By Frank Hughes, for NBA.com
Posted Nov 30 2009 10:12AM
From Bird to Magic to Michael to Kobe, the paradigm for success in the NBA over the past three decades has always been to have a solid core of veteran players in the prime of their careers, add a touch of youthful exuberance and a dash of wizened mentoring and hope that the stars align properly for a championship run.
Some teams have tried in the past to completely dismantle what they have in place, rebuild from the ground up and hope that the cunning intelligence of their organization (ahem, Jerry Krause) is enough to make them moderately successful.
Inevitably, that formula fails.
Usually it fails because the player around whom the organization is building turns out to be a bum. Or, because young players simply don't know how to play the game properly and by the time they figure it out they have lost so many games that they don't know how to win. Or, egos, salaries and every other element that is not easily quantified gets it fingers stuck in the hinges of a door that can never quite open.
It's precisely because of that general rule of thumb that The Race is following the arc of the Oklahoma City Thunder with such fascination. (Well, that, and because The Race covered the Seattle SuperSonics for 12 years and was absolutely stunned to see a team with such rich history be permitted to relocate with such an ungracious exit -- as if there is such a thing.)
It's not so much that The Race is rooting against the success of the Thunder. It's more that The Race is flummoxed that if the season were to end today, Oklahoma City would be the eighth seed in the West, a pretty incredible achievement given its youth.
By extension, that means that the Thunder is doing something right. And as it relates to the Race to the MVP, it means that Kevin Durant must suddenly be included among the names mentioned -- which cannot be an easy thing for Portland GM Kevin Pritchard to hear, despite the recent success of Greg Oden. After all, it was Pritchard who made Oden the No. 1 overall pick in 2007 (while Durant landed in the Sonics'/Thunder's lap as the No. 2 overall choice).
Now, there are two views of Durant: The first is that he is not that good a player or leader, a high-volume shooter whose 27 points per game is inflated because he averages more than 20 shots per, an argument augmented by his 3.1-3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The other view, to which The Race is beginning to ascribe, is that Durant is the future of the NBA, his young teammates' success possible only because Durant's undeniable talents garner so much attention.
The most impressive thing about Durant's numbers is that they continue to increase -- and one wonders where his ultimate apex lies.
His rookie season, Durant averaged 20.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Last season, he was at 25.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists. And this season, he is at a robust 27.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
The Thunder is 8-7 and appear as if it is ready to be a contender in most games, no small feat for a team that suffered through 62 losses in Durant's rookie season and 59 last season. Just remaining a .500 team would mean it will show an 18-game improvement.
This is not to say the Thunder is the next great NBA dynasty. History also suggests that things tend to fall apart somewhat easily when young (read: mentally fragile) teams enjoy early success. Just ask the Utah Jazz how quickly things can go awry.
But the fact that Oklahoma City appears to be on the precipice of success is something that needs to be acknowledged, if for no other reason than it has already overcome its biggest obstacle: History.
Anderson Varejao fights for the rebound and comes down awkwardly on his left leg and would sustain a leg injury.
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