Oklahoma City Thunder: The genesis of the best young core in the NBA

After eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs on Monday, the Oklahoma City Thunder earned a return trip to the Western Conference Finals. Losing to the Mavs at this very venue a year ago, OKC will have to go through another seasoned team (the San Antonio Spurs) to take the next step in its development.

The NBA’s Western Conference (and to a large extent the NBA in general) has been largely dominated by three organizations since the late 1990s: the Lakers, the Spurs, and the Mavs. The Lakers have won five titles since drafting Kobe Bryant in 1996, led by the Kobe/Shaq run in the early 2000s and the Kobe/Pau duo of late. The Spurs lucked out by winning Tim Duncan’s lottery toss in 1997, and since his arrival, the organization has surrounded him with an outstanding coach (“Pop”) and perfect companion pieces, capturing four championships in the process. Mark Cuban bought the Mavs in 2000 and proceeded to spend lots and lots of money trying to find the right mix of players to surround Dirk Nowitzki. After a decade of rotating pieces and epic playoff meltdowns, his Mavs finally captured that elusive title in 2011.

Oklahoma City has disrupted this long-standing three-way dance, putting the aforementioned teams in a “blowout” in the process. In a relatively short period of time, OKC general manager Sam Presti has managed to build a roster of talented young players, the core of which has the team poised to compete for titles for years to come. While the core of the traditional Western Conference powerhouses are getting older, the Thunder’s top four players are 23 or younger. How did Presti achieve this? Some factors have influenced the team’s rapid rise, namely draft luck, outstanding player evaluation and development, and shrewd trading.

In 2007, the Seattle SuperSonics were still an entity (a year after moving to Oklahoma) and were waiting to see who the Portland Trail Blazers would take with the first pick in that year’s draft. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were expected to be the first two players selected, and based on their history of bad decisions and bad luck, Portland took the frail Oden. The fortunes of both franchises were forever altered by this move, as it turned out to be a modern day Bowie-over-Jordan-type decision. In Durant, OKC is not only blessed with one of the best players in the league, but also a superstar teammate fresh out of Tim Duncan’s low-maintenance school. Oden has suffered a multitude of knee injuries, competing in just one season of play during the span of his five-year NBA career. Would OKC basketball have taken off to the extent that he has if Portland had taken Durant instead? Would Portland be on the verge of winning titles if they had gone the other way? Both questions for a future column.

The 2008 NBA Draft proved to be especially rewarding for the Thunder, as they nabbed Russell Westbrook with the fourth pick and Serge Ibaka with the 24th overall pick. The two players selected immediately before Westbrook, Michael Beasley and OJ Mayo, have had disappointing careers compared to the explosive Westbrook. Westbrook, already one of the best point guards in the league, attacks the rim with the ferocity of a mini LeBron James and is the engine that powers the Thunder’s fast-paced offense. He still shoots too often for Skip Bayless’s liking, but when Westbrook gets him going, he’s an absolute nightmare for opposing teams. Ibaka came to the Thunder after playing a few years in Spain, and in just his third season in the NBA he led the league in blocks per game. Still just 22 years old, Ibaka is a raw talent who is improving at an alarming rate: This season he mixes an improved mid-range jumper to match his innate athleticism. It was definitely an off the grid find by the OKC front office.

Rounding out OKC’s version of the “Big 3” along with Durant and Westbrook is James Harden. Harden, the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, fell into the Thunder’s lap thanks to one of the biggest draft-day mistakes of all time: selecting Hasheem Thabeet with the No. 2 pick by Memphis. Grizzlies. How bad was this selection? In his three seasons in the league, Thabeet has been traded twice and played for three different teams (Grizz, Rockets and, you guessed it, the Blazers), making pit stops in the D-League for parts of two of these seasons. While Harden has been ready for the league and OKC’s version of Manu Ginobli for most of his three seasons, Thabeet was busy earning the dubious distinction of being the highest drafted player in NBA Development League history. . The reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Harden is a dynamic scorer who can drive at will or bury teams from the outside. He’s the primary ball handler and facilitator for OKC’s second unit, and there’s little to no letdown when he’s on the floor and Durant or Westbrook sit on the bench. His destruction of Game 4 of the Mavs in the first round was incredible to watch, virtually erasing a double-digit deficit on his own by leading the Thunder to victory from behind. He reminded me a lot of a younger Kobe/D-Wade type of acting. Most great teams need a bit of luck to get all the right pieces into place, and Harden’s landing in OKC is definitely in Andy Roddick/Brooklyn Decker territory.

Presti and the front office have also done an excellent job bringing in a mix of veteran players to add leadership and toughness to this burgeoning team. Derek Fisher might have missed a step, but he can still hit the occasional big shot and is a respected voice in the locker room. Kendrick Perkins creates the kind of spaces/openings for team playmakers with his screens that NFL coaches are likely seeking his services. And Thabo Sefolosha is an excellent defender on the wing who will play a big role in the team’s upcoming playoff matchups defending the likes of Manu and D-Wade or Ray Allen.

Their series against the Spurs begins on Sunday and it should be a classic. San Antonio is a little deeper, a little more experienced and will have home court advantage. The Thunder are faster and more athletic, and the Spurs will surely have their hands full trying to contain KD. Tony Parker has been playing like a man possessed all season, and Westbrook’s ability to offset his performance levels could end up deciding which team emerges as the winner.

Regardless of the outcome, OKC’s young core of stars is under contract with the team for the foreseeable future and, health permitting, they will compete for NBA titles on an annual basis. Players still have room for improvement and Presti will continue to add pieces to the puzzle. LeBron James talked about winning multiple titles by signing with Miami; he must not have imagined the emerging power in the west that he will have to deal with for the rest of his prime.

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