The Oklahoma City Thunder are riding into the All-Star break high in spirits and in win totals. As SB Nation prepares for the festivities, we are collaborating today for a common theme, a theme inspired by the league and Finals MVP. Yes, today is the Thunder's Mount Rushmore Day.
Who makes the mountain? After deliberation, WTLC's writers have your answers here!
1) Kevin Durant
A list of Kevin Durant's accomplishments, in no particular order:
- 3-time scoring champ (on track to win his fourth)
- 5-time All Star
- 4-time All-NBA first team
- Rookie of the Year
- All-Star Game MVP
- The "mid-stream" line in "Thunderstruck" (which he improvised!)
- 50/40/90 club
- NBA Western Conference Champion
- Olympic Gold medalist
All this and he's just 25 years old. He's made market size irrelevant on his way to becoming the second-biggest star in the game. He is, at the very least, making the conversation for "Best Basketball Player in the Game" an interesting one. He somehow gets better every year, and he's somehow remained a humble, likeable dude throughout all of it - no matter what Nike marketing may try to concoct.
He's a once-in-a-lifetime player and without a shadow of a doubt the best player in Oklahoma City Thunder history. Come to think of it, there aren't any mountains in Oklahoma City, but they could probably carve Kevin Durant's head into the side of a hill and people would actually visit it. - Chris Hanneke
If Durant is the guiding light for the team's lofty aspirations, Russell Westbrook is the nuclear engine that propels the machine through the fire and ice. While the current team's run through the rest of the league without Westbrook has been remarkable, we can never forget that even in street clothes the team still bears Westbrook's mark.
Russ has been sited time and time again by team officials as one of the most important members of the organization in terms of setting the culture. Along with Durant, Westbrook joined a franchise that was the definition of a rebuilding project and was moving to a new location. What they needed, more than anything else, was a positive team culture that could endure losing, but only for a time, and then pursue winning with a predatory hunger.
Westbrook is the opposite side of the same coin that occupies Durant's visage, and the results are what you see on the court. Westbrook, aside from the radical improvements he has made over the course of his career, has propelled his team from being a 50 game loser to a 60+ game winner and the lead hunter for an NBA title. Everything we see on the court right now, even as Westbrook sits, bears the impact of the culture that he set. The team has not been content to sit and wait for Westbrook to return, but have surged ahead and are lapping the pack.
This quote, from Kobe Bryant, is one of my favorites:
"I don't know what the media is doing out here, but everybody just needs to lay off of Russell. That's a bad little dude, man. That's a bad little dude, man. You guys are fortunate to have him....
...He's got the same type of dog that I had in me - that I still have in me - when I was coming up with Shaq. He's got the same fight and he's just 6-4."
The engine never stops.
What's that thing Sam Presti always says? "Trust the process"? Well here you have Nick Collison, a former college player of the year and 12th years into his career, after working up to a point where he was averaging just shy of 10 and 10 for the season, his team moved to Oklahoma City.
But a supposed-superstar named Kevin Durant had just completed his rookie year, and the team had just drafted a freak athlete named Russell Westbrook. Oh, by the way, the team also drafted another dude who didn't speak a lick of English named Serge Ibaka, and he was going to play the same position.
Not only did Collison now have to trust that all of these things would work out, he also had to be a major factor in assuring that they did. Take less minutes, don't worry about the numbers, just be in the right place and help these guys reach their potential. Also, take the bulk of your contract up front; hopefully you've got some savvy in financial planning?
The numbers have declined, but his importance has not. Four straight NBA Playoffs appearances, an NBA Finals appearance, a cast of All Stars that all play brilliantly off of him - the trust Collison had in the process has paid off. He's making just $2.2 million in the final year of his contract and will most likely need to take less than what he could earn elsewhere if he wants to stick around beyond that.
But if there's anyone who's shown he is willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team, it's Nick Collison. Who knows where the Thunder franchise would be without him. - Chris Hanneke
4) James Harden
As much as Thunder fans hate to revisit a sensitive point in the franchise's young OKC history where they traded away a burgeoning All-Star, there is still little question that James Harden is an original member of "Thunder U." People may not remember it now, but to many experts Harden was a reach in the 2009 NBA draft, taken ahead of Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, and Ricky Rubio. Two years into his career, even the likes of Bill Simmons excoriated the Thunder for completely blowing it, a fact that he has tried to wash down the memory hole but I will never forget, especially in light of how he has been hyper-critical of the Thunder following the Harden trade.
What Harden represented, both in coming and going, is the Thunder ethos. The organization knew what they needed in that draft and got it in Harden, mixing the ingredients together to reach the Finals in 2012. He fit the culture, he fit the youth movement, and he fit the on-court product. On top of that, Harden was a favorite of both fans (including bakers and architects) as well as basketball junkies, maximizing all sorts of scoring efficiency metrics in the process of becoming the NBA's 6th Man of the Year.
When the Thunder decided that they had to trade away Harden, that too represented a seminal moment in OKC's ethos. Their personnel had to fit the model that was built on two leaders (Durant/Westbrook), talented youngsters (Harden/Ibaka) and reasonable contracts for everyone else. When Harden demanded a max contract, he no longer fit the Thunder strategy. OKC had a choice - they either would stick to their principles, or set a new precedent mid-flight. They stuck to their principles, out went Harden, and in came Jeremy Lamb and by way of draft trade, Steven Adams. And so the process reboots.
Harden's is the tale of the Thunder's way of team building, both as a tale of optimism as well as a tale of precaution. Being part of a foundation means bearing a cost, and in The Beard, we saw it in full spectrum.
Bonus: Sam Presti
General Manager Sam Presti is the architect behind it all. If you have followed the Thunder long, you have vacillated between thinking that Presti is a genius and Presti is too smart for his own good.
Wherever you fall on that debate at any given time, there is no question that the vision that the Thunder have as a franchise is his. Presti came by way of San Antonio, and happened to be an intern in the Spurs organization when he had to convince his coach Gregg Popovich (no easy convert) to draft an unknown 19 year old point guard named Tony Parker, a player so quick but so raw that he could get to the rim at will but could not make a shot outside of about 10 feet. Presti helped Pop make the right decision however, and in less than a decade Parker had won 3 championships and a Finals MVP.
Presti was given the keys to the Thunder machine and as a young GM sought to replicate the Spurs formula. The Spurs had their foundational piece in Tim Duncan, and OKC had theirs with Durant. By surrounding them both with the right pieces, Presti began a building project for the long haul. The goal has always been a championship, but OKC, like the Spurs, understand that to win one you have to give yourselves as many chances as possible. Duncan, in-arguably the greatest power forward of all time, has brought his franchise 4 of them, but it has come over 16 seasons, ending in heartbreak more often than confetti.
This is the path to greatness, and it requires patience with disappointment. Presti's choices may not always ring with church bells, but he knows the path and he is determined to stay on it. Better yet, his charges do as well and will follow it to the end.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments!