Mike Prada of SB Nation has compiled a tournament-style bracket of 64 teams that were brilliant but were not able to win a title.
Prada’s list is extensive and covers every era of basketball, but I feel like Mike missed one iteration of the Oklahoma City Thunder off the list.
The 2012-13 Thunder was the follow-up album to the team, which made the 2012 Finals.
That fabled side had Harden, Westbrook, and Durant, three players who would go on to define a decade of basketball.
It was expected that this core would go on and win titles in the future; it was a matter of time.
Before the start of the 2012-13 season, the Thunder front office decided to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
The future dynasty was over before it could start; the period of innocence was over, the Thunder would be like every other club going forward.
Despite the seismic off-season move, Oklahoma City got better as a team and was one of the favorites to win a ring.
Oklahoma City would have likely made a deep playoff run if not for an incident in the first round against the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets were Harden’s new team, and Houston has made the playoffs as an eight seed.
Kevin McHale, the head coach of the Rockets, decided to promote Patrick Beverley to the starting lineup before the start of the series.
Beverley is a pit-bull; he is relentless in pursuit of winning; his experiences in Russia hardened him as a basketball player.
The relentless, physical brand of basketball has led to some people labeling Beverley a ‘dirty’ player.
Regardless of his reputation, his decision took away Oklahoma City’s title run in 2012-13.
As Beverley dived for the steal as Westbrook called for a timeout, his body collided with Westbrook’s knee.
The impact tore Russell’s meniscus, and the dream of winning a championship was over.
For this reason, I believe that this Thunder team meets the criteria outlined by Mike.
It was a basketball team that could have won the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but a random twist of fate took that opportunity away from Oklahoma City.
It is a team that is missing from Mike’s list, so I want to explain my thinking about why I feel that this version of the Oklahoma City Thunder should be recognized.
In the early 2010s, the Western Conference was a bloodbath.
It took 45 wins to make the playoffs in the western conference, and it only took 38 to make the playoffs in the east.
The Thunder had a team that could win a championship, but so did the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.
There other quality teams in the playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies who were always primed for an upset and a fledgling Golden State Warriors.
Oklahoma City finished top of the conference with sixty wins, the Thunder had the highest offensive rating in the league and were top-five in defensive rating.
That kind of performance in advanced statistics is hugely impressive and is usually associated with championship sides.
The Thunder also led the league in point differential, the eventual champions, the Miami Heat were 2.4 points worse than OKC.
From just the numbers alone, it is clear that Oklahoma City was one of the best teams in the leagues, a serious contender for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Numbers do not tell the full story of a basketball team, but the figures go some way to explain why the Thunder were so good.
OKC was dominant on offense due to the ability of Westbrook and Durant.
Westbrook and Durant were both able to score efficiently on loud volume, but the difference between this side and future Thunder teams is the floor-spacing around them.
Kevin Martin was the primary return in the Harden trade, and he brought dead-eye shooting to Oklahoma City.
Martin shot 42.6 percent from the floor that season, a highly efficient return which meant defenders could not sag off perimeter guys to help on Westbrook or Durant.
Thabo Sefolosha was an excellent shooter from deep while also being a superb wing defender.
The Thunder’s ability to create space for Westbrook and Durant to work allowed the offense to run smoothly and efficiently.
A lot of people will claim that the Thunder were a worse team compared to the previous season when Harden was still on the roster.
It is a reasonable stand-point, the long-term future of the team was less rosy, and it would be harder to construct a dynasty without having three world-class players.
However, 2012-13 was as good in the short-term as the previous year’s squad.
The choice to sign Serge Ibaka to a contract extension before the start of the season looked like a prudent decision when Serge was playing at an elite level defensively as a rim protector.
In that season, Ibaka averaged three blocks per game, and he finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
The decision to retain Ibaka and trade Harden meant that Oklahoma City could cover all bases - defense, scoring, and playmaking - all from three-core guys.
The roster had enough to win at least one championship.
The roster assembled was more than good enough to become champions.
A series against the Heat would have been close, but the Thunder would have had a good chance.
The Heat was one year older, Dwyane Wade’s knee was already starting to break down, and Chris Bosh was not fully fit due to an injury suffered in the second round.
Those injuries would have been enough to tip a series that was hugely competitive in the previous season, but OKC had improved in other areas.
The Thunder were more experienced compared to the prior year, and the core players knew what it would take to win a championship due to the heartbreak in 2012 NBA Finals.
This point may seem like a throwaway comment, a cliche spouted by talking heads, but I do believe that there is something in this statement.
A team learns how to prepare appropriately and how to perform when the lights are brightest after playing in a Finals series.
It is hugely valuable in a playoff series, which may be decided by small degrees, that knowledge can be a tipping point.
The roster strength, team play, and a weakened opponent in the Eastern Conference are all reasons why this Thunder was a strong contender to win an NBA title.
The 2012-13 team may not have won the same plaudits as other iterations of the Thunder, but the team was excellent and capable of winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
For this reason, I believe that this team should be recognized in Mike’s list in the ‘What Might Have Been’ section.
The Thunder might have been able to deliver on their promise of a ring if Patrick Beverley did not take Westbrook out.
Read more about what Prada is doing, and you can click here.
And we want to hear from you, the fans! Do you think the 2012-13 Thunder team was one of the best teams not to win a title?