The Oklahoma City Thunder are chasing something that they can't catch, no matter how fast they run, how high they jump or how forcefully they slam the ball through the basket.
They're chasing time.
It wasn't so long ago, June of 2012, that the Thunder looked like a budding dynasty after five consecutive playoff wins against two teams that have something like ten Hall-of-Famers between them. Down 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals against a Spurs squad that had won 20 consecutive games, the Thunder ambushed them in four straight to capture the conference and earn a trip to the first Finals in their history, perhaps a year ahead of schedule. Then they won Game 1 against the Heat, and needed just one more win at home to go up 2-0 in that series to put an avalanche of pressure on the shoulders of LeBron James. The critics would've been out in full force to remind him that he still hadn't gotten it done in the championship round and how daunting the odds are of being down 0-2 in a best-of-seven.
Instead, the Thunder lost Game 2, a game in which they never led, and the three games after that, the last one in blowout fashion. What was supposed to be their coronation ended up being a meek 4-1 Finals exit. But it was no big deal because everyone was still 22 or 23 years old. They'd be competing in the Finals with Miami for the next decade, right? It would be this generation's Lakers-Celtics.
Not so much. Thunder management badly underestimated how good James Harden would become and how high the league's revenues would soar under the new television deal. They thought they'd be stuck in luxury tax hell with three max contracts and unable to add any relevant pieces, but keeping the Beard would actually have them sitting pretty by now, with Harden on the books long term and all the cap money in the world to extend Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook through their primes. Instead, they traded Harden for peanuts and they're still paying for the ramifications.
They're still chasing.
And now we've reached Durant's walk year. Organizational panic. All the alarms were sounded and all the stops were pulled. Scott Brooks couldn't get the team to defend or Westbrook to play within himself? Boom, gone, replaced by Billy Donovan. Enes Kanter, the most brazen one-way center in the league signs an offer sheet for the max with Portland? Boom, you match it without blinking, just to show Durant you're not gonna let another young talent escape over a few bucks. Execs around the league send the Blazers their warmest regards for making the Thunder spend extra money, and the Blazers get to give Oklahoma City a symbolic middle finger for how the 2008 draft played out.
The Thunder are striding so furiously, eyes closed and arms pumping, that they can't be bothered to look around and notice that all their expended energy isn't to keep up with the rat race but instead to maintain momentum on hamster wheel of their own making.
Donovan was supposed to be different. He was supposed to instill order and discipline and most of all an offensive system. He was supposed to succeed in all the ways that Brooks had failed, from corralling Westbrook, to developing the young role players, to being responsible with his stars' minutes.
And then in game two of the season at Orlando, Donovan played Durant, their franchise player recently recovered from three foot surgeries, 54 minutes while Westbrook logged a mere 48.
You see, the unthinkable happened in that game. The Thunder --gasp!-- played some bad defense and trailed 67-53 at half. Wow, a good NBA team trailed at halftime. So Donovan played his stars the whole third quarter. The situation didn't improve. The deficit grew to 18 going into the fourth.
We know how most veteran coaches would handle this and certainly how Gregg Popovich would. It was the Magic's night. You take your guys out, see if the youngsters can ignite a spark and get 'em next time
What Pop understands is that November isn't when you win or lose championships. It's where you build habits, good or bad. Losing one of 82 games, even to Orlando, is not the end of the world. There is dignity in losing, in realizing you were outplayed that night and owning it. A coach secure in his (or her) skin doesn't worry about an early season loss. They understand losing can be positive in the long run, both instructive and a wake up call for the players. Anybody can beat you on any night if you're not mentally and physically prepared to compete. Players are far more attentive and receptive to criticism in the film room after losses than they are after wins.
Insecure coaches regard losses, especially emphatic ones to bad teams, only one way: as epic failure. They don't think of the season beyond that night. They worry that their players will see them as frauds if they can't even out-coach the other guy with the far worse roster. So Donovan played to win the championship in game two at Orlando. He chased the game. He kept his stars in. Westbrook banked in a 40-footer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime and the Thunder eventually prevailed.
What did it get them?
Once the adrenaline wore off, Donovan played the role of a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar before supper. "Clearly that's too many minutes for him," Donovan told The Oklahoman, referencing Durant. "I think he would even say that. It was a unique situation."
What was so unique about it? That OKC trailed by a lot in an NBA game? That having the two best players on the floor wasn't enough to win in regulation? Maybe Donovan had watched a lot of Thunder game tape in the off-season and figured, "Well, if Scott Brooks can get these guys to 60 wins, imagine what I can do."
Donovan missed out on his chance to teach his first meaningful lesson because he couldn't reconcile getting blown out by the Magic, an organization he had agreed to coach for 15 minutes before changing his mind and going back to the University of Florida.
Three nights after the win over Orlando, the Thunder lost at Houston. Their next game, they lost at home to Toronto, getting outscored 14-3 over the final 3:26. The very next night they lost at Chicago, again crumbling down the stretch. Donovan played Durant 41 minutes, Ibaka 40 and Westbrook 39 in their fourth game in five nights.
Nothing has changed in Oklahoma City and it's fair to wonder if anything ever will. Either the organization is held hostage by the stubborn competitiveness of stars who cannot accept coaching (or even protective measures in their own best interests) or it's a flawed philosophy from the top down. No matter who's the coach and who the role players are, the stars continue to play all the meaningful minutes and they continue to take virtually every shot down the stretch of games, no matter how well contested. Their front office keeps adding offensive talent to the equation, in the futile hope that someone, anyone will click with Durant and Westbrook enough to earn their trust in crunch-time. All it does is the weaken the team defensively, further emboldening KD and Russ to take the matter into their own hands.
If this continues, we know how this story is going to end in the playoffs. A nine-man rotation will shrink to seven and more like six when it matters. Durant and Westbrook will push and be pushed to their physical and psychological limits. They will go down in a hail of turnovers and bad shots and worse gambles on defense. Some real team with real principles and a real rotation and real accountability will carve them up.
Maybe it all would've gone differently had they just kept Harden. Maybe he'd have been able to buy Westbrook and Durant some more minutes on the bench and bought Brooks a way to punish his stars when they started playing too selfishly, skipping steps defensively or not trusting their teammates. Maybe they'd be more than an annual contender right now, with a max contract sixth man who's a liability in the pick-and-roll and literally Dion Waiters ready to shoot as many 22-foot fadeaways as you'll give him.
Maybe what the Thunder are chasing is a ghost.