I woke up early on my born day, I’m twenty years of blessing
The essence of adolescence leaves my body now I’m fresh in
My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it
One quarter through life some God-ly like thing created
– Nas, “Life’s a Bitch”
Last night marked the end of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the youngest Western Conference Finalists since the mid-80s. It was a season that met and exceeded expectations, though one would not detail because of the media-driven narrative of the Thunder’s failures throughout the playoffs. As has been pointed out, the Thunder’s four most promising players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka) are all ages 21 or 22, making the Thunder’s run to the Western Finals all the more incredible. In all likelihood, they will not be blowing up the team, and that four player core will make them title contenders for the next decade, barring catastrophe.
A season like this is important to reflect on because for a team with players of such similar age, every season is a snapshot of their developing identity. Last season was a snapshot of Kevin Durant’s emergence as a bonafide superstar, leading the league in scoring. This season can be looked at as the snapshot of the moment when the Thunder’s development was accelerated. Russell Westbrook became an All-NBA player, Jeff Green was removed from the core of the team, and OKC made its first deep playoff run. It may be the last time the Thunder are viewed as the lovable young up-and-comers with the rabid fanbase, as they establish themselves into a Western powerhouse.
The future, understandably, looks incredibly bright, but the shine has dulled a bit under the reactionary eye of the media. Controversy was forced upon Durant and Westbrook as they struggled to get in sync with each other throughout the postseason, both in wins and losses. Westbrook’s hotheadedness turned off plenty of people, as he racked up technical fouls with his overflowing anger that spills into his actual basketball play. It’s a lot easier to gain a reputation than it is to lose one, and Westbrook unfortunately gained a bad rap during these playoffs. With Durant as the media’s Golden Boy, any proximate threat to his greatness would take the blame for all of the team’s struggles. Unfortunately for Westbrook, the shortcomings of himself, Durant, the offensively-challenged starters, and Scott Brooks all manifest themselves into apparently terrible possessions. He was often left stranded, creating something out of nothing. Other players have noticed it, and the general blogosphere understands it, but the mainstream media has not.
Perhaps the Thunder’s flaws are what in fact leads to the great hope surrounding the franchise. What they’ve accomplished in spite of their shortcomings makes the future so much brighter. Kevin Durant’s development is unlikely to have plateaued, as it looked like for much of this past season. Westbrook and Ibaka had incredible seasons despite it being very apparent that they each have much to figure out. And the cerebral James Harden will only play more and more as time passes.
It’s rare when a team’s core players can all be caught in the nascent stages of their development. This is a team that will be allowed to “rise together,” rather than adding pieces haphazardly through the years. In that, we can see these early seasons as stepping stones to greater success. Every year, that youthful aura will fade, giving way to perennial contender status of the Spurs/Lakers/Mavericks vein, leading to heightened expectations and more than likely, a few disappointments.
Hopefully most fans will fondly remember these developmental years of the Thunder. The essence of the their adolescence is leaving, but let’s not forget it.