The early days of the Thunder was a rebuilding project from ground zero around young talent. The focus of the front-office was to assemble a highly talented core of talent and supplement these players with able veterans. It was a decision taken before the Thunder even came into existence, the decision to trade Ray Allen during the 2007 NBA Draft signalled the changing fortune of the Seattle Supersonics. At the time, the decision seemed to make sense for the Sonics’ from a basketball and financial perspective. On the basketball side, a young team could grow together without the uncertainty that a player could leave in free agency and the team’s plans were scuppered. This could not happen with veteran players like Ray Allen who could hit free agency unrestricted and teams would have no control over the player. The obvious upside of acquiring players through the draft is that these players are on cost-controlled contracts which helps to keep the total payroll down.
However, the alternate reality must be considered. What if Sam Presti chose to keep Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis? The likelihood is that the Oklahoma City Thunder looks very different, there would likely be no Russell Westbrook or James Harden. It is entirely possible the Thunder do not even to move to Oklahoma City and remain as the Seattle Supersonics. The ground rules for the alternate history are fairly simple, it will take place over a five-year period with the final season being the 2011-12 season. The reason why I chose this date is that it is arguably the most successful season for the Thunder and the expiration date of the team’s first iteration. Harden being traded in 2012 changed the team significantly and a pressure to succeed increased around Chesapeake Energy Arena. The other ground rule is that the alternate events remain somewhat realistic, there will be no fantasy trades where Lebron James ends up joining the Sonics for salary cap filler. I have made a point to research the time period so the history feels real and not overly far-fetched.
The 2007 NBA Draft was an inflection point for the Seattle Supersonics, during the Wally Walker era, the Sonics had been committed to putting out a competitive roster instead of choosing to lose a ton of games. Presti’s focus was different, he chose to embrace the draft and build through youth instead of paying expensive veterans who would have diminishing returns throughout their contracts. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis would have weighed heavily on the bespectacled General Manager, neither player was young but they could be very good around a prodigious talent like Kevin Durant. Perhaps a full teardown did not make sense, the Celtics’ offer of Jeff Green, Delonte West and Wally Sczerbiak was not particularly impressive. Allen would not be dealt this summer, it made sense to give the Allen/Lewis core one more year in a team assembled properly. The incoming Durant would help immensely as would Tiago Splitter, a player acquired in a draft deal involving the Sonics’ two second round draft picks in 2007.
Kevin Durant is taken at 2, Tiago Splitter is taken at 26
The Sonics make significant moves in free agency but the priority for Presti was re-signing Rashard Lewis. The sweet-shooting forward who had been a Sonic since the days of Gary Payton needed to be brought back, his skill as a shooter would be the perfect complement next to Durant, a player who draws huge amounts of defensive attention. Moreover, Presti uncovers a gem in Memphis as a result of team discord. The Grizzlies made a puzzling decision to take another point guard in the draft despite the fact that the team had drafted Kyle Lowry out of Villanova the season prior. Lowry is unhappy with this decision by the Grizzlies, he believes that his talent is worth more than being a back-up to Mike Conley. Lowry requests a trade and Seattle steps in with a strong offer that is difficult for the Grizzlies to turn down. Kyle Lowry is sent to Seattle for Luke Ridnour and the 2010 Phoenix Suns first round draft pick that was acquired in the Kurt Thomas salary dump. Presti obtains a starting point guard for the team which he is assembling around Allen, Durant and Lewis.
Rashard Lewis re-signed on a maximum contract - 6yrs/$118m
Seattle acquires Kurt Thomas, the 2008 Phoenix Suns first round pick, the 2010 Phoenix first round pick for a conditional second round draft pick
Seattle acquires Kyle Lowry from the Memphis Grizzlies for Luke Ridnour and the 2010 Phoenix first rounder.
