by: Scott LaPeer
There's something special brewing in the relative obscurity of the Oklahoma plains. A basketball team with a chance to take the entire NBA by storm.
On the dawn of a brand new season, the Oklahoma City Thunder may not be ready to seize ownership of league headlines just yet. However, what began last year, and may continue through the next season or 2, might eventually only be considered the foreword to a championship story in the making.
Make no mistake about it, there is a new gang of kids on the NBA block, and they're already something to be reckoned with.
How a team that didn't exist until 2 years ago and might now be counted as 1 of professional basketball's top-5 is nothing short of fascinating. What's happened in Oklahoma is a sort of "perfect storm" of basketball fortune, beginning with the city of Seattle forfeiting its franchise to OKC. But it may actually have been a storm -- perhaps the worst in this nation's history -- that basketball fans, the NBA, and Oklahomans strangely have to credit for the budding phenomena that is the Thunder.
Let's rewind a split-second before going forward.
In 2005, a New Orleans Hornets team displaced by Hurricane Katrina found a temporary home town in Oklahoma City (you may recall, that season, catching the awkward acronym "NOK" scanning the ticker at the bottom of your screen). The city was so impressive in its out pour of support and enthusiasm for its first professional sports franchise, there was talk the Hornets may be best off never returning to the Easy. When they ultimately did, OKC had left a strong enough impression on league brass that it was quickly believed it could one day support an NBA franchise.
Who knew that day would come so soon?
At the very same time as the Oklahoma City adoption, a pro team in Seattle was inching closer and closer out the city's door. The city of Seattle and its Supersonics ownership were in a battle over funding for a new, state-of-the-art arena. When the impasse between the 2 became impossible and irrefutable, the city essentially handed over its pro hoops team, and it was Oklahoma's capital city that opened its arms further and wider than any other suitor.
Before relocating though, Seattle had enjoyed one heck of a draft. For starters, Oklahoma can thank its Western Conference foe, the Portland Trailblazers, for its once-in-a-generation cornerstone. Kevin Durant, who at 21-years old last season became the youngest player ever to lead the NBA in scoring at 30.1 ppg, was passed over with the number-1 pick. Thank you, Greg Oden! Ask anyone with a vantage point of the league, and they'll tell you Durant is a special talent with the potential to be one of the all-time greats.
The next stroke of brilliance came shortly after. 24 minutes to be exact. 3 picks later the Boston Celtics chose forward Jeff Green from Georgetown, but they did so for Oklahoma City. The Sonics/Thunder had arranged the deal when they acquired Boston's pick after trading Ray Allen to the Celtics. Last season Green started all 82 games while scoring 15 ppg, collecting 6 rebounds, and shooting 45% from the floor.
The following season, after moving and becoming the Thunder, OKC was in need of a head coach after cutting loose P.J. Carlesimo in Seattle. Along came the name "Scott Brooks", a current NBA assistant and decade-long, point guard journeyman with a reputation for being a player's coach. Turns out that was correct, as Brooks took home the 2009-2010 NBA Coach of the Year award for taking the Thunder from 22 wins to 50 in successive seasons.
That same summer Carlesimo was canned, and the franchise relocated, thanks to the diligence of owner Clay Bennett. As this transition occurred, OKC drafted a guard named Russell Westbrook out of UCLA. Many weren't sold on his ability to run the point, nor that he was the shooter needed to play the "2". By his 2nd season, Westbrook started every single game, and in the playoffs last year -- against eventual champion Los Angeles -- averaged 20 ppg, 6 asst, 6 rebs, and shot 47%, 42%, and 84% from the field, 3-point range, and free throw line respectively. By the end of this new season, Westbrook's name will belong firmly in the company of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, and Derrick Rose as one of the NBA's best young point guards.
Finally, there's the fans. For a "small market" franchise, there is nothing diminutive about OKC's Ford Center. The pure passion of the people, well beyond the 20,000 that can fit into the arena, have made OKC a flat-out frightening place to play (ask the Lakers how their road trip went in the 2010 playoffs). The Ford Center approaches ear-decimating decibels nightly, and its strong fan base continues to ensure the Thunder as a stable, self-sustaining franchise; a true feather in the cap of commissioner David Stern.
Tack on continual quality draft picks (Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Cole Aldrich ) and free-agent acquisitions (Thabo Sefaosha, Morris Peterson), and OKC is building a potential dynasty in middle America.
It may come as a surprise, but the team that won 50 games last year, took the eventual champ Lakers to 6 games in a playoff series, and has the league's leading scorer has an average age of 24. Twenty-four!! One-third of its roster is 21 years old. Stupid. All that stated, it's not a stretch to think a string of titles could be in the future. It's completely possible the Thunder could be that good.
As the Miami Heat grab all the attention, and countless media members all but concede a run of future championships to Lebron James and company, there might yet be a team out west capable of cutting down that dynasty-in-the-making to establish its own. A better team, with a better star player, adding color and variety to NBA lore.