It is the mid-point of the NBA season and the Oklahoma City Thunder have already matched the number of wins they managed last season. Unless something goes seriously wrong, they will improve on the wretched 2008/09 season by a sizeable amount. That means the Oklahoma City market will witness two of the greatest turn-arounds in NBA history first hand.
Few will forget that when the New Orleans Hornets first arrived to temporarily play here, they were coming off one of the worst seasons ever performed by an NBA team. In 2004/05, the Hornets managed just 18 wins (five less than the Thunder did last season). Playing 37 of their 41 home games in Oklahoma City during 2005/06, they finished just out of the playoffs with 38 wins… more than doubling the total.
While we in OKC like to take a good deal of the credit for the improvement, much more changed for the Hornets than playing in front of actual fans. For one, the 2006 Hornets had one huge advantage over the 2005 team: Chris Paul. Paul, drafted in the Summer of ’05 had, very likely, the best season any rookie point guard has ever produced. He instantly came in and gave the whole roster a swagger and confidence that they could win. They also finally got to see David West play everyday after he spent his first two seasons mostly on the injured list.
As for the Thunder, you cannot point to any such factors. The home crowd this season is the same as last year’s and the roster if very much the same. The entire starting five is identical, as well as the same sixth man. In essence, the only way to explain the sudden change in fortune is instant maturity.
Of course, there is little precedent for a National Basketball Association team muturing this way. For instance, look at the “Baby Bulls” from the early ‘aughts. Chicago went with a similar plan for building their roster as Sam Presti had for OKC. They traded their one established player (Elton Brand) to the Clippers for a draft pick that became Tyson Chandler and two picks later used their own pick to take Eddy Curry. Their plan was to build the team around two teenaged centers, and other young players obtained with high lottery draft picks. They drafted Jay Williams and Luol Deng from Duke, Kirk Hinrich from Kansas, and Ben Gordon from Connecticut. The experienced college perimeter players from winning programs, though, never came to fruition of making the team a winner, though, until they gave up on their expected franchise cornerstones. (Chandler was practically given to the Hornets and the Knicks were ripped off in acquiring Eddy Curry.)
For a similar experience to what the Thunder are accomplishing, I looked at baseball. After the jump, find out how the 2009/10 Thunder are so much like the 2001 Minnesota Twins, and what the similarities might mean for this team’s future.