Grant Hill signed on a veteran minimum’s contract
Starting Five: Lowry, KD, Allen, Lewis, Nick
Bench: Thomas, Earl Watson, Grant Hill (Free Agency), Desmond Mason, Damien Wilkens
The Sonics come out of the gates firing and do not stop during the early portion of the season. The combination of Allen, Durant and Lewis is a nightmare for teams to cover, there are very few teams who have the defensive versatility to handle three perimeter-based scorers. After Christmas, it is a different story for the Sonics as the team goes an extended losing streak while Ray Allen is out with an ankle injury. Seattle cannot seem to find stability and fall back into the chasing pack for the play-offs. The Sonics start to piece their season together in May with Allen’s return and Kyle Lowry’s improved play. Lowry’s energy and hustle brings a spark to the Sonics which they did not have previously. Seattle finish the season strong and win home-court advantage. The Sonics advance through the first round behind Lewis’ strong play before being bounced by the Lakers in the second round.
The season is a success for the Sonics overall with the team making the play-offs and Kevin Durant being named Rookie of the Year for his role on a competitive play-off team. Durant is not content with just being Rookie of the Year, he sees the hard work and effort put in by his contemporaries on a daily basis, he feels the need to do the same as Ray Allen. Ray Allen takes Durant under his wing and KD starts putting it obsessive hours in the gym, refining his game and building his body for the NBA level. Presti also chooses to make a big decision, the coaching of P.J Carlesimo is deemed to be inadequate. During the season, Carlesimo struggled to gain respect from senior players who preferred to go to his assistant, Scott Brooks, with their concerns. Scott Brooks is hired as the Sonics start a new era in earnest.
Rest of League:
Sam Presti’s decision to keep Ray Allen does not lead to a Celtics Big Three, Kevin Garnett is reluctant to leave Minnesota as it is and will not be traded to a new team that does not have an immediate chance at winning. Teams from across the league call Glen Taylor in the hope of acquiring the former MVP, the two foremost teams are the Lakers and Suns. Both teams want another star player to bolster their ranks against the San Antonio machine. The offers presented by both teams are incredibly enticing for Glen Taylor but Taylor chooses to accept the Lakers’ offer of Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and two future-first round picks. Garnett waives his no trade clause to join Bryant and the Lakers, LA offers the best chance to win an NBA championship in his eyes.
Paul Pierce hears about Kevin Garnett’s trade to the Lakers and realises that his road as a Celtic is done, he is an All-NBA calibre player, he cannot waste three years of his prime waiting for younger players to become good. Pierce knew the day was coming, he could not stand another season without no real chance at winning a title. Pierce requesting a trade draws interest league-wide but it is Phoenix who wins the race for the forward out of Kansas. The offer of Leandro Barbosa, Shawn Marion and a pick in 2012 is too much to turn down for Danny Ainge. The Celtics make the decision to fully commit to their rebuild and trade Shawn Marion to the New York Knicks for a 2008 first-round pick, Boston enter a rebuilding phase with Rajon Rondo as their focal point.
The Miami Heat are left with some soul-searching, Pat Riley knows that Miami’s fortunes will not get better with an ageing roster. The team are mired in mediocrity at the deadline and Shaquille O’Neal is slowly but surely fading. The injuries accumulate more often for Shaquille and his movements are immobile during the game. Pat Riley takes the radical decision to off-load O’Neal and build a roster around Dwyane Wade. Shaq is traded to Cleveland for Drew Gooden, Big Z and a 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers first round pick. O’Neal is shocked by Riley’s decision and the revelation that he can no longer live in his beloved South Florida. It dawns on Shaq that he has the opportunity to win a fifth ring in Cleveland with the ‘King’, O’Neal touches down in Ohio and makes a promise to bring a championship parade to East Ninth Street.
The Phoenix Suns beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in six to win the franchise’s first NBA title. The Suns win a hard-fought Game 6 behind a clutch scoring night from Pierce, Pierce only scores seventeen points but he drains two contested threes late in the game that scrapes out a victory for the Suns. The road to the Finals for Phoenix was difficult, the Conference Finals against the Lakers went seven games as Kobe Bryant made big shots time and time again. James’ collapses to the floor disconsolately, he cannot come to terms with his first ever Finals loss.
