Nash, then they’ll have the potential to be even more dangerous in June 2013 than they were this year. But each year as their current team moves forward, there will be some scrambling to be done. There will be roster holes to fill, and chemistry to be rebuilt anew. It will be hard to find that right mix of “more” every year. Each year will be a different kind of project.
But the Thunder’s “more” is already there. It’s building now, and will continue next season and beyond, with small and eventually significant tweaks marking time as the next decade unfolds.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a fan of this team and this city, my grip on the Thunder’s coattails remains as strong as it has ever been. We continue to rise together. The forward march presses on relentlessly. The city, the team and its fans are rising higher with each year, exploring new altitudes together.
It’s pretty bright up here already. And we’re still climbing.