Here’s the story of the Thunder, and why they’re such a polarizing team, summarized briefly: They’re fantastically talented, but they still have apparently solvable problems. Which makes them infinitely interesting.
How you feel about that summary colors your outlook of the team. On one hand, you can see them as a team not reaching its potential, and therefore frustrating. On the other, you can see them as a team not reaching its potential, but likely to do so in a breakthrough moment any time soon.
The facts are this: The Thunder have won more than 75 percent of their games the last four seasons, made three trips to the conference finals, one to the NBA Finals, hung four division banners and routinely sat near the top of the West each season. Two of those four years, the Thunder had to deal with significant injuries to major players in the postseason, which greatly impacted their ability to advance.
Some routinely forget, or conveniently overlook those facts to help confirm their opinions, while others lean on them heavily as a crutch. Reality is, the injuries to Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka aren’t excuses — they’re frustrating red herrings. Because of them, they’ve left unanswered questions. Instead of being able to evaluate each Thunder season at face value, the last two comes with, “Yeah, but…”
Matt Moore of CBSSports.com took a deep dive into the Thunder today, thoroughly presenting the whole spectrum of the team. It’s great stuff. Read it all, but here are a few notable points:
Everyone who gets shelled by the Spurs looks like they don’t have enough weapons. There was an idea that the Thunder just didn’t have enough good players, except this is what they had: The MVP who is the most dominant offensive scoring force we’ve seen since prime Kobe, and more efficient. A hyper-athletic takeover guard who rebounds, runs the floor, can hit from the outside and is generally a killer. (We’re going to ignore the whole Westbrook argument because this thing’s already long, but needless to say, no, Westbrook is not the problem and look no further than their 2013 run for proof of that.) A top-five defender who can stretch the floor and finish offensive putbacks in Serge Ibaka. A crew of veteran shooters not unlike what Dallas had in 2011 when it won the title, and several key veteran defenders who typically do better than younger swingmen. A couple of young scorers in Reggie Jackson and Lamb, and Hasheem Thabeet’s awesome towel-waiving.
You know how you can tell that’s enough to put them in contention to win the title? Because the won 59 games and lost the Western Conference Finals to one of the best teams of all time in six games!
The Thunder were a really good team led by a phenomenal player having one of his best seasons that battled through injury issues and a roster that while good, wasn’t quite perfect. The Spurs were a great team.
We want to assign blame and diagnose illnesses with teams in the face of failed expectations. When Oklahoma City failed to make drastic roster changes this summer, there were questions if it had somehow failed to address its needs. But the Thunder, at their core, had a team that was good enough to finish with 59 wins, second in the brutal West and make the conference finals. Their young players will mature and improve.
Whether their best next season will be better than the Spurs’ best remains to be seen. The Spurs have to be considered the favorite. But unlike so many teams who are truly doomed by their own fatal flaws, Oklahoma City’s enemy isn’t some internal strife, superstar flaw, roster instability or the clock running out on their superstars.
Their enemy is San Antonio. And last season, San Antonio was simply better.
A couple thoughts there: The Spurs were obviously tremendous. A remarkable team built on unselfish team principles, executing offense like we’ve never really seen before. But were they better than the Thunder? Overall, I actually don’t think they were. The regular season does matter some, and the Thunder swept the Spurs fairly convincingly, and had dominated the matchup going on three seasons. But under the current circumstances and at that present time, though? They absolutely were. The Spurs were functioning at ridiculously high levels, and not only were the Thunder wounded physically, but mentally as well.
One thing about Ibaka’s injury that’s somewhat misunderstood is that while yes, he did return and played magnificently in Games 3 and 4, and yes, the Thunder were blown out in Game 5 and lost Game 6 at home with him, that Ibaka’s health was actually deteriorating a bit game to game. I was told by someone close to the team after the season that Ibaka played Game 6 probably at somewhere between 50-60 percent, battling a constant burning in his calf. The surge of adrenaline got him through Games 3 and 4, but without much time off between games, there wasn’t an opportunity to really recover. In Game 5, Ibaka was a complete non-factor and while he was solid in Game 6, he still didn’t impact the game athletically as he’s capable.
The Spurs may very well have beaten the Thunder if Ibaka was 100 percent. That’s the point I’m making; we can’t know and that’s what’s so damn frustrating. We never really got to evaluate last year’s team, Scott Brooks, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and everything else because there’s that annoying caveat placed on it.
There’s an insatiable thirst for a championship right now in Oklahoma City, and there should be. But that overwhelming desire has clouded the view of many, changing what used to be a sensible perspective on the organization and it’s viability and sustainability here in Oklahoma. This might come as a shock to some, but the Thunder are trying real hard to win a championship. And so are 14 other Western Conference teams. There are some really, really good ones standing in the way of the Thunder, like the Spurs. But the roster OKC has places them in an elite category, one that can realistically expect to be deep into the conversation of it all come May and June.
One way or the other, though, they have to solve that final problem otherwise past excuses and justifications will just be temporary reprieve from the frustrating reality that they might not have indeed been good enough all along.