The success of the Sonics is troubling for Clay Bennett and the rest of the Sonics’ ownership, it would be a public relations disaster for the league if a franchise was ripped away from a city that passionately supported their team. Moreover, the team’s success compounded his problems with the City Council of Seattle, the Council believed that the strong levels of public attendance indicated that the market was financially viable and did not see why the lease on the KeyArena should be broken. In addition to threat presented by local government, the backing provided by David Stern starts to waver. Stern does not like the idea of a messy divorce in Seattle, messy divorces are bad for the business.
The confluence of factors forces a meeting between Stern and Bennett at the league offices in Secaucus. A back-room deal is struck between David Stern and Clay Bennett, Bennett will sell the team to a Seattle-based party with the proviso that Bennett will receive the opportunity to purchase another NBA team. A number of willing parties put in bids for ownership of the Seattle Supersonics and the Seattle Storm but the winning bid comes from a Seattle consortium. Steve Ballmer, Chris Hansen and a consortium of investors agree to purchase the franchise from Clay Bennett. The Seattle consortium also begin negotiations with the City of Seattle about arena renovations. Ballmer and Hansen lead the effort and commit $500m in private financing to rebuild the KeyArena into a world class basketball arena.
Last season’s success and the positive effect of a new stable ownership lifts everybody's moods. There is a lot of interesting pieces to work with for Sam Presti especially with Tiago Splitter coming over from Spain this year after being drafted in 2007, the Sonics only need a few additional pieces to supplement the core. In the Draft, the Supersonics draft Nicholas Batum from France and Mario Chalmers using the Suns pick. The focus has shifted for Seattle, the rebuilding phase is no longer a priority, the priority is to build a contending team for the front office executives.
Nicholas Batum at 24, Mario Chalmers at 30
The Sonics do not make any huge free agency splashes, Seattle consolidates the current roster by adding veteran players who can provide leadership and steady contributions off the bench. The Sonics move on from former players who were not good enough to continue for the team. The only thorny issue for the Sonics is a contract extension for Robert Swift. Swift’s team wanted long-term security on his contract due to Swift’s injury-prone’s first few seasons in the league. The Sonics’ front office much preferred a short-term deal in which Swift has to earn his next big deal. The two parties eventually agree a suitable deal, Swift is re-signed on a three year deal.
Desmond Mason - Cap Hold waived
Damien Wilkins - Cap Hold waived
Mickael Gelabele - Cap Hold waived
Robert Swift re-signed - 3yrs/$6m
Keyon Dooling - 1yr/VetMin
James Jones - 1yr/VetMin
Starting Five: Lowry, Allen, KD, Lewis, Splitter
Bench: Collison, Chalmers, Batum, Swift, Dooling, Jones
The hard work pays off for Durant as he takes a leap as a basketball player. Durant’s work on building his body for the rigours of the NBA season allows him to become much better at finishing inside and his scoring average increases. The chemistry among the starting lineup is impressive as the Sonics run a perimeter-based offence, similar to the 4 in, 1 out system ran by Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. The result is a devastating offensive unit that can score points quickly and easily, Tiago Splitter is a key beneficiary of the system implemented by the coaching staff. The lack of clutter inside means that Splitter has an open lane every time that the Sonics run a pick and roll.
