I was watching the Oklahoma City Thunder dismantle the Minnesota Timberwolves and weather the runs this young Wolves team was attempting to make, and I couldn’t help but be envious of the alleged failure the Thunder have been. I use the word “failure” quite facetiously because it’s crazy to me that the Thunder may end up being viewed that way. They have two top 5 players in the world with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and they’re oddly scrutinized to an excessive degree because we want to pretend Westbrook and Durant shouldn’t coexist together.
Making the Finals in 2012 and losing in five games to the Miami Heat seemed like the beginning of a perfect run for this young core. Depending on how you view the Thunder then trading James Harden right before the next season, this team was still set up to have run after run after run to the NBA Finals and I think we all assumed the Durant-Westbrook combo would get at least one championship trophy on their mantle. And yet, we’ve seen injuries plague this organization in a way that leaves them just outside maximizing their potential.
Because of this, it feels like there are quite a few people who have viewed this Thunder run as a failure. If Durant ends up leaving this summer for the Golden State Warriors (which I believe is far more likely than most are considering but I still would assume he stays around in OKC for at least one more year), then the experiment or the process or this era of Thunder basketball is dead. They’ll still have Westbrook for at least the next year when he becomes a free agent in 2017, but losing Durant would certainly be the bookend to what the Thunder have tried to build in OKC.
While there are considerable differences in the organizations, makeup of the youngsters, and pieces up and down the roster, I can’t help but look at this Thunder team in awe and hope for at least the same “failures” to occur with the Wolves. Despite some up and down performances over the last month, I’m still as high on Andrew Wiggins as I’ve ever been. Despite a bad performance against the Thunder Friday night, I believe Karl-Anthony Towns is a future superstar in this league and capable of being one of the best players in the league for a decade.
I guess in a way, Wiggins is the Wolves’ version of Westbrook and Towns is the Wolves’ Durant. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I’m not sure that distinction matters unless you’re of the opinion one HAS to be better than the other. But this game reminded me of just how unbelievable two players like Westbrook and Durant can be and how sometimes that might not be enough. It’s not that their window has closed by any means. I still think they’re capable of reaching their potential this season and finding their way into the conversation with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
However, the goal is always a championship. While the Wolves have an incredibly long journey in trying to accomplish this goal, there are so many steps along the way. Considering they’re building with such star-powered youth in Towns and Wiggins, the natural inclination is to look at what happened to the Sonics/Thunder in their journey and hope the Wolves can find a similar path.
Last season, the Wolves won 16 games, finished 30th in defense, and 25th in offense. In Durant’s rookie year, the Sonics won 20 games, were 22nd in defense, and 29th in offense. In Durant’s second season, Westbrook joined up as they moved to OKC and they finished with 23 wins while being 29th in offense and 20th in defense. The Wolves this season are on pace for 24 wins while ranking 26th in offense and 21st in defense.
That second season with Westbrook and Durant together is where the big jump happened. In Scott Brooks’ first full season as the Thunder coach, Durant, Westbrook, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka (rookie), and James Harden (rookie), OKC became extremely hard to deal with on a nightly basis. They jumped to 50 wins. They were 12th in offense. They were ninth in defense. Durant was unstoppable. Westbrook was a force of nature learning to be harnessed.
It will take a gigantic turnaround for the Wolves to reach this next season. Lots of things have to happen so by no means am I expecting that kind of a leap. But it’s looking like they’ll end up with a top 4 or 5 pick in a draft with 4 or 5 special talents. With another year of experience and understanding, the Wolves’ young guys could be ready to pounce a bit on the NBA. And it just takes a bit of confidence building to end up piling up wins as they get more and more comfortable with the NBA game.
Even then, you’ll never be guaranteed a title or even multiple title shots with a team with such high potential. The Wolves have so long to go and the Thunder have shown you just how hard that can be to 1) get there and 2) get back there a second time. I’ve always thought if you’re not building toward a championship then you need to be rebuilding to find that right path. With the Wolves’ current young players, I’ve softened a bit to enjoying the youth and the process of rebuilding more than figuring out the path to a title.
They may just end up a “failure” like the Thunder have been so far. I use that facetiously still, but it could end up being the way some describe them someday. I’m very much hoping to at least experience that failure.