It was in the final moments of the Thunder’s 107-99 win over the Spurs that the truly defining image of this team was seen. Arms raised with the knowledge of his team’s impending win, Kevin Durant walked to the sideline and embraced his mother.
It’s moments like these that make Durant and the Thunder such a likable group. Sure Russell Westbrook will have his chest-pounding antics, but at the end of the day, this team is just a family. But despite Durant’s child-like humility and innocence shown in hugging his mom, this family has finally grown up.
Just three years removed from the fourth worst record in the league (23-59), two years since taking the defending (and soon to be repeating) champion Lakers to six games in the first round, and one year after a demoralizing defeat to future NBA champion Mavericks, the Thunder have reached the summit of the mountain we all knew they’d eventually climb.
Ever since the young Durant-Westbrook nucleus was formed, everyone in basketball knew the tandem would soon be contending for titles. But to go from those kids with tons of potential but just 23 wins to the Western Conference Champions in just a few years is remarkable. And it hasn’t been without it’s fair share of luck along the way.
The Blazers passing on Durant for Greg Oden was the first step. (It’s interesting to think where Portland would be had they taken Durant. He could have taken the load off of Brandon Roy, saving his knees. With those two on the perimeter and LaMarcus Aldridge inside, that squad could have been even better than this Thunder one.)
Taking Westbrook fourth overall in the 2008 draft was a bit of a shock at the time, but it’s obvious that was an excellent pick. The Grizzlies opted to draft Hasheem Thabeet (clearly a future superstar) over James Harden the following year. The Harden pick was scrutinized as well, as many thought OKC could use a true point guard like Ricky Rubio or Stephen Curry so Westbrook could play the two.
The emergence of Serge Ibaka was another key piece to the Thunder’s success. For all the foreign players drafted then stashed overseas to develop, Ibaka is one of the few to make it to the NBA, let alone lead the league in blocking. His growth has been instrumental.
Then, just months after being dealt to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins, Jeff Green has heart surgery and misses the year. Had this happened before the trade, just a few months earlier, there is no way the deal gets done and OKC would be lacking a ton of toughness in the interior.
This could all be chalked up to great luck. But really, this is just great management and great teammates making each other better.
But this rapid rise to the top could be short lived. After Harden’s breakout year and given his importance to the team, he’s due a major paycheck increase when his contract expires next season. And so is Ibaka. It’s going to bear near impossible to keep both those players when other teams are throwing max contracts Harden’s way.
So while the Thunder dynasty is just now beginning, it could also be the beginning of the end. Durant and Westbrook, both having signed contract extensions, are around for the long-haul however, so while pieces may move around, this team has made it to the top and is here to stay. If they can figure out a way to keep this group together (judging by the team’s track record, it wouldn’t be surprising if they can pull it off), it could be an exciting decade in Oklahoma. Harden and Ibaka are just 22, Westbrook and Durant are 23 and they all have their best basketball ahead of them.
All I can say is, sorry Seattle.