The Seattle Supersonics start the season strong and do not look back as the team roars to a 54-28 record. Durant and Allen are both All-Stars in the Western Conference. Kyle Lowry grows further as a complete point guard, Lowry does not hunt his own shot and settles into the offence as the team’s distributor. The cabal of perimeter-based players provide easy assists for Lowry and allows him to focus on defence. The Sonics enter the play-offs and play the Portland Trailblazers in the first round. The PNW series is hugely entertaining as the neighbouring states go back and forth. An injury to Brandon Roy in Game 3 effectively decides the series, the Blazers do not have the firepower to keep up with the Sonics. Seattle advances to the next round and plays the New Orleans Hornets. The Hornets fight hard but cannot deal with the Sonics’ ability to spread the floor and cause havoc on the defensive end. Hilton Armstrong and Rasual Butler are forced to defend in space, away from the interior where they are comfortable. The strategy works for Seattle as Kyle Lowry has both players sliding like Bambi on ice. The Sonics handle the Hornets in six and play the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
The 2009 Western Conference Finals series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Seattle Supersonics is another great series. The Sonics are 2-0 down after the Lakers hold serve at Staples Centre behind big games from Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Garnett’s intensity gives him the edge over Rashard Lewis who cannot deal with KG’s physicality in Games 1 and 2. The series shift to the KeyArena and Kevin Durant has his break-out as a legitimate NBA star, KD drops fifty one points in Game 4 to tie the series up. The last five minutes of Game 4 belong to Durant, the offence runs through him as he gets to the rim at will. However, the Sonics are tired, the legs of the starters are fatigued as they clock heavy minutes. Coach Brooks chose to shorten the rotation due to the lack of players who can perform in the play-offs, the Lakers have no such issues with players like Trevor Ariza and Ron Artest coming off the bench. As a result of the fatigue, the Sonics drop Game 5 and struggle early in Game 6. The flowing offence from the regular season has dried up and the Sonics stare down a twelve point deficit coming into half-time.
As the players walk down to the tunnel towards the locker-room, the crowd only gets louder. A booming chant of ‘Beat L.A’ rings around the arena, the noise is deafening to close the half. The energy of the crowd inspire the Sonics and they come out of the half with renewed grit. Ray Allen finds the precise, controlled shooting which eluded him in Game 5 as he knocks down two three-pointers off screen plays to start the half. Game 6 turns into a slobber-knocker, each team reverts to isolation basketball as they throw haymakers. Durant has another monstrous fourth quarter in which he scores twenty points to drag the Sonics to being down one with just 4.1 seconds to play. Coach Brooks draws up a play for Durant to get the ball and take Seattle to the team’s first Finals since the glory days of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. The weary players clamber off the seat, ready for the final round of a bruising, sapping contest. Splitter’s inbound pass finds Durant at the elbow with the clock ticking away, Durant gets a shot off against the long-armed Ariza. The ball hits the back of the rim and clangs out, the Lakers advance to the Finals.
Rest of League:
The Miami Heat lost a lot of games last season and ended up with the second pick in the Draft. Trading away Shaquille was always going to be painful for Pat Riley but now Miami had reward for their choice to play the long game. On the Heat’s draft board was just two players, Michael Beasley and Russell Westbrook. Riley was certain that Derrick Rose would be drafted by his hometown Bulls and focus on the two best remaining prospects. Beasley’s smooth scoring was hugely impressive as he led Kansas State to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Beasley would be a good fit with Dwyane Wade on paper, Miami would have two talented scorers in both the front-court and back-court who could be relied upon to get a bucket.
However, Riley found it hard to look past the UCLA guard, he liked the fire and intensity that Westbrook displayed in the team work-outs. It is one of the few players that Riley and Coach Spo are in full agreement about, they believe that Westbrook would fit Miami’s culture hand in glove. The Heat choose to take Russell Westbrook in the Draft and form one of the most dynamic back-courts in the league. The combination of Wade and Westbrook is liable to dunk over any seven footer and get out in transition at every opportunity.
The other end of the Draft is much harder to decipher, there are still good players left on the board, players with upside who could be important in rebuilding situations. The Grizzlies were in that situation, the team had achieved success in the prior year with Conley and Pau Gasol but the success felt hollow, the low ceiling would prevent the Grizzlies from advancing any further. It made more sense for Chris Wallace to trade Pau for pieces and focus on youth even if it was painful. Gasol had been Memphis for such a long time and his departure would be heart-wrenching but it was a necessary decision. Gasol agreed with the decision, he had no stomach for a potentially lengthy rebuild. Both parties agreed to move on and a deal was quickly struck with the New Orleans Hornets.
