Mike Prada of SBNation has been working on a tournament-style bracket in which he looks at the most celebrated teams never to win a championship.
One of these teams was the 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder, the final year of the Russell Westbrook-Kevin Durant partnership that was incredibly fruitful.
Prada argues that this team was an over-achiever; I have to disagree with Mike on this point.
I believe that this specific iteration of the Thunder was a massive under-achiever, it was a basketball team that was more than capable of winning an NBA Championship, and it failed in that goal.
There are no excuses to comfort that blow, no injuries or suspensions, those brief indiscriminate turns of fate which decide a series, the reality is that the Thunder did not deliver when it mattered most.
The Thunder did not have a brilliant regular-season record, Oklahoma City were over-shadowed by the ‘Jogo Bonito’ San Antonio Spurs and the innovative Golden State Warriors. For vast stretches of the regular season, Oklahoma City did not play well.
The defense was suspect, and the effort was lacking, there were puzzling losses against lottery teams. It was only when the second season started, Oklahoma City’s strengths came to the fore.
In the post-season, top-end talent becomes more critical, and a team’s depth becomes less significant. Oklahoma City had that magic dust, those players who could shift a series on their own, but the Thunder also had a solid bench unit.
Dion Waiters was a shot-maker off the bench who could be relied upon to contribute points on a nightly basis without being a liability on the other end of the floor.
Enes Kanter’s rebounding and ability to score down low kept the bench ticking over, and it was another option for Billy Donovan to use against smaller teams.
Randy Foye was a steady hand at the point guard who could soak up bench minutes and provide a stabilizing influence when things went awry.
It was a roster capable of winning a championship, and I genuinely believe that in my heart-of-hearts. Just another reason why the Thunder were under-achievers, a team that is capable of winning a title but does not is an under-achiever, the team did not fulfill its goal.
We have seen teams rest during the regular season in favor of focusing on the post-season; it is particularly familiar with veteran teams that do not concern themselves with the daily grind.
It is a dangerous habit to have organizations, can develop bad traits during the regular season that are difficult to shake when the games become much more critical.
However, many teams have behaved in this manner. The Cavs, during the second James’ era, and the San Antonio Spurs focused on the post-season instead of the grinding 82 games.
Oklahoma City did that in 2015-16 and finished third in the conference with a record of 55-27.
That record is indicative of the Thunder’s casual approach to the regular season, and the overall record would have been significantly better if OKC took the regular season seriously.
Oklahoma City looked on track to achieve their goals as they were one win away from the NBA Finals.
The Thunder had handily beaten the Warriors in the first four games of the series, the Thunder’s size was difficult to stop, and Oklahoma City’s offense had hit a groove.
The ball was moving around on the court, and there were very few occasions when Billy Donovan ran long-drawn-out isolation for one of his star players, it was merely a case of the Thunder running the offense and finding good looks.
From that point onwards, the weight of expectations increased.
The Thunder were going to advance, that was a given. Very few teams had come back from a 3-1 deficit, especially clubs who lost in Game 3 and Game 4 of the series.
Pressure does funny things to players, and some players rise to the occasion while others fall. For the Thunder, both of their stars reacted differently to the newfound pressure.
Russell Westbrook rose to the challenge, and he continued to play with limitless energy and a burning will to win.
Kevin Durant was a little different in that respect, and he seemed to shrink despite taking a higher volume of shots.
In the victories against the Warriors, the shots were distributed evenly among the whole team, which meant that Westbrook and Durant were not carrying an overly-fatiguing load.
In final three games, Durant came out with a desire to score the ball, to write his name into the history books, the man who crushed the 73-win team.
I do not dispute those aims; in fact, I prefer players who play with an edge, but if you choose to take that many shots, you better bloody well make them.
In Durant’s case, he failed to make the shots he took on an efficient percentage.
He choked in his role as leading scorer, and as a team leader, Durant should have been the guy capable of putting a series away when things got tight, but he could not do so.
The other effect of Durant’s increased shot-taking was that it destabilized the offensive rhythm of the team, the fall-back to isolation basketball hurt Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters. When they got the ball, they did not have a scoring rhythm.
The overall result was that the Thunder choked. A loss in Game 5 was expected but losing in Game 6 at home was a back-breaker, the Warriors had all of the momentum going into Game 7 at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
This Thunder team can even be considered as under-achiever; it had the Finals within grasp but failed to take advantage of the opportunity.
The most painful aspect of the Thunder’s under-achievement is that Oklahoma City would have had a real chance to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals.
The Cavs and Thunder would have been evenly-matched, Westbrook would have the edge over Kyrie Irving while James would edge out Durant.
Oklahoma City had the pieces, they had the necessary talent on defense, they had the size, and for the first time in a long time, they had a few quality reserves. The Thunder were capable of winning, and they failed, it is an under-achievement.
And that is the reason why I disagree with Mike’s suggestion that this team was an over-achiever. For me, an over-achiever is a team that achieves a goal that they had no business completing. It is usually a team that has no distinct stars and is more significant than a sum of their parts.
A recent example of an over-achieving team would be the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, an organization that won the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
At the start of the season, the Lakers or Heat were picked to win the championship, nobody looked at the Mavericks and thought they were capable of winning the highest honor.
The team was too old, Dirk was a playoff choker, and other contending teams had stronger rosters.
The Mavericks took an ax to all pre-season expectations as the veteran players produced an Indian Summer that led them to win an NBA Championship. Oklahoma City was never in that position, and it was a team that had the talent to win a ring. The Thunder did not manage to beat expectations and, therefore, cannot be called an over-achiever.
I urge everybody to read Mike’s article and make your judgment on this Thunder team. Did the 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder under-achieve, or did the team over-achieve?