This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.
For the third part in this series, I wanted to focus on the rivalries. Sports are only as good as the competition they incite. Playing driveway basketball against your kids when they are 5 years of age can quickly get boring (although palming misdirected shots in midair like you’re Serge Ibaka can be entertaining for at least an hour or so). But, try playing your kids when they are 18 years old and have had 12 years of playing experience. Then it becomes an entirely different ballgame.
When it comes to competition, I’ve always looked at the career of Floyd Mayweather Jr. with a sliver of disappointment. That he’s a great boxer with arguably the best defense in the history of boxing is without question. The issue that I’ve had with his career has been the level of competition of his opponents. Now, I’m not saying that falls squarely on Mayweather. The guys in his weight classes have not been particularly consistent in the past decade. He’s also “luckily” scheduled the right fights at the right times, choosing to fight boxers that were either on the downward slide of their career (Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley) or fighters that were too inexperienced to compete with him at the time of their fight (Canelo Alvarez and Victor Ortiz). He’s never had that one opponent that defined him. Mike Tyson had Evander Holyfield. Arturo Gatti had Mickey Ward. Mayweather has…… (and therein lies the problem with his career).
If fans are the life blood of sports, then rivalries are the engines that keep them running. You naturally root against your opponent because they are competing against you and you want to win. Pretty simple concept. But if you add something more to that competitive fire, it can act like an accelerant, creating an even bigger blaze. Rivalries, and the differing reasons for them, can be that spark. When it comes to the Thunder, I’ve categorized their rivals under 4 different categories.
1. Regional Foes
Geography and competition are probably the easiest ways to breed a rivalry. Whether it’s an intracity game between two high schools or a game between professional sports teams 200 miles apart, that desire to be superior to those closest to you is an innate characteristic of the human psyche. Even if the two teams aren’t on equal footing at the time of the game, the rivalry aspect of the game often lends it to be a close affair.
Because of cities’ closeness in travel proximity, the Mavericks were already the Thunder’s biggest rival even before OKC played their first game in 2008. Oklahoma City hates everything Dallas, except for the Cowboys and Rangers. Add to that the fact that the Mavs were one of the elite teams in the league at the time, and you had yourself the perfect recipe for a regional rivalry.
Even though the Mavericks had a decided advantage over the Thunder in those first few seasons, the tide started to turn in the 2011 playoffs when the Thunder met the Mavs in the Western Conference Finals. Now, not only was it a regional rivalry, but also one to determine who would go on to the NBA Finals. The Mavs ended up winning the series 4 games to 1, but the warning shots were already fired. That would be the last time the Mavs would be dominant over the Thunder. In the 2012 playoffs, the two teams met again, this time in the first round, and the Thunder went on to sweep the Mavs in convincing fashion.
2. Battling Giants
When you are a young team on the rise, your goal should be to always get better. Improve upon a lottery season. Make the playoffs. Get further in the playoffs the next season. So on and so forth. But even as you a moving up that ladder, you are always looking at the top rung and saying, “I want a piece of that team.” To be considered a Giant, the team has to have two qualifications: 1) they have to be the apex team in the league (one of the those championship or bust type teams) and 2) they have to have one of the apex players in their prime.
Los Angeles Lakers
When the Thunder were coming into their own, that apex team was the Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe Bryant and the inside duo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Say what you want about Kobe personally, but he is a top 10 player all-time and was the best player in the game in the 00’s through the beginning of the 2010’s. Erosion and injuries may be currently wearing on his game, but this era has never seen a tougher competitor.
That competitiveness is what provided the blueprint to the young Thunder. In battling the Lakers in those early years and wanting to take their crown, the Thunder learned what it took to compete in the playoffs. Their 6 game series with the Lakers in 2010 was exactly the type of experience the Thunder needed to learn and grow.
Honestly, the recent downfall of the Lakers is a shame. To me, a Western Conference without a competitive Lakers team loses a bit of its edge. When historic teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, and Bulls are competitive, it adds a little more panache to the league. Call it big market bias. Call it coastal bias. But when those teams are all good, it makes the NBA that much more watchable, especially if you are a competitive small market team.
Excuse me as I scream into a pillow…….Okay, I’m done. The current apex team and apex player both reside in South Beach. If the Lakers were our welcoming party to the league’s elite teams, then the Heat are currently the bouncer keeping us from getting into the champagne room. The entire league was afraid this would happen when Lebron James (and Chris Bosh) joined Dwayne Wade in the 2010 offseason to form one of the most feared threesomes in league history. And Thunder fans knew that if our team were to keep going on their path of progression, they would eventually (possibly) meet this team in the NBA Finals.
In the 2012 playoffs, that destiny came to fruition as the two teams battled for the NBA crown. After winning the first game, the Thunder went on to drop the next four in heart breaking fashion as the Miami Heat won their 2nd championship in franchise history, and the first in Lebron’s career. Kind of like the Lakers’ series in 2010, the Thunder battled hard, but seemed a little inexperienced for the moment.