The Hornets had been looking for another star to complement Chris Paul, preferably a big man who would benefit from Paul’s innate passing ability. When Pau was formally made available for trade, it was a no-brainer for the Hornets who had a package of interesting assets to make the deal. Peja Stojakvoic, Tyson Chandler and two future firsts were sent to Memphis in exchange for the Spanish big man. As a result of the trade, Memphis went looking for young talent to build around. The good relations with Gasol on his departure helped the Grizzlies to unearth a draft sleeper, a hugely talented player that went under the radar. Serge Ibaka was a Congolese-born Spanish forward who had spent years playing in Spain’s domestic leagues, he was a player who was known to the Spanish national team. Gasol vouched for Ibaka and the Grizzlies chose to send scouts to Spain to watch the raw big. The Grizzlies were impressed by Ibaka’s rim protection and rebounding, Wallace reasoned that Memphis’ 24th Pick in the Draft was worth a flyer on Serge Ibaka.
Kobe Bryant wins his fourth championship in a series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Los Angeles Lakers win the title on their home-floor and their first title since the Kobe-Shaq partnership of the early 2000s. The sweet taste of victory is the ultimate vindication for Bryant, Kobe proves that he can lead a team to an NBA Championship, he does not need Shaquille O’Neal to get a ring. The victory over James also goes some way to secure his position as the best player in the league, he beat the player that many claimed was the ‘Chosen One’. While Cleveland’s run through the Eastern Conference was hugely impressive and a renaissance for Shaquille O’Neal who dominated Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference Finals, the team did not have enough for the Lakers. There is a real seed of doubt in LeBron’s mind, he does not know if he can win in Cleveland without serious reinforcement.
Donald Sterling, an owner who has long been accused of racial discrimination and mismanagement of the Los Angeles Clippers, finally steps into deep water. The accusations of racism by Elgin Baylor create a firestorm league-wide, the unfair dismissal of a legendary NBA player is a horrible image for the league. Sterling’s actions also pits the player against him, they despise the idea of playing for a racist, ignorant owner who is callous in his decisions. The legal case brought by Elgin Baylor provides David Stern with the ammunition to remove one of the league’s bad apples. Sterling had sullied the name of the league for years and it was time for Stern to finally deal with the issue.
David Stern calls an emergency meeting of all NBA Owners in regard to the Sterling issue. The meeting is productive and the twenty nine owners agree that the correct course of action is for the league to buy the Clippers from Sterling. The league would own the Clippers until a suitable buyer could be found. There was little precedent for forcing an owner but the need to remove Sterling was deemed to be more pressing than previous legal examples. By unanimous decision by the owners, Sterling is removed from ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers. Stern takes the executive decision to sell the Clippers to his good friend and former team owner, Clay Bennett.
The success from the previous seasons is an encouraging sign for Sam Presti and as such the minutiae of roster-building is examined thoroughly. Seattle had to rely on their veterans heavily during the play-offs, players like Mario Chalmers were unable to get on the court as they could not be trusted. Chalmers in particular struggled to make an impact against a locked-in Lakers’ defence, the strong floor-spacing which Chalmers displayed in the regular season dried up in the play-offs. It was a worrying aspect of Chalmers’ play and a worry that Presti could not overlook, fixing the back-up point guard was a priority for Presti to address.
In the 2009 NBA Draft, there were a few interesting point guards who could step in and perform a role for the Sonics. Jrue Holiday and Brandon Jennings were both intriguing propositions in terms of adding a point guard who would slot directly into the Seattle’s system but the Sonics decided that Stephen Curry, a skinny guard out of Davidson would be a great fit for Seattle. Curry’s ability to space the floor and push the pace fit with the philosophy employed by new coach, Mike D’Antoni. The only issue for Presti was getting a high enough pick in the Draft so that Curry was still on the board. It was well known that Don Nelson would draft Curry at the sixth pick, the Warriors liked Curry’s ability as a player and as a leader.
