How did we get here? Less than five years ago, a team called the Seattle Supersonics had one of the worst records in the NBA and had just traded away their aging star player. Four years ago, they had the worst record in the Western Conference. And in 2012 the Supersonics franchise had passed away and reincarnated carrying over some mysteriously good karma as the Thunder in Oklahoma City, builds around a core of four players 23-years or under who hadn’t logged a minute in the league five years ago, features one of the two best players in the league, and now, wins the West, finding itself in the NBA Finals.
So, really, how did we get here? How do five years change so much, so drastically? The NBA’s greatest teams usually feature players who have been through the ups and downs of the professional league and have become battle-hardened veterans by the time they are ready for championship glory. The greatest teams usually use a mix of drafting great players, making major trades, & then picking up important players through free agency to take that next step. The Thunder have somehow fast-forwarded through that journey, experiencing every emotion of a veteran team in a matter of just a few years, and more importantly, doing it with the same core of players whom they drafted into the side.
Join me to follow the timeline of the Sonics/Thunder from that fateful 2007 Draft till their biggest moment of truth – the 2012 Finals – and you’ll begin to see why there’s a sense of destiny around this young squad.
2006-2007 season: Playing in a tough (at that time) Northwest, the Seattle Supersonics finished at last place in their division and had the second-worst record in the Western Conference at 31-51. The team’s best players were Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in a high-scoring, bad defensive squad led by Coach Bob Hill. Meanwhile, there were murmurs in the front office already of shipping the team out of Seattle.
May 23, 2007: When is getting the second pick better than getting the first pick? If the scenario is like that in 2007, when everyone’s favourite for the top spot was Center Greg Oden, who has since seen his career fall into becoming one of the biggest injury-busts in NBA Draft history. The Trailblazers won the first pick, the Sonics came second.
June 28, 2007: As predicted, Portland picked Greg Oden with the first pick of the 2007 Draft. The Sonics got an amazing consolation prize in second place Kevin Durant. Both were destined to be future stars; few could’ve predicted that their roads would differ so drastically. One night after the draft, the Sonics cleared house, sending out Ray Allen and the right to Glen Davis to the Celtics in exchange for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the rights to Jeff Green. Two weeks later, the Sonics sent out their second-leading scorer Rashard Lews in a sign-and-trade to the Orlando Magic to make room for Durant.
In the same off-season, the Boston Celtics rebuilt themselves too: first bringing in Ray Allen essentially for Jeff Green and then sending over more than half their roster to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett. Allen and Garnett united with Paul Pierce and an young inexperienced point guard called Rajon Rondo.
2007-08 season: In what would be their last year in Seattle, the Supersonics end the season with a woeful 20-62 record under head coach PJ Carlesimo. It’s the second-worst record in the league – only the Miami Heat (15-67) had fared worse. Four years later, the Sonics/Thunder and the Heat become two of the favourites to win an NBA championship.
May 1, 2008: It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Sonics, since their number two pick Kevin Durant showed his potential by averaging 20.9 ppg over his first season and winning the Rookie of the Year award. Meanwhile, Oden missed his entire rookie season due to injury. In a depressing twist, Oden has only played 82 regular season games over his five year NBA career.
Meanwhile, the Big Three out in Boston plus Rondo win an NBA championship in their first season together.
June 26, 2008: With the fourth and the 24th pick of the 2008 NBA Draft, the Sonics pick Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka respectively. A promising, exciting young squad begins to take shape.
July 2, 2008: Seattle fans get to celebrate that promise officially for less than a week before it is announced that their team – after 41 years in Seattle – will be moving to Oklahoma City. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and the rest take their talents down south.
September 3, 2008: With the name and the colours announced for the new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder are born.
2008-09 season: The Thunder start the new season 1-12 in Oklahoma City, resulting in the firing of Coach Carlesimo, who gets replaced by interim Head Coach Scotty Brooks. In February 2009, the Thunder send a first round pick to Chicago in return for Thabo Sefolosha. By the end of the year, the team ‘improves’ to a 23-59 record. Despite finishing at the bottom of their conference again, there is still optimism in the air because of the play of their three young pieces: Durant, Green, and Westbrook.
The Lakers win a championship this season, defeating the Orlando Magic (with Rashard Lewis) in the Final.
June 25, 2009: With the third pick in the 2009 Draft, the Thunder draft James Harden, another young piece ready to contribute to their core. Harden is drafted over a few other well-known names like eventual Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry, and Brandon Jennings.
