Allow me to recap the Thunder’s last nine months as quickly as possible:
They traded James Harden to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a lottery pick. They went on to win 60 games securing homecourt advantage in the West, notch a near historic margin of victory, finish top five in both offense and defense, then take a mostly effortless 2-0 series lead over the Rockets in round one.
Then Russell Westbrook — one of the eight best players on planet earth — got hurt and the Thunder scratched their way to finishing off the Rockets, then fell to the Grizzlies in five games, with the series being excruciatingly close, but at the same time developing a potential bench stud in Reggie Jackson.
The offseason came, they drafted a project big with the No. 12 pick, let their third-leading scorer walk in free agency, flirted with a few names on the open market before ultimately deciding to trust in their plan and hope that Jackson and Lamb could handle business off the bench because, you know, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
The rest of the West spent the last month trying to catch up to the Thunder by making big moves and spending money on free agents. The Rockets got Dwight Howard, the Warriors got Andre Iguodala, the Clippers got J.J. Redick. All the meanwhile the Thunder still possess maybe the two best players in the entire conference on their own team.
The feeling is, though, that the Thunder have slipped behind. And maybe they have. They’re still trying to lock down Mike Miller and while they may or may not happen, a player like Miller will only serve to complement the team. It’s like him, or Dorell Wright, or Carlos Delfino are the missing pieces standing between the Thunder and a championship. I think what’s frustrated some is the appearance that the Thunder aren’t doing anything while other teams are doing something. As if the Thunder’s roster is some sort of misshapen mess with holes and problems all over it.
Again, 60 wins, margin of victory, Russell Westbrook. Et cetera, et cetera.
That’s not to say anything is guaranteed for the Thunder. They still have to play the games and with the development and improvement they’ve shown the last few years, getting that taste of almost winning it all has turned everyone into championship zombies. Instead of braaaaaains, everyone wants rinnnnnngs. It’s title tunnel vision.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because what’s the point of this whole thing? To win it all. But maintaining a perspective while still desperately wanting that is a tough balance. I’ve heard it from a lot — a lot — of fans that “the Thunder aren’t trying to win a championship.” Yes, Sam Presti is trying to mind the future as much as the present, but the team and front office wants it more than you do. They’re just in a more difficult position than you. They are actually the ones that have to live and answer their decisions.
The season is another couple of months away, but for the most part, we know what the West is going to look like. Trending up are the Warriors, Rockets, Timberwolves and maybe the Pelicans. Trending down are the Nuggets, Lakers and Jazz.
Where do the Thunder fit into that? With Kevin Martin gone — who experienced his highest level of popularity in OKC when he signed somewhere else — some feel the Thunder are going to slip. In fact, three out of five writers say the Thunder aren’t the Western favorite in an ESPN.com 5-on-5. (One of the two that did? Me.)
The other person that went with OKC, Ramona Shelburne, said this:
Such a boring choice, I know. But with Russell Westbrook healthy you have to give the nod to last season’s regular-season champ again. Losing sixth man Kevin Martin to Minnesota hurts, but Reggie Jackson is due for a breakout year and will help mitigate some of the loss. And Kevin Durant is still miles away from his ceiling as a player.
I think that’s one of the more overlooked things about this Thunder team. Kevin Durant will turn 25 soon. Russell Westbrook is 24. Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson are 23. The reason the Thunder have gone from 20 wins to 23 wins to 50 to eventually 60 last season hasn’t been because of offseason moves or by signing players. It’s been because their young players have gotten better. And guess what: Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka, Jackson and all those young guys are going to be better next season.
The West does feel pretty open. Along with the rising teams, the Spurs are the Spurs, the Grizzlies will be solid and the Clippers are better. I will say this: The Thunder had an opportunity to take a stranglehold on the conference for the next five years, but now it’s more open.
We’ll never know what would’ve happened with last season’s team. We don’t know what’s going to happen with this season’s. But I do know this: As long as No. 0 and No. 35 are playing, the Thunder have a very good chance.