I have a confession: I’m completely geeked out for this new Avengers movie after watching the leaked (and then official) trailer. I’ve never been a big comic book fan. I always have to ask brother in law (an avid comic book fan) or Wikipedia about the back stories and B-level characters. But as the Marvel universe has progressed and expanded, it has slowly engulfed my interests and now I’m hooked.
So, about that trailer. In it, the Avengers reassemble against a new foe, Ultron. Apparently, Ultron is a robotic creation of Tony Starks’ that either develops its own free will or is “infused” with its own free will. Anyways, like many other movies of the “robotic element with artificial intelligence” genre, Ultron decides that humans are inferior and must be eliminated. His opening soliloquy, voiced dead on by an eerie James Spader, ultimately locks into Ultron’s theme in the movie: “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want to change it. You’re all puppets, tangled in strings.” His closing line, cloaked behind an haunting rendition of Pinocchio’s “I’ve got no strings” song, tells the story of Ultron’s existence: “I’m free. I have no strings on me”.
In a lot of ways, the young players on the Thunder have been held back by the strings of the current system they have in place. A system that caters mainly to the skill sets of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (and to a lesser extent Reggie Jackson). The system is in place for good reason, though: notably that Durant and Westbrook, regardless of what ESPN’s NBARank thinks, are 2 of the top 5 players in the league. Players like Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones, and Steven Adams all have specific roles to fill in the system. Any deviation from their role can threaten, not only the system, but also the player’s inclusion into the system (a.k.a playing time).
Young players drafted onto championship contenders have the ominous distinction of not only having to develop, but having to develop specifically to a role. If young players are drafted onto bad teams, they are basically given free reign to develop into what they may ultimately become. It’s the tabula rasa concept of letting a blank slate paint itself. Carmelo Anthony’s career would probably be a lot different if he was drafted by the championship contending Detroit Pistons in 2003. In Denver, he was allowed to assume the leadership role of the team early on and develop on his own. In Detroit, he would’ve been stashed behind Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace for at least one season, if not longer. The young players on the Thunder have had to sacrifice their development for the greater good of the team. While they do get to develop in a winning environment, they unfortunately cannot get those 1-3 years of “tabula rasa” development back. The D-League helps, but the competition pales in comparison to the NBA.
This season, from the outset, has been one of those “worst possible scenarios” type seasons. A lot of times when NBA writers are typing up their league preview columns, they sometimes give the Best Outcome/Worst Outcome for each team. Well, the beginning of this season has definitely been the “worst outcome” incarnate. It started with rookie Mitch McGary breaking his foot after the first preseason game. Then Durant was found to also have a broken foot that required surgery two days later. All the while, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison were out with various ailments. Then, a week before the season starts, Anthony Morrow goes down with a sprained MCL in pratice. Then two days before the start of the regular season, both Reggie Jackson (ankle) and Jeremy Lamb (back) get injured in practice and have to sit out the first two games of the season. And finally, Westbrook breaks his hand in the 2nd game of the season. It’s been a curse-like run of bad luck from the get-go this season.
With struggle, comes change. Coach Scott Brooks, long criticized for his inability to adapt on the fly to in-game situations, has had to almost free-style rap a system that is more suited to the likes of Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones, Sebastian Telfair, and Serge Ibaka. Gone is the system that was catered to two superstars. Now, the the strings of that system have been cut, and players like Jones and Roberson are able to explore and see what they can do in this league without any restraints. The Thunder have gone from championship contender to blank slate developers in the span of a month. With Jones’ career high 32 point explosion on Friday night, it proved , under the guise of necessity and when given a chance, these young players can achieve great things in this league. At least for the next month, the young players on the Thunder will be a lot like Ultron: free and without any strings.
There will be frustrating moments during these next 4-6 weeks. It will be like watching one’s own kids going through their awkward teenage phase. But there will also be moments where the growth of these players will be on full display. And that can be nothing but beneficial for the Thunder. Remember, the silver lining in all of this is that all the significant injuries are only of the 4-6 week variety. If the team can win a couple games they are supposed to and steal a couple games they aren’t, they may be in position to make a big push as the calendar year turns. By January, everybody should be back healthy and ready to make their playoff push. The experience gained by the young players from now to then will be a valuable tool as the team heads towards the playoffs. And in case any one was wondering, they will make the playoffs. Mark it down.