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Oklahoma City Thunder: The Genesis of the NBA's Best Young Nucleus

May 25, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 147

After dismissing the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs on Monday, the Oklahoma City Thunder earned themselves a return trip to the Western Conference Finals. Losing to the Mavs in this same spot a year ago, OKC will have to go through another experienced outfit (the San Antonio Spurs) in order to take the next step in their development.

The NBA's Western Conference (and to a large degree the NBA in general) has largely been dominated by three organizations since the late 1990's - the Lakers, Spurs, and Mavs. The Lakers have won five titles since drafting Kobe Bryant in 1996, spearheaded by the Kobe/Shaq run in the early 2000's and the Kobe/Pau duo of recent times. The Spurs lucked out by winning the Tim Duncan lottery sweepstakes in 1997, and since his arrival the organization has surrounded him with an outstanding coach ("Pop") and perfect complimentary pieces, capturing four championships in the process. Mark Cuban purchased the Mavs in 2000 and has proceeded to spend piles and piles of money trying to find the right combination of players to surround Dirk Nowitzki with. After a decade's worth of revolving pieces and epic playoff meltdowns, his Mavs finally captured that elusive title in 2011.

Oklahoma City has broken up this longstanding three way dance, putting the aforementioned teams on "blast" in the process. In a relatively short amount of time OKC GM Sam Presti has managed to build a roster of talented young players, the nucleus of which has the team primed to compete for titles for years to come. While the cores of the traditional Western Conference powers are getting up there in age, the Thunder's four best players are all 23 years old or younger. How did Presti pull this off? A few factors have played a part in the team's rapid ascension, namely luck in the draft, outstanding player evaluation and development, and shrewd trades.

Back in 2007, the Seattle SuperSonics were still an entity (a year away from relocating to Oklahoma) and waiting to see who the Portland Trail Blazers were going to take with the top pick in that year's draft. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were expected to be the first two players selected, and in keeping with their history of poor decisions and bad luck, Portland elected to go with the fragile Oden. The fortunes of both franchises were forever altered by this move, as it has turned out to be a modern day Bowie over of Jordan type of decision. In Durant, OKC is not only blessed with one the league's best players, but a superstar teammate straight out of the Tim Duncan school of low maintenance. Oden has suffered through a multitude of knee injuries, competing in only one season's worth of games during the span of his five year NBA career. Would basketball have taken off in OKC to the degree that it has if Portland had taken Durant instead? Would Portland be on the cusp of winning titles if they had gone the other way? Both questions for a future column.

The 2008 NBA Draft proved to be especially rewarding for the Thunder, snagging Russell Westbrook with the 4th pick and Serge Ibaka with the 24th overall pick. The two players selected immediately before Westbrook, Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo, have had disappointing careers in comparison to the explosive Westbrook. Already one of the league's top point guards, Westbrook attacks the rim with the ferocity of a mini LeBron James and is the engine that runs the Thunder's up-tempo offense. Still shoots a little too often for Skip Bayless's liking, but when Westbrook gets it rolling he is an absolute nightmare for opposing teams to contend with. Ibaka came to the Thunder after playing a few years in Spain, and in just his third NBA season led the league in blocks per game. Still only 22 years old, Ibaka is a raw talent that is improving at an alarming rate - this season mixing in an improved mid-range jumper to go with his innate athleticism. He was definitely an off the grid find by the OKC front office.

Filling out OKC's version of the "Big 3" along with Durant and Westbrook is James Harden. The 3rd overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Harden fell into the Thunder's lap thanks to the one of the biggest draft day blunders of all-time - the selection of Hasheem Thabeet with the 2nd pick by the Memphis Grizzlies. Just how bad was this pick? In his three seasons in the league Thabeet has been traded twice and played for three different teams (Grizz, Rockets, and you guessed it, the Blazers), making pit stops in the D-League during portions of two of these seasons. While Harden has been league ready and OKC's version of Manu Ginobli for most of his three campaigns, Thabeet was busy earning himself the dubious distinction of being the highest drafted player ever optioned to the NBA's Developmental League. The current Sixth Man of the Year, Harden is a dynamic scorer who can drive at will or bury teams from the outside. He is the primary ball handler and facilitator of OKC's second unit, and there is little to no drop-off when he is out on the floor and either Durant or Westbrook takes a seat on the bench. His Game 4 destruction of the Mavs in the first round was incredible to watch, practically erasing a double-digit deficit on his own in leading the Thunder to the come from behind win. It was very reminiscent of a younger Kobe/D-Wade type of performance. Most great teams need a little luck in getting all the right pieces in place, and OKC landing Harden is definitely in Andy Roddick/Brooklyn Decker territory.

Presti and the front office have also done a superb job of bringing in a mix of veteran players to add leadership and toughness to this burgeoning team. Derek Fisher might have lost a step, but can still hit the occasional big shot and is a respected voice in the locker room. Kendrick Perkins creates the kind of space/openings for the team's playmakers with his screens that NFL coaches are probably seeking his services. And Thabo Sefolosha is a premier defender on the wing who will play an important role in the team's upcoming playoff matchups guarding the likes of Manu and either D-Wade or Ray Allen.

Their series against the Spurs gets under way on Sunday and should be a classic. San Antonio is a little deeper, a little more experienced, and will have the home court advantage. The Thunder are quicker and more athletic, and the Spurs will surely have their hands full trying to contain KD. Tony Parker has been playing like a man possessed all season, and Westbrook's ability to offset his performance levels might end up deciding which team surfaces as the winner.

Regardless of the outcome, OKC's young nucleus of stars are all under contract with the team for the foreseeable future and health permitting they will be competing for NBA titles on an annual basis. The players still have room for improvement, and Presti will continue to add pieces to the puzzle. LeBron James spoke of winning multiple titles upon signing with Miami; he must not have envisioned the emerging power out West he will have to deal with for the remainder of his prime.

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Source: EzineArticles
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