The Oklahoma City Thunder have gone from a sure-fire basketball dynasty to a team trying to claw its way into the eighth seed in three short years. The team had an incredible, rare stable of super-young, super-awesome players when they lost their first Finals in 2011, and everyone expected to see them back in title contention for many years to come.
With significant injuries derailing their 2013 postseason (Russell Westbrook), their 2014 postseason (Serge Ibaka), and their 2015 regular season (Kevin Durant and Westbrook), the team is angling for the good fortune of matching up in the playoffs with one of the best regular season teams of all time in Golden State. Missing the playoffs outright is also still on the table, which would leave them just one more year with an under-contract Kevin Durant to shoot for a title before he has the option to leave in free agency in 2016.
Any time so much potential is on the verge of wasting away, hand-wringing ensues. Fingers are pointed. Comments sections are frenzied. Is the Thunder plight an act of cosmic justice? Clay Bennett has attached a religious dimension to the team by instituting an opening prayer, and sports narratives always form around silly projections of good and evil. What follows is a survey of commonly referenced trespasses of the team, tied to a corresponding proverbial and/or spiritual lesson.
Why the team might cursed: It’s well documented that Lil B has put a hex on Kevin Durant, and the internet-famous rapper (and guest lecturer?!?) envisions the curse will hold up during a Golden State/Oklahoma City first-round matchup. Add to those bad vibes a preacher (?) who blames the Thunder’s demise on KD’s allegiance to Nike, along with his refusal to drop millions of dollars into the dude’s "Town of Love" commercial/spiritual dream project, and maybe there’s cause to believe dark forces are working against the team. Russell Westbrook has also established the Church of Westbrook, where adoring fans revel in his wild style of play, a style that defies the "pure" point guard mold. A deity might well consider the Church of Westbrook unforgivably blasphemous, especially since said deity would be old enough to appreciate fundamentals and pass-first floor generals.
Why it’s not a curse: C’mon, who believes in this stuff? (I write this as I face-punch my Lil B voodoo doll.)
Why the team was doomed from the start: Maybe every broken foot, Beverley’d knee, front office misstep, or coaching shortcoming is just evidence of the team’s depravity. The youthful outlook of the Thunder had already begun in the drizzly Eden of Seattle, before Clay Bennett essentially stole the team and dropped it in the Midwest, which checks out as east of Eden in this context. Maybe the only redemption possible for this team is to repay what they took, watching KD return home to play for the Wizards.
Why I don’t think there are angels with flaming swords standing between OKC and a title run: The Ravens won a championship within 5 years of stealing the Browns.
Train them Up in the Way they Should Go
Why the team might be faltering due to chemistry issues: The shine of a family-style organization has worn off a bit this year, with word spreading about locker room cliques and unhappy backups sulking. A potentially ominous brawl broke out in one of the team’s worst losses of the season—as the Trail Blazers finished off a crushing comeback in OKC, family members of Thunder players rumbled in the stands.
Why chemistry isn't the Thunder’s problem: It’s been a minute, but Durant’s team-centric MVP acceptance speech still stands taller than Reggie Jackson’s contract situation. Not to mention, the Thunder have the most endearing handshake game in the league: even the grumpy Westbrook/Jeremy Lamb snafu turned out to be an orchestrated joke.
Nice Guys Finish Last
Why Kevin Durant not being not nice enough could be sinking the Thunder: When KD and Russ aren't setting the opposition on fire, they’re drawing criticism as a duo that can’t "coexist" at a championship level. Durant is accused of deferring to his point guard too often, letting Westbrook be "Batman"—relinquishing the alpha role that he must embrace to carry the team with his transcendent talent.
Why KD’s level of niceness isn’t it: Durant has been chipping away at his nice guy image by cussing to where his grandma can see, slicing pretend throats, racking up technical fouls, and scoring like a black-hearted assassin. LeBron James was labeled "Robin" to Dwayne Wade’s "Batman" until James won a title; if KD wins the 'chip, lazy sportswriters will credit some personality change per usual, but it won’t be the real cause.
