Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
As the Oklahoma City Thunder, scheduled to face off against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Western Conference Finals later tonight, continue their quest towards progressing to the Finals, it’s hard not to look at the roster constructed by general manager Sam Presti and begin the process of comparing it to another up-and-coming team from back in the day.
With Kevin Durant, the Thunder have their superstar. Their leader. Their face of the franchise.
At the peak of his powers, Durant is one of the best players in the NBA that surely deserves to be mentioned in the same breathe with LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and others.
But what makes Durant a rare commodity is that he’s a star player that is humble, selfless, and extremely team-oriented in every sense of the term. Durant’s latest national advertising campaign with Gatorade is all you need to know about him. The spotlight may be on Durant but he always goes out of his way to include his teammates, like on this year’s NBA preview cover of Sports Illustrated, making sure they’re recognized as well.
Plus, Durant is more than content playing in Oklahoma City, not seeking the limelight of bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles. Durant wants to play basketball, and doesn’t need to do it in a specific media market
Needless to say, Durant is unlike his attention-seeking peers.
Then there’s Russell Westbrook, a player that has blossomed into a star but is still trying to shape himself on the court. Westbrook isn’t perfect and his detractors will remind him every step of the way, as it seems like he’s learning on the job at 100 miles per hour. But Westbrook’s ascent as one of the best point guards has been one of the more notable developments in the league this season.
Westbrook is the ying to Durant’s yang and even though their collective equilibrium on offense sways wildly from side-to-side every so often, more so on Westbrook’s half, there’s no question that they’ve become a dynamic duo at the tender ages of 22.
Those seeking an example for the potential of a perfect symbiotic relationship between Westbrook and Durant should look no further than Game 7 of the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals against the Memphis Grizzlies. Westbrook was the playmaker. Durant was the scorer.
Teams around the NBA would kill to be in the Thunder’s position of possessing two young stars with nearly limitless potential.
The Orlando Magic, more than most franchises, can relate to such being in such an envious position. Once upon a time, the Magic were the darlings of the league in the mid-’90s with two young stars en tow — Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway.
In the 1991-1992 season, Orlando owned the second-worst record in the NBA but good fortune struck the franchise — twice — in consecutive years. In 1992, the Magic won the draft lottery and selected O’Neal with the top pick. In 1993, even though the odds of Orlando winning the lottery for a second year in a row with a record of 41-41 were microscopic, they won it and general manager Pat Williams selected Chris Webber number one, then traded him to the Golden State Warriors for the draft rights to Hardaway and three first round picks.
In the span of three seasons, with Shaq and Penny at the helm, the Magic transformed from a 21-win team to a Finals runner-up, becoming the second-fastest team to make an appearance in the NBA Finals.
Although the circumstances are different, Oklahoma City is poised to accomplish a similar feat in the same amount of time when they drafted Durant in 2007 and Westbrook in 2008.
Yes, Durant and Westbrook are much different players than O’Neal and Hardaway, but at the very least they are two special talents that are leading the charge for the Thunder at a very young age.
Just like O’Neal and Hardaway.
|Oklahoma City Thunder|
Everyone marveled at Orlando’s meteoric rise from irrelevance to reverence.
The same thing is happening with Oklahoma City.
Sage veteran joins the cast
Although O’Neal and Hardaway were two of the main reasons that the Magic were able to become a championship contender and elite team in quick order, it was only after Williams went and sought out the services of Horace Grant during the offseason in 1994 did the evolution complete itself.
Grant, an enforcer and rugged power forward that won three straight championships with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and head coach Phil Jackson, was a free agent and looked to be the missing piece Orlando needed to bolster their frontline. The Magic needed size and a physical presence defensively, and Grant filled those needs.
Of course, the Thunder experienced similar fortune when Presti acquired Kendrick Perkins in a trade with the Boston Celtics at the trade deadline.
It’s no secret that the one thing holding Oklahoma City back from reaching their full potential as a team came in the form of interior defense.
Starting Jeff Green at the power forward position wasn’t cutting it for the Thunder but with Serge Ibaka’s amazing development at power forward, along with Perkins’ insertion into the starting lineup at center, the roster became whole. Not only that but Perkins has changed the culture of Oklahoma City, providing championship experience, toughness, and veteran leadership that has been welcomed with open arms. The parallels don’t stop there.
Orlando made room to sign Grant in free agency by trading a first round pick and Scott Skiles, Hardaway’s mentor, to the Washington Bullets. It was the Magic’s way of fully passing the torch to Hardaway and entrusting him as the floor general.
It’s not much different than the Thunder handing the keys to Ibaka and letting him finally wreak havoc as a starter after trading away Green to the Celtics in the Perkins deal.
A point guard’s evolution
Drafting O’Neal. Trading for Hardaway. Signing Grant.
These were developments that aided in Orlando’s rise to prominence.
But Hardaway’s ascension at point guard in his second year with the Magic was just as vital. After benefitting from Skiles’ tutelage in his rookie campaign, Hardaway grew into a new-school version of Magic Johnson with his 6-foot-7 frame, savvy court vision, and freakish athleticism. Hardaway was the lightning to O’Neal’s thunder and as a result, Orlando had their dynamic duo of the present and future (though the union didn’t last long).
Even though it took him an extra year, It can be argued that Westbrook had a more impressive jump to stardom than Hardaway.
Westbrook went from being an above-average starter in 2010 to a star in 2011, producing at a nearly identical rate as Durant, while simultaneously still learning on the job as a point guard in the NBA after manning the shooting guard position in his time at UCLA playing next to Darren Collison. There’s little debate that Durant is Oklahoma City’s best player, but Westbrook is not that far behind when looking at the numbers.
However, even though the Magic and Thunder have their similarities, they also have numerous differences.
A major difference is that Durant, unlike O’Neal, isn’t jumping ship anytime soon. Durant is in the first year of a five-year contract extension he signed during the offseason.
And the hope for Oklahoma City is that a career-changing injury doesn’t befall Westbrook like it did with Hardaway.
Lastly, although Orlando had O’Neal and Hardaway, as well as Grant, Nick Anderson, and Dennis Scott, they were very much a top-heavy team with little depth to speak of. The Thunder don’t have that problem, given that alongside Durant and Westbrook, they have a superior supporting cast with the likes of Perkins, Ibaka, James Harden, Nick Collison, and many others.
And because of it, a brighter future ahead than the Magic from yesteryear.