The NBA Playoffs are here and Alex Theoharides explains why the Thunder are under the most pressure to win now.
There was a time when the Thunder were the feel good story of the NBA. The team had just moved to Oklahoma City from Seattle. While some bitterness lingered over the way the team was stolen from the Emerald City—which had played host to the Glove, the Reignman, and Niles Crane’s half court heave—most NBA fans were quick to separate the young players that made up the Thunders’ squad from the politics that brought them to the southwest.
Every move the Thunder made seemed to work out beautifully. The decision to hire Sam Presti away from the Spurs was a masterstroke, which gave the Thunder an architect with a rare ability to find gems in the draft. Presti’s picks included Jeff Green, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden. With these picks, the Thunder were able to build a nucleus that grew from 23 wins in 2009 to 50 wins in 2010.
In the lockout shortened season of 2012, Kevin Durant clearly became the second best player in the NBA and the Thunder reached the finals. They lost in five games to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. However, the overwhelming storyline was that the Thunder were lucky to make the Finals. They weren’t seasoned champions yet. It wasn’t their turn.
There was no real harm in losing so badly to the Miami Heat. However, these story lines belied both the talent of the Heat and the caliber of teams (Dallas, LA Lakers, San Antonio) the Thunder beat to make the Finals. The reality was they weren’t lucky to get there; they just weren’t as good as the Heat.
The following season the storyline soured for Durant and the Thunder. Suddenly, they were Western Conference favorites. For some reason, Presti panicked and traded James Harden to Houston. Then Russell Westbrook blew out his knee in the first round of the Playoffs. And in the second round, the Thunder were knocked off in five games by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Even though they have the second best record in the Western Conference, the Thunder are no longer a feel good story. Instead, they are a team with expectations and a limited window. Durant is signed until the 2016-17 season, when both he and Russell Westbrook become unrestricted free agents. He is a terrific talent, who remains the second best player in the NBA. However, his position is tenuous.
If the Thunder win the championship, some pundits will elevate him above LeBron. If they don’t make the finals, he will begin to feel the heat of the players just a notch below him. Players like Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, and Blake Griffin.
Finally, if the Thunder make the Finals but lose to the Heat once again, Durant’s storyline will be dominated by comparisons to all the players who lingered in Michael Jordan’s Herculean shadow.
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There will be a lot of fascinating subplots to follow when the NBA Playoffs arrive on April 19th. However, the team with the most pressure to win and win now is the Oklahoma City Thunder.