Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
Kevin Durant ascended to the top of the basketball world on Monday night wrapping up his first NBA title and his first NBA Finals MVP award. In the aftermath of the game, two things stood out while watching Durant wander around the court in his matching “NBA Champion” hat and t-shirt hugging family members, teammates, coaches, owners and others. The first happened as he turned from embracing “The Real MVP” Wanda Durant to give the obligatory Doris Burke interview with the obligatory Queen song blaring over the loudspeakers, his mother grabbed his attention away for one more moment to say, “Look at me! You did it! I’m proud of you son!” Moments later, as Doris asked him about LeBron James, Durant mentioned how he’d been looking forward to this since 2012 and how he felt James was the one person who could look him “eye-to-eye” and that he told James he wanted to do this again.
Thinking back on it, the parallels and the contrasts to 2012 are stark. Both series ended in five games. Both represented the dawning of a new era. The loser of both series presents/presented a looming threat to call “Next!” The things I remember from 2012 involve Durant with a towel over his head huddled in a corner with his teammates watching the time run out on Game 5 and the series, burying his face in his mom’s shoulder in the tunnel as his teammates strolled past and patted him on the back and composing him for the post-game interview where he referred to his teammates as brothers and talked about how getting there wasn’t the goal. The goal was winning. Like him or not, that’s always been the goal with Durant.
As much as this was Durant’s moment, that can’t take away from what the team did. The team around Durant is more of an ensemble cast than a supporting one. Durant and his MVP-caliber point guard make up one of the most lethal scoring duos in NBA history. The “third wheel” is a two-guard who compliments those two offensively and could undoubtedly have his own team if he wanted it, and almost did. We can’t forget that it took one of the most respected members of the front office threatening to resign to prevent him from getting dealt not too long ago. Then there’s the power forward who has come to epitomize what the modern NBA expects of its big men: protect the rim on defense and stretch the floor on offense. Since his explosion to stardom, he has been often imitated but never duplicated. These four are the headliners, but the bench pieces bring their own cards to the table, whether it be a guy who can guard LeBron for extended minutes, a guy who can run the offense without missing the beat and get his own shots or a young guy who plays tough defense and is priming himself for a big moment down the road. This team is built to last and already has us whispering the “D” word. The only question now is: can they keep the band together?
Reading until this point it’s probably been fairly obvious to you that I’ve been writing about the Golden State Warriors. I have been, but read it again. Now tell me who this could be if they had done some things differently? In an alternate universe, probably the same one where Biff Tannen goes on the greatest gambling heater of all time and ruins everyone else’s life, the MVP-caliber point guard is Westbrook, the “third wheel” who nearly got traded is Harden, and the league changing big is Ibaka. (If you want to disagree that Ibaka could have been that player fine, but remember that he led the league in blocks in 2012 and 2013 and shot around 35% from three during that time).
Sam Presti and Bob Myers both ended up in a similar situation with Harden/Klay Thompson and Myers made the right call, or rather was forced into the right call by Jerry West, and Presti didn’t. As insufferable as Joe Lacob’s “lightyears ahead” comment from last year was, they were lightyears ahead of the Thunder in predicting the salary cap boom, keeping their young core together and getting over the title hump. If the Warriors do end up becoming the next great NBA dynasty, then the Thunder are the next great “what if” following in the tradition of the Shaq/Penny Magic, the Kemp/Payton Sonics and so many more.
The infuriating thing about the Oklahoma City situation is that Harden legitimately wanted to be there. So many of the great “what if” teams fell apart because the players ceased to mesh, wanted the limelight and basically succumbed to Pat Riley’s “disease of more”. In this case, it was the management that contracted the illness. Presti and owner Clay Bennett sacrificed potential titles for the bottom line, and as much as that’s their right and prerogative it was both short-sighted and shamelessly greedy. The revenue bump they could have gotten from being perennial title contenders could have paid any luxury tax penalty a few times over, and endeared themselves to the fanbase (who also happen to double as their customers) in the process.
In the end, this story is just as much about the Thunder as it is the Warriors. Durant has the potential to be a top-20 player ever (or better) and win multiple titles. It looks like if that comes to fruition it will happen in the Bay Area, but sliding the right doors this easily could have been Oklahoma City’s fate. They should serve as a cautionary tale to future teams to think long and hard before they make a move that could slam the door shut on a potential championship run. As the poet William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, an infinite gif loop of beautiful basketball”.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group