Seattle worked out a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire the fifth pick in the Draft. Minnesota already had the fourth pick in the Draft and were determined to take Ricky Rubio, the talented Spanish youngster. The fifth pick was less uncertain and Glen Taylor was open to moving the pick if the T-Wolves received a good return on the asset. The trade involved Mario Chalmers, Seattle’s 24th pick in the Draft and a future first going to Minnesota for Stephen Curry.
Stephen Curry at 6
Scott Brooks’ contract expired after the 2008-09 season ended and Seattle made the decision to move in a different direction. The roster needed a winner, a culture changer to elevate the franchise to the next level and luckily one of those coaches had entered the market. Mike D’Antoni had failed to negotiate a new contract with Robert Sarver, Sarver did not believe that D’Antoni deserved greater autonomy within the franchise and a greater salary. Robert Sarver felt Alvin Gentry, an assistant under D’Antoni could ably step into the head coach role and command the respect of the players. As such, Mike D’Antoni came into a market where he was the hottest property available in league circles.
The coach whose principles revolve around a perimeter-oriented had enjoyed watching the Sonics play last season. The West Virginian had seen a few Seattle games last year and he saw a talented roster with potential to win an NBA title with a few tactical adjustments. Presti needed a winner and D’Antoni had recently won an NBA championship with Phoenix, MDA fit the bill. Seattle signed D’Antoni to a four year contract worth $30m.
Once the head coaching vacancy was filled, Presti went about finding reinforcements for his team. The Seattle had another slice of luck as Lamar Odom hit free agency. Odom was not interested in returning to the T-Wolves, he wanted to play on a winner. The Lakers made sense but the pain of being traded, tossed away like he was nothing was too much to deal with. Miami was a strong candidate but that location was associated with his demons, he could not go back there and perform at a high level. The last option made the most sense, Seattle had a strong team that had got far in the post-season last year, the team just needed veteran production from the bench. That was something that Lamar could provide to a team that was still relatively young. Odom made it known through his agent that he would like to go to Seattle, the Sonics reciprocated and signed L.O to a contract worth $20m over two years. The Sonics also dealt with their own players, a contract extension worth $41m over three years is agreed with Ray Allen and Keyon Dooling is re-signed on another minimum contract.
James Jones - Signs with the Miami Heat on a minimum contract
Mouhamed Sene - Cap Hold waived
Keyon Dooling re-signs on a mininum deal.
Ray Allen negotiates a contract extension worth 3/41
Seattle acquires Lamar Odom in free agency as Minnesota gets younger with their rebuild and focuses on developing Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Andrew Bynum.
Lowry, Allen, KD, Lewis, Splitter
Collison, Odom, Curry, Batum, Swift, Dooling
It all comes together for Seattle, the players buy into D’Antoni’s scheme and the offence reaches historic levels of efficiency. It is one of the most high-powered offences that the NBA has seen in years. Kevin Durant takes another leap as a scorer due to the abundance of space available to him in a D’Antoni system. A key change occurs in the Sonics’ game-planning, Kyle Lowry takes on more responsibility as a player and Durant moves off-ball more. The Sonics are not a brilliant team defensively and ride their luck during the regular season especially when Tiago Splitter misses time due to an ankle sprain. However, the sheer volume of scoring is difficult for the Lakers, Hornets and Spurs to keep up. The first season under Mike D’Antoni is impressive as the Sonics make the play-offs as the top seed in the Western Conference with a record of 62-20. The Seattle Supersonics send Ray Allen, Kevin Durant and Rashard Lewis to the All-Star game. Kevin Durant earns the honour of Most Improved Player in the league.
Seattle beats Utah in the first round in a gentleman’s sweep before beating the ageing Dallas Mavericks in six to advance to the Western Conference Finals to face the Los Angeles Lakers for the second year in a row. While the series in the previous year was competitive, the tone of the match-up had shifted in the Seattle Supersonics’ favour. A knee injury to Kevin Garnett in Game 2 of the series decided the tie, the Lakers no longer had a player who could slow down Kevin Durant. Without the intense defence being played, Durant went off in the last four games of the series. The Sonics advance to the Finals for the first since 1996.