2009-10 season: With Scotty Brooks now officially in charge of the squad, the Thunder make a historical jump. Durant, Westbrook, Green, Harden, Ibaka, and Center Nenad Krstic all make crucial contributions in helping this team more than double their previous season’s result. Durant is just 21, his top teammates even younger, yet the Thunder finish the season with an incredible 50-32 record, which is still not good enough to be better than eight place in a competitive Western Conference. They are the youngest team to make the playoffs and rank 28th in average salary because their stars are still mostly in their rookie contracts. At 21, Kevin Durant becomes the youngest ever scoring champion in the NBA, averaging 27.5 ppg.
April 21, 2010: Scotty Brooks is named NBA’s Coach of the Year.
April 30, 2010: After putting up a valiant fight to the eventual champions, the Thunder go down 4-2 to the Lakers in the first round the NBA Playoffs.The Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in seven games to win their second-consecutive championship.
July 8, 2010: In a frenzied free-agency period, LeBron James announces his hour-long ‘Decision’ to take Chris Bosh and this talents down to join Dwyane Wade and the Heat, leaving small market Cleveland for ‘big market’ Miami and instantly making the Heat’s Big Three into the favourites and the most despised team in professional sports. The same day, the Thunder signed Kevin Durant to a five-year extension.
September 12, 2010: Durant leads the USA Basketball team to a gold medal victory at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey. The USA finish the season with 9-0 record and Durant is named MVP of the tournament, taking a major step ahead into his bid to become the best basketball player in the world. Russell Westbrook is part of the gold-medal winning squad, too.
2010-11 season: With the confidence to take on all comers, the Thunder improved on the previous season by winning 55 games, finishing first in their division, and at fourth place in the Conference. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook become one of the best-scoring duos in the league. Durant starts in the All Star Game and Westbrook comes off the bench. They are also named to the NBA first and second team respectively. Durant wins his second consecutive scoring title.
February 25, 2011: In hopes to add and some veteran presence to their squad, the Thunder trade Jeff Green back to the team that drafted him – the Celtics – in exchange for championship winning big man Kendrick Perkins.
2011 playoffs: The Thunder won their first playoff series for Oklahoma City, beating the Thunder 4-1 in the first round. Then, they defeated the surprising Memphis Grizzlies in seven games in the second round. In the Conference Finals for the first time with the new franchise, the Thunder are defeated by eventual champions Dallas Mavericks 4-1.
2011-12 season: The Thunder make no changes to their starting five, or their coach, or their sixth man. And in a lockout-shortened season, the Thunder improve to second place in the Western Conference. For the third year in a row, Durant wins the scoring title and finishes second in MVP voting, second to LeBron. Serge Ibaka makes the NBA’s All Defensive squad. Durant and Westbrook make the All Star team again.
March 22, 2012: Traded from the Lakers and released from the Rockets, five-time champ Derek Fisher signs with the Thunder to provide experienced leadership at the point guard position behind Westbrook.
May 11, 2012: James Harden wins the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year award.
2012 Playoffs: They came and they were conquered. In three consecutive series, the Thunder played the three previous Western Conference Champs – Mavericks, Lakers, and Spurs – and they defeated them all (Those three teams had won the West each year between 1999-2011). Durant evolved into the NBA’s best closer and the Thunder showed resilience of in winning close games against experienced NBA vets like Nowitzki, Kobe, and Duncan.
June 6, 2012:Down 0-2 to the Spurs – who had won 20 consecutive games – the Thunder showed incredible determination to win the next four games and become Western Conference champions.
2012 NBA Finals: And so, here they stand at the final frontier. The team that bounced up from being the West’s worst to the best in four years. What is most incredible is that they made this drastic bounce by natural improvement of the players they drafted and not via a big trade or free agency splash. Their biggest trade – of Perkins – only brought them their fifth best player in the team. Their core four best players – Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka – have been drafted by the franchise and are 23, 23, 22, and 22 years old respectively. With age on their side and loyalty to the franchise that drafted them, there is a good chance that this core could stick together for several years and bring success to Oklahoma City.
From Seattle to OKC, this core has improved every season, getting a step further each year, and finding their superstars becoming bigger and bigger names in the league. They haven’t yet stumbled or taken a step back; success seems predestined. Now, they are four wins away from their first championship, and most of them are still ‘kids’ in a grown-man’s league. But these boys will have to put in a performance of grown men to finally fulfill their dream run and capture an NBA championship.