This rivalry though, is really a legacy battle between Lebron James and Kevin Durant. Legacy rivalries usually dominate the storylines of a decade. The 80’s were more about Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird than about the Lakers vs. the Celtics. The 90’s turned into Michael Jordan vs. every other superstar. And the 00’s were split between Kobe, Shaq, and Tim Duncan. The James/Durant rivalry is catalyzed by the fact that both players are in their primes, both play the same position, and both are arguably the best players in the game. The question then becomes, will this be a Magic/Larry rivalry (mostly split) or a Jordan vs. everyone rivalry (total domination by one player)? Thunder fans can only hope that it’s the first option.
Brothers From Another Mother
As a small market team, you like to compare yourself to the big market teams (the Lakers, the Knicks, the Celtics, etc). But you also like to keep tabs on your small market brethren. You may not be able to spend like the big boys, but if you can be the king of the little people (small market teams), then that has to at least count for a feather in the cap.
San Antonio Spurs
First coach? Check
Assistant GM? Check.
The general leadership counsel of the Thunder from the beginning all had previous ties to the San Antonio Spurs. Clay Bennett was once a minority owner with the Spurs. Sam Presti was the assistant GM under RC Buford. Rob Hennigan, who was the assistant GM under Sam Presti, also came over from the Spurs. And head coach PJ Carlesimo was an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich. If the Spurs and Thunder were little children, the Spurs would be pleading with the Thunder to stop mimicking everything they were doing.
The Spurs have set up a very successful model for continued small market competitiveness. They built around a core group of players and then complemented them with the necessary skilled players to cover all the bases. That model has led the team into their second decade of success and has won them 4 championship along the way. If there ever was a small-market team to model yourself after, it would be the Spurs.
The funny thing about modeling yourself after someone is that it can easily turn into a big brother / little brother type relationship. The Spurs were still one of the top teams in the Western Conference when the Thunder came to be in 2008. You can follow models all you want, but if the team you are modeling yourself after is still on top, you better prepare to get noogied or wet-willied a couple of times.
In the 2012 Western Conference Finals though, little brother (Thunder) finally hit his growth spurt and was able to defend himself against big brother (Spurs). It looked like old times, as the Spurs won the first two games of the series on their home court. But the Thunder won the next four to win the Western Conference and make it to the Finals. The Spurs, though, made it to the Finals this past season, losing to the Heat in seven games. The road to Western Conference supremacy will still probably run through San Antonio or Oklahoma City next season.
If the Spurs are the Thunder’s big brother, then the Memphis Grizzlies are their feral cousins. The Grizzlies are like a jailhouse version of the Thunder, hellbent on muddying the game up with their defense and winning games where the final score is 89-85. The clash in style versus the run and gun attack of the Thunder has lent itself to two great playoff series in the past 4 seasons.
The Grizzlies are a lot like the Thunder in which they have kept a core group of guys together and have rotated the skilled players around them. Both teams have an extremely close relationship with their cities. And let’s not even get into fan bases. If these two fans bases ever joined forces, no entity in the universe could ever stop them.
The Grizzlies are one of the Western Conference teams in the second tier looking to take the necessary steps to get into the NBA Finals. They took a crucial step last season outlasting the Thunder and getting to the Western Conference Finals, but were swept by the Spurs in that series. In fact, the Grizzlies could also be considered a member of the next group of rivals…
When you become an elite team, you go from being the hunters to the hunted. After going the Finals in 2012 and being one of the top teams in the league last season, there is no question that the Thunder have a huge target on their back. Many teams want to get to where the Thunder are now, and the only way to do that is to eliminate the Thunder.
Ahhh yes. Our good friend James Edward Harden Jr. The man that used to be the twinkle of our eye, now but a forgotten remnant of the past. Well, actually, not very forgotten if you listen to every doomsday Thunder fan and every national media pundit with an audible voice.
When the Thunder traded Harden to the Rockets, they opened themselves up the possibility that these two teams might meet in the playoffs in the future. Little did they know that the future would actually be that same season. To add more fuel to the fire, in the second game of their first round series, some scrub named Patrick Beverly decided to go all “cornerback tackling” on Russell Westbrook tearing his meniscus in the process. That meniscus tear is still a work in progress to this day.
Adding an accelerant to the already fueled fire, the Rockets added free agent center Dwight Howard to the team as a free agent. Not that there is any personal hatred towards Howard from OKC. But he does sort of have that face that only a mother would not punch.
In all seriousness, though. The Rockets have gotten very good very quickly. They have one franchise player in Harden and possibly another one if Howard can get back to his Orlando Magic form. They have a budding 3rd option in Chandler Parsons and an $8 million trade chip in Omer Asik. This team is only going to get better and has the components to seriously compete now.
This rivalry has the potential to be the best one of all the rivalries. It can be said that it features a regional foe, being that Houston is in Texas. The Rockets’ recent spending makes it seem like they are a big market team. And with James Harden in the mix, it’s almost like it’s a “brother from another mother” type team. The Thunder and Rockets may battle for Western Conference supremacy for the next five seasons. That is how good Houston has gotten in a short amount of time.
Rivalries are the reason we watch sports. An OU football game is great, but give me an OU vs. Texas game or an OU vs. OSU game, and that enhances the greatness of it all. Rivalries catalyze what is already a good thing. They bring out the best in competition and stir all types of emotions that would be absent or lessened in a regular game. Those rivalries have been a big part in how the Thunder team has grown in these past 5 seasons.