As the Oklahoma City Thunder embark on a new season, some of the same things from the past still remains. First off, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook should all be back and healthy. Secondly, the expectations of winning a championship will also be there. But for some reason this season feels different. Not a bad different, just a “lack of familiarity” type different. Something was missing, and that something was three component that had been a part of the Thunder for all or parts for their 7 seasons in Oklahoma City. Those three components were Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, and Scott Brooks.
For 7 seasons prior, one or more of those pieces were always there to provide an anchor of calmness even in the most choppiest of seas. For the first time since the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, neither of those three will be a part of the Thunder organization. From the time Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlesimo on November 22, 2008, the organization has relied on his calming demeanor and almost fatherly-like approach to the development of the stars of the team. That approach to coaching is one of the reasons Brooks will be highly sought after once he decides to return to coaching. Teams are always in one of three phases in their developments: rebuilding, learning how to win consistently, and contending for a championship. Brooks mastered the first two phases of that process with relative ease, taking the Thunder from one of the worst teams in the league to championship contending in a four year span. That type of ascension is almost unheard of without the help of a superstar free agent being signed by the team.
What Brooks lacked in coaching acumen, he made up for with his interpersonal relationships with his players. Say what you want about his late-game play calling, but the players on the team would run through a wall for Brooks. Many in the media heap praise upon Phil Jackson for his career, but Jackson was never known as a great X’s and O’s coach. He had great assistants (Tex Winters, Jim Cleamons), and more importantly, great players. But he was also one of the best at managing superstar egos, which falls under the realm of interpersonal relationships. Brooks could have had a Jackson-like career, but lacked great assistants, and his great players were just coming into their prime during his tenure. Instead, Brooks will likely have a Doug Collins-like career as a coach that could have been one of the greats, but just happened to be the coach at the wrong time.
When the Thunder were starting their ascension, most of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference had All-Star or near All-Star level centers and power forwards. The Los Angeles Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. San Antonio had Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Memphis had Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Dallas had Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brendan Haywood. Utah had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. To contend in the Western Conference at that time, a team needed a big body in the middle that could defend and rebound. In their early run, the Thunder had a front line of Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and an “even skinnier than he is now” Kevin Durant. They had Serge Ibaka on the bench, but he was still pretty raw during that time and had trouble keeping his fouls under control. It wasn’t until the Thunder met the Lakers in the inaugural playoff run in 2010 that they realized what they needed to continue the upward trend of the team’s development.
At the trade deadline the next season, the Thunder traded Green and Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Even though Perkins was coming off a serious knee injury he suffered in the previous season’s Finals, he was the defensive anchor the team so badly needed. A couple weeks after arriving in Oklahoma City, the Thunder extended Perkins for four more seasons. Perkins immediately became the veteran presence the Thunder’s young players needed. He graciously helped in the development of Ibaka, taking his own experience from when Kevin Garnett took him under his wing in Boston and applying that to Ibaka. He gave the team a mean streak they didn’t have before his arrival. He quickly became the locker room buffering agent between all the Thunder’s young players as they learned how to succeed in the NBA individually and as a team (a major downfall of many young, up and coming teams in the past).
He was a great locker room presence. And if he was getting paid $5 million or less, that would have been fine. But in actuality, he was one of the highest paid players on the team and his performance on the court, especially on the offensive end, was often one of the most polarizing themes in sports. The knee injury he suffered while with the Celtics in the Finals the year before sapped the little bit of athleticism Perkins had going for him. While he was one of the best post defenders in the league, he was often a net negative on offense. As the NBA’s moved towards smaller, more skilled line-ups that could space the floor, the effectiveness of Perkins on the floor became more and more muted with each passing season. When athletic power forwards started masquerading as centers, the need for a hulking presence down low became almost non-existant.
Compounding the polarization of Perkins was the trade of James Harden to Houston. Many thought the reason the Thunder traded Harden was purely financial, as they couldn’t afford to have 4 players on max or near max salaries (Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), along with Perkins’ $9 million annual salary. In addition to the trade itself, the fact the Thunder had the opportunity to waive Perkins under the amnesty provision, provided the framework for the “Thunder choosing Perkins over Harden” frame of thought that many in the media portrayed. In reality, the Harden trade had little to nothing to do with Perkins. Harden wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wanting max money and the opportunity to run his own team.
In the end, Perkins was relegated to being a back-up big in his final season with the Thunder before being traded to Utah for Enes Kanter. His tenure with the Thunder will forever be remembered for his defensive chops, menacing scowl, and “Shaq-tin a fool” moments. But his presence on the team forever shaped the maturation of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. He helped navigate them through their first few seasons of success and kept them even-keeled.
The signing of a veteran is a rite of passage for a team that is moving into championship contending status. A veteran that has been where the players on the team want to be and has played a big part in previous championship games. That veteran for the Thunder was Derek Fisher. At the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder lost back-up point guard Eric Maynor to a torn ACL. The only other point guard on the roster, besides Westbrook, was rookie Reggie Jackson. The Thunder managed for half a season with the rookie taking on back-up point guard duties, but when the opportunity arose to sign a waived Fisher, they pounced on the opportunity. Fisher paid almost immediate dividends as a calming, veteran presence and as a floor spacer.
Fisher went on to be part of the Thunder for the next two seasons after that one. He basically played the same role in each of the seasons as he attempted to capture that elusive 6th championship ring. Fisher never got that ring, but became, a lot like Perkins, a revered and respected figure in the locker room. A championship point guard his entire career, Fisher went on to retire and immediately became the head coach of the New York Knicks who were being run by Fisher’s former coach, Phil Jackson.
There’s a point in every player’s maturation where they eventually become the veteran. They become the guy that “has been there before” or “has seen it all before”. The Thunder brass probably felt like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were ready to take the next leg of their journey on their own. They had grown under the watchful guise of Brooks, under the sturdy hand of Perkins, and under the guiding presence of Fisher to become what they are today. Sure they’ve faced some injury difficulties along the way, but those also have a way of toughening up a players’ resolve.
As fans, we always cheer for the superstars. But true fans cheer for the guys who make it despite their obvious flaws. The guys who are the bedrock over which championship sod is laid upon. There’s a sense of commonality between those players and someone who works a 9-5 and goes home everyday to a family and a mortgage. There’s a very real possibility the Thunder win a championship without any of those three guys within the organization. If that does occur, three of those championship rings better be sealed in a box and delivered to New York, NY (Fisher), Beaumont, TX (Perkins), and northern California (Brooks), because the DNA of any Thunder championship will definitely have the imprint of those three on it.