Storing Treasures on Earth
Why cheap ownership may be to blame for the team’s fall: How have we made it so far without mentioning The Harden Trade? The team’s inability to give Reggie Jackson a satisfactory extension offer to prevent him from hitting restricted free agency is viewed as repeat of the Harden fiasco: stinginess over a few million dollars could drastically warp the team’s future. The Thunder also managed to outlast the Bulls in amnesty chicken (Chicago finally said goodbye to Carlos Boozer, Kendrick Perkins is still playing 20 horrible minutes a night in OKC), and Anthony Morrow counts as a free agent splurge for this team.
Maybe not: OKC has shown a willingness to spend more and go into the tax. Acquiring Dion Waiters actually put them in the tax, and they’re reportedly trying to bring in Brook Lopez and go even deeper into tax territory. They also came up short in landing Pau Gasol on a substantial contract this summer, when Pau decided against moving from LA to a cow town.
Pride Comes Before a Fall
Why Thunder brass could just be asking for it: A front office so tight-lipped and averse to criticism that it has been called "The Ministry of Propaganda," the Thunder handle their business extremely close to the vest (reporters are locked completely out of practice, no one ever knows the real timetable for recovering players), and they have managed to build one of the most homer-istic broadcasts for local games. Their confidence in their own development tools and roster planning irks many, especially when they draft another power forward to play shooting guard, pioneering the practice of using a first rounder on a domestic draft-and-stash player.
Why not: I can think of another organization so unified and committed to their own model that it’s grating: The New England Patriots. Hubris ain't holding them back.
Profuse Are the Kisses of an Enemy
Why misplaced loyalty could be doing the Thunder in: Loyalty is a good thing, but maybe not so much when it equals a starting spot for Perkins, extended playoff minutes for player-coach Derek Fisher, and a generous contract extension for Nick Collison before the 34-year-old has returned to form from off-season knee surgery. Some of this comes at a cost to players like Jeremy "Sacrificial" Lamb, whose role and development came to a screeching halt toward the end of last season.
Why the OKC friend-zone isn't a problem: Durant likes it (he even stuck up for Collison’s deal). If Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka remain invested in the framework of loyalty enough to re-sign in the coming summers, this will far outweigh the pain of watching Fisher get posted up by Tim Duncan in an elimination game.
I’m not convinced there are cosmic forces interested in the Thunder’s downfall. While Skip Bayless could spend the next three years hammering home the more mystical takes above if and when OKC falls short again, I think there are more simple and—gasp—positive ways of looking at the team’s near future.
Are the Thunder just victims of random chance? Sports are hard. You can go back and reverse-engineer this team, but major injuries in the playoffs are just impossible to work around. If Harden could have kept OKC from bowing out in the second round after Westbrook’s exit in the 2013 postseason, he still wouldn’t have been enough to lift them above the peak LeBron-Heat that won it all, and Harden's presence wouldn’t have done anything to plug the defensive canyon left when the Ibaka-less Thunder fell in a two-game hole against San Antonio last playoffs.
It’s not like everything has been downhill since their Finals appearance. They had a historically great season immediately after trading Harden, and Durant found his inner Slim Reaper on his way to earning the MVP trophy last season. Part of the problem has been that the wrong combination of pieces have popped, not that nothing has worked. If Lamb had excelled where the Thunder needed him (shooting guard) instead of Reggie Jackson blossoming where they kind of don’t (backup point guard), things may not feel so jacked up right now.
Everything Happens For a Reason
Why things will work out okay in the end: The road to the title is always rough; what would sportswriters do with themselves if a team walked into the winner’s circle without "taking their lumps" or "learning from adversity"? OKC could be the ultimate fulfillment of the overcomer narrative, coming up agonizingly short for years before establishing a dynasty for the long haul. One championship fixes everything: if this team has a title under its belt, the perception of its still-young roster would be incredibly rosy, and odds of a superstar exodus shrink significantly.
Introducing: Cray Allred
Cray is a freelance writer and podcast producer for outlets covering sports, faith, and music. He co-founded Sunday Oldskool, a podcast dedicated to helping Christians better understand and engage the realm of hip hop. He spends the rest of his time feeling undeserving of his beautiful wife and daughters, being loved and fed at his church, and vicariously balling via an over-consumption of hoops and hip hop.