I'd like to run a few things by you: An MVP whose toughness occasionally comes into question, a fiery point guard, a small market, questionable coaching, aging veterans mixed with unproven young talent, perennial playoff disappointment. Who am I talking about? If you're savvy (and old enough) you might have noticed that each of these descriptions fit both the early-10s Oklahoma City Thunder and the mid-90s San Antonio Spurs.
With the announcement that OKC forward Kevin Durant would miss the first 6-8 weeks of the regular season, the parallels between the 2014-15 Thunder and the 1996-97 Spurs began to take on a certain eeriness. After all, David Robinson received a similar prognosis in the fall of '96 and ended up playing just 6 games the entire season. Coach Bob Hill -- admittedly, more popular and less derided as a tactician than Thunder coach Scott Brooks -- didn't make it out of November. Eventually, injuries to other Spurs mainstays such as Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson capsized the season, and the Spurs bottomed out with a franchise-worst 20-62 record.
I listened to Jay Howard call every game on the radio during that miserable campaign. To the Thunder fans and NBA observers who think OKC can tread water with Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Reggie Jackson, just know that sometimes these things spiral out of control before you realize. Losing the reigning MVP is hard enough, but the young Thunder seem to have quietly entered a luckless and injury-prone stretch. After never missing a game in his life prior to 2013, Westbrook is coming off multiple surgeries on knees which are constantly at risk from his slapdash dives to the hole. Injuries have also befallen Ibaka and Nick Collison (ankles), Kendrick Perkins (quad), Reggie Jackson (wrist), and rookie Mitch McGary (who also broke his foot.)
Compounding all this is an offseason which could charitably be described as "status quo." OKC's biggest free agent signing was shooter Anthony Morrow, a lateral move to replace Thabo Sefalosha. There was the controversial and somewhat confusing deal the team worked out with 29th pick Josh Huestis to play in the D-League rather than pay him the guaranteed money typically owed to first round picks. More than the injuries themselves, this nickel and dime approach is a reflection OKC's chief problem. The thriftiness of owner/cartoon villain Clay Bennett has led to a roster perpetually lacking in proven playoff veterans. Those who are there, including Perkins and the now-departed Derek Fisher and Caron Butler, don't quite fit into the Robert Horry or Mike Miller class as tangible difference-makers in the deep rounds of the postseason.
In place of veteran leadership, the Thunder have leaned on the promise of young prospects like Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb, and Perry Jones. Now will be their time, whether they're ready or not. Compared to the pre-Duncan Spurs, the Thunder certainly have lots of talent, but I'm not convinced that OKC is more than lower-bracket fodder without their superstar drawing the undivided attention of the defense. And that's assuming: a) Durant comes back on time, b) the Thunder don't lose too much ground to their peers in the midst of a tough opening schedule, and c) the other injury situations sort themselves out and no new injuries are suffered. Even with the Thunder's medical staff of magicians, with that many moving pieces it's reasonable to assume that not all of those things will break OKC's way.
Which leads me back to the Spurs. Since 2012, the Thunder have been the Spurs' chief Western Conference rival. In the last three playoffs, the Spurs are only 6-6 against the Thunder and 28-6 against every other West team. For all its reputation as a gauntlet, the Western Conference playoffs have proven to be a relative cakewalk for SA since the 2011 Grizzlies series - except for the Thunder.
And maybe I'm being overly pessimistic about the Thunder's chances. They are a young and resilient bunch, and it would be irresponsible to expect the fate of the '96-'97 Spurs for Durant and Company, given that that season resulted in Gregg Popovich hiring himself as head coach and the team landing the #1 pick in the draft. Right now, Thunder fans are probably thinking that their team will end up with a top four seed, should the worst happen and Durant misses a few extra weeks. Best case scenario? The Thunder manage just fine and secure a two seed, just as they did last year without Westbrook. In either case, it's likely they meet up with the Spurs in May once again.
But if I'm a Thunder fan, I'm nervous for one reason: They were saying the same things about the Spurs in October of 1996.