Can a large scale story also qualify as under the radar? The easy answer is "yes" and the obvious example is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Let’s go back to five short years ago when a team in Oklahoma City was just a dream that Clay Bennett had as he went to bed at night. After purchasing the Seattle Supersonics everyone knew the franchise was not long for the great northwest. No public funding for a new NBA arena was the "out" Bennett needed, and the franchise soon headed to the Sooner state.
In 2008 the Thunder took their first steps as a brand new franchise in a brand new town. Now four years later, this team that was left for dead is on the doorstep of playing and possibility winning the NBA title. I don’t think people remember how bad things were for the Thunder in their inaugural season. In their first 32 games they won 3 of them. Yes, you read that correctly. They had seven losing streaks of at least 3 games. They lost 14 games in a row, won a game then lost their next eight games. Just for reference this is a team that had Kevin Durant and Jeff Green in their second years and Russell Westbrook as a rookie. And they had a point where they lost 14 games in a row. If you should ever wonder why people talk about the epic nature of the Thunder’s story, this is why.
The Thunder is an example of the great things fans want from the NBA. Everyone focuses on the negative, me-first attitude of professional sports and athletes. And NBA players take most of the hit on that mindset from sports fans. Two lockouts in 20+ years did not help either. You know who else did not help the NBA me-first image problem? The antics of Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets, Deron Williams of the Nets and LeBron James' Decision. All of these players are stars on the court, but holding a team hostage while they grandstand and demand to be traded to a larger media market is killing the NBA. It is a long and painful death. We see it and are not happy about it.
That is why the Thunder matters and why this team winning the NBA Championship is a big story. While all those superstars were making sure they ended up in a market that would help build their brand Kevin Durant was signing an extension to stay in small market Oklahoma City. While Dwight Howard demanded to be traded from the Orlando Magic, Russell Westbrook signed a team- and cap-friendly extension to stay with Durant in OKC for the next five years. Don’t assume winning isn’t important to these guys. In the case of LeBron James and Chris Bosh that was their number one motivation. But in the case of Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard that seems to be secondary. The playing ability of Durant was a major reason signed his extension with the Thunder. But that does not dimension the statement it sends.
The NBA is a league driven by bigger markets. The league was "saved" by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the ‘80s while playing in the large media markets of Los Angeles and Boston respectively. Michael Jordan took the torch in the ‘90s while calling the Windy City his home. There have been rare exceptions to the big market NBA teams. The San Antonio Spurs proved that in the 2000s. But the days of Tim Duncan and company playing great offense, defense, and boring the causal fan to death feels like eons ago.
The Thunder is the lone team able to carry the small market torch for the "lesser thans" in the NBA. This team is what all other teams wish to be. But for some reason they are unable to be like the Thunder, whether it’s from poor evaluation of talent or fear of taking the plunge into full rebuild mode. A few things did break the Thunder’s trail to put them in this position. Having the Trailblazer pass on Durant and draft Greg Oden instead could have been the tipping point. But this team has been rewarded for their risks too in Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
The Thunder’s title hopes are a big story as the NBA season moves along. Do they, though, actually have a realistic chance of winning the title this season? The answer is yes. Having the lockout shortened, a season of 66 games being played in 120 days benefits the Thunder and other teams with young and elite talent. The Thunder have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to their talent with the best player (Kevin Durant) and the second best point guard (Russell Westbrook) in the Western Conference. And the Western Conference is weaker this year than it was last year. The defending champion Mavericks are taking a long time to find the right mix to fill the void of players lost from last season. The Lakers started looking old in a hurry.
The Grizzlies bandwagon is in full "broke down on the side of road" mode. The Clippers are improving everyday and playing well but they still have some inexperienced guys on the team. The Spurs are the same Spurs they were last season, just a year older and still waiting for Manu Ginobili to come back from injury. The Nuggets are the other Western Conference contender but their lack of a true superstar to take over games and carry them is going to hurt them in the playoffs. This sets up pretty damn well for the Thunder to make a deep run ending in a NBA Finals appearance.
When the Thunder scores the NBA title, it will be a victory for all of the people who get sick of big market media coverage and a score for the little guy. It will be a victory for everyone who has ever felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Even when the Thunder were losing 29 out of 32, they got to a point where in four years they are the best team in the Western Conference and heading toward a NBA Finals appearance.
Check out other entries in the series below:
1. Romeo Crennel's first season as Chiefs head coach
2. Missouri moves to the SEC
3. K-State's quest for repeat success
4. Sporting KC looks to continue winning ways