The Thunder were supposed to be the dominant power in the West, even after the Harden trade. They have two top ten players and an elite defensive anchor. After losing to the Mavs in the 2011 conference finals, it seemed like their assent was inevitable. And sure enough, they beat the Spurs in the Conference finals in 2012 and advanced to the finals. But they lost handily to the Heat. In 2013, an injury derailed their chances. 2014 was supposed to finally be their year, as Durant became the league's MVP. Yet once again they couldn't go all the way.
Now, the talk about their window closing is nonsense. Durant and Westbrook are young, seem to like each other and have given no indication that they want to leave OKC. As long as that doesn't change, they will be a legitimate contender. But it is a bit worrying that over the years the same problems seems to be preventing the franchise from achieving that dynastic potential. And it's hard to envision changes in the horizon.
Most people would give the same answer when asked what needs to change in OKC: Scott Brooks. But while Brooks might not be a great coach, he seems to be getting blame for things well beyond his control.
After game 1, some people were clamoring for Perry Jones to get minutes without realizing that he just hasn't been very good in his short NBA career. I remember on draft night, as Jones fell to the Thunder thanks to injury concerns, pundits saying it was just another steal for OKC. But sometimes prospects don't pan out, at least not immediately. Jones doesn't rebound well enough to play the four. He is not a playmaker. He is long but clueless defensively. And he got exposed when he received minutes in game 2.
Jeremy Lamb might one day end up being the league's premier 3-and-D guy, a deadly shooter who uses his length and athleticism to be a force on the defensive end. But he is not that right now. Right now he's a streaky shooter and mistake prone defender with a poor handle. He certainly has the talent and physical tools to be Sefolosha's replacement and perhaps even more. But he is not even close to ready to be a dependable contributor in the playoffs.
With Ibaka down in the first couple of games, there was supposed to be a next-man-up mentality for the Thunder bigs. But the next man up is a huge step down in quality. All Hasheem Thabeet can do is block shots. Collison is great as long as he plays around 20 minutes a game and not more. Steven Adams has been surprisingly good for someone who was pegged as an unpolished long term prospect but he's just too foul prone and inconsistent right now. And their veteran anchor is slow and completely incompetent on offense
The problem with the Thunder roster is that it seems to have simultaneously been built to win now and figure out who is a part of the future. That's the only way to explain Perkins' salary and over-the-hill but fairly reliable veterans like Fisher and Butler being on the court while the rest of the bench is comprised of projects who can't realistically be expected to contribute. Half the bench looks like a rebuilding team's gambles and the other half looks like the additions a contender makes as injury insurance and for veteran leadership.
That patient approach to team building wouldn't be a problem if expectations weren't sky high, but they have been for the past three years. So of course Brooks, who already had a predilection for veterans, started out by trusting Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison. Then, as the series was slipping away, he shortened his rotation to the point that in game 6 four players were on the court for well over 40 minutes in an overtime loss.
Some might blame Brooks for failing to develop the youngsters. But when the expectations are championship or bust and your team is missing one of its stars for 36 games, the priority is winning. Because, unlike the front office, Brooks is on a deadline. Sam Presti can wait for his projects to develop because his stars are young and he's earned the trust of the ownership. But for Brooks the only option is to win now if he wants to keep his job, even though he doesn't have a traditional championship roster.
I want to make it clear: I don't think Brooks is a great coach and he is not without blame for the Thunder's inability to live up to expectations so far. But the Thunder's problems don't stop with the coach. All tiers of management, from ownership down, share some of the blame. There might have been a plan in OKC at one point but the Harden trade crushed it and Presti has not put all the pieces back together yet. That has led to the timelines for the front office to conflict with the coach's. The move ownership pushed for reset the clock on Presti but not on Brooks.
And that lack of cohesiveness from top to bottom is, more than anything else, what separates the more talented Thunder from the Spurs.
Pop is not wrong to credit Tim Duncan for the success of the franchise. Finding that once in a generation talent is the most important piece of the puzzle. The players, not the coach, ownership or front office, are the one key to success that cannot be missing from the championship equation. The Cavs were on the brink of a title because they drafted Lebron, despite making terrible decision after terrible decision after that. Anthony Davis will probably carry his team into the playoffs soon, even though there's not a ton of talent on that roster. In the short term, it's all about the players.
It's in the long run that the synergy between the coach, front office and ownership makes its impact. The Cavs never found the right pieces to surround Lebron with and that's why he left. The same could be said about Chris Paul. Kevin Garnett had to endure being the centerpiece on a terribly run franchise throughout his prime and never achieved success with the Timberwolves. All those teams were as lucky as the Spurs were in that they selected transcendent players in the draft. But, unlike the Spurs, they couldn't make the right decisions after that.
And that's where Presti is at right now with Durant and Westbrook. At some point the coach, whether it's Brooks or someone else, will need more than promising youngsters and veterans on their last legs on his bench. Can Lamb, Jackson, Adams and whoever they draft next develop fast enough to fill those rotation roles sooner rather than later? And if not, can Presti fill them using the resources available to him or will the Thunder be forever a team that has the stars to win now and the supporting cast to win two years down the road?
I still remember when Pop told R.C. that "(he) wanted a [bleeping] bench" after the Suns sweep in 2010. There were some mistakes along the way but the ownership agreed to pay tax to stay relevant, the Spurs took chances on unknown players after always preferring veterans, R.C. traded away Pop's favorite player and made other bold moves. Now the Spurs are arguably the deepest team in the league. It didn't happen overnight. It's been a process all parts committed themselves to. But now San Antonio has two new dynamic starting wings and Diaw and Ginobili off the bench. The Thunder have needed better role players for the last three years and all they have done is add youngsters not ready for prime time or veterans on their last legs. When is the strategy going to change?
Would I trade the organizational cohesiveness of the Spurs for Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka? In a second. But after watching how San Antonio does things, it's clear that getting an elite core isn't when the challenge to build a championship team ends. It's just the beginning.