The expected team did not come out of the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers suffered a huge loss prior the start of the play-offs. LeBron James, the league’s MVP, suffered an ACL injury in the closing moments of the season. James’ injury was devastating for every person in Northeast Ohio, the season was effectively over and suddenly the Eastern Conference looked tasty with hungry teams vying for a Finals’ appearance. The bloodbath in the Eastern Conference eventually resulted in the Orlando Magic being the Conference representative. Orlando had come through a tough series against Miami in which Wade and Howard went back and forth. The battle of Florida was a tense affair with neither team gaining much of edge. It meant that Seattle would face Orlando in the NBA Finals.
The Sonics win Game 1 comfortably and steal Game 2 due to a clutch three knocked down by Ray Allen. The game winner was crucial, Seattle were down by double digits for large portions of the game before eventually scrapping their way back into the tie behind shot-making from the two stars from the pre-Ballmer era. Rashard Lewis knocks down a corner three off a bullet pass form Kyle Lowry and then Lowry works his magic again, Lowry drops the perfect pocket pass into the hands of Ray Allen as he comes off a screen. Allen is draped in defence as he catches the ball and instantly shoots the ball. The round, orange ball is true, the ball bounces off the back rim before eventually dropping through the nylon.
The comfortable home form does not carry into Game 3 and 4, Howard’s level of play increases to another level with his crowd roaring him on. In front of his Metropolis, ’Superman’ puts on his cape and fights back. The Sonics have no answer for Howard’s energy and athleticism, he is simply unplayable as he dunks on Tiago Splitter repeatedly. The numbers pile up for Howard and the Orlando Magic blow the Sonics’ out, the momentum of the tie shifts from Seattle to Central Florida. The questions posed about the Magic’s talent and will to win are turned on the Sonics as they come home after two crushing losses.
The loss left D’Antoni slouched in his seat on the plane back, he could not find an answer for Dwight Howard on his roster, he did not have a player capable of stopping the All-NBA calibre player. Howard’s athleticism and quickness also made it difficult to beat Howard on a mismatch when it arose, perhaps the Sonics could beat the Magic if D12 was dragged into an uncomfortable situation. A thought flashed through D’Antoni’s mind, a mad thought which might just work. The starting lineup for Game 5 was unexpected and puzzled the media, Rashard Lewis was moved to centre with Lamar Odom named as the starting power forward.
The lineup change worked, the full capabilities of a D’Antoni offence was unlocked by playing five-out with quality play-makers on the floor. The ball zipped around on offence and the Magic were not allowed to settle into their rhythm, defensive mismatches were attacked swiftly. The insertion of Odom was an inspired decision, the veteran forward provided stability and strong play-making from the forward position. The game was over by the half and the Sonics were just one away from history, the greatest triumph for a team who came back from the brink.
The hours before Game 6 were routine for the team, there was no impassioned speech from the coaching staff, there were just a trust that the players would deliver in the moments when it mattered. It felt like a normal game as the players filed into the locker-room at the Amway Arena in Orlando, Florida. Back home, it was a different story. A vast swathe of Green and Gold had assembled inside the KeyArena to watch history. The crowd was vocal in their support, thousands of miles away from the game of a lifetime.
The game did not start well for the Sonics, Orlando with their backs against the wall came out firing. The Sonics are ten down after the first quarter and sixteen down at the half, the players look over-awed at the size of the occasion as they trudge down to the tunnel. The dressing room falls silent and then Ray Allen begins to speak, Allen does not chastise his team-mates emotionally, he speaks quietly. The leader of the team reminds his team-mates that there is time left on the clock, more than enough time to stage a comeback. The Sonics settle into the third quarter quickly and the offence begins to flow, a quick layup for Durant followed by a charge call on Lowry followed by a four-point play cuts the deficit to just ten. The crowd quietens and the tension grows as Jameer Nelson misses a mid-ranger. The Sonics smell the blood in the water and Durant strikes. ’The Slim Reaper’ comes calling as he goes on a 12-0 scoring run to put his Sonics in the lead for the first time in the game.
The last quarter devolves into a desperate battle, the Seattle are determined to give up no ground while the Magic are scrabbling to keep the dream alive. It is ugly basketball which favours Orlando, the Magic pull ahead by two with just ten seconds to play. The crowd is deafening, Rashard Lewis cannot hear Mike D’Antoni’s voice but he can read the board, the final shot goes to him. He pulls himself up and drifts to the break, the mind quietens and focus on the shot intently. Lowry drives hard at Nelson and draws help in the form of Dwight Howard, the ball is kicked out to Rashard Lewis with seconds ticking off the clock. Lewis launches a shot, it is all net, the Sonics are champions. Durant lets out a guttural scream as he hugs Lewis, on the sidelines Sam Presti warmly embraces Mike D’Antoni.
Rest of the League:
The 2009 NBA Draft is an exciting class of players, one of the better classes in recent years. The Memphis Grizzlies entered the Draft with the aim of finding a new starting shooting guard to fill out their young core, the Grizzlies had locked in on James Harden, a guard out of Arizona State. Harden was a player that did not have many ready comparisons, he was chunky and was not particularly fast however Harden was a smooth scorer, a good player to play next to Mike Conley. Harden’s defence would be concern but the Grizzlies’ GM was certain that the defensive abilities of Mike Conley, Tyson Chandler and Serge Ibaka would cover Harden’s lapses. With the second pick in the Draft, Memphis took Harden and formed one of the most dynamic duos in the league.
The success of teams such as Seattle, New Orleans, San Antonio and Los Angeles was troubling for Carmelo Anthony. He did not feel like the Nuggets had enough to compete with all of these other top-level sides. Carmelo looked back at his team-mates and realised that he had worked with very few All-Star players. His best team-mate was late career Allen Iverson, a player who needed the ball and did not complement Carmelo’s game. He had stuck with Denver due to the promise of improved success but now he was not sure, the Nuggets had promised a strong roster after years of patients, careful building. While the roster was good, other teams had overtaken Denver, it was a difficult question that stuck in his mind. Was Denver simply keeping him around to maximise gate revenue? The thoughts grew after another disappointing loss in the play-offs and there was a natural conclusion. Carmelo needed more help and he was unlikely to receive this help in Denver, it was time to move on with his career. A week after the Nuggets’ first-round loss to San Antonio, Carmelo Anthony formally requested a trade.
The City of Seattle and the Sonics’ owners finalise a timetable for arena renovation, the KeyArena will be complete in January 2012. During that time period, the Sonics will play at the Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Clay Bennett submits a formal request to move the Los Angeles Clippers to Oklahoma City for the start of the 2010-11 season. David Stern ensures that Bennett’s request is honoured. The owners pass the motion 29-1, the only objection comes from Mark Cuban due to financial concerns about Bennett’s ability to fund a team. The rest of the owners readily agree that it is time for the Clippers to move elsewhere, the franchise was unloved in LA and there was little chance of that changing in a Lakers town. Oklahoma City finally get the Thunder to play at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
2010-11 Season (Sonics):
The 30th pick was a difficult spot in terms of finding solid, rotation players. However, Seattle had spotted an interesting player on their European travels two years prior. In that particular scouting trip, the Sonics had spotted Tiago Splitter in Spain but they also uncovered interesting talent in the Balkans. Croatia, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Slovenia were a pipeline of future talent. The youngsters who played in this part of the world were technically sound and had potential to be NBA players. The Sonics chose to keep a closer eye on European basketball and the scouts identified a talented Serbian at EuroBasket in 2009. Nemanja Bjelica was a relative unknown to many scouts but the Seattle had watched him play for Serbia in international competition and they were impressed. Troy Weaver, a front executive for the Sonics had travelled to Europe to watch Bjelica and could not stop raving about Bjelica’s combination of size and skill. He was a big who was comfortable handling the ball and shooting from deep, his skill-set would fit nicely on the Sonics. Nemanja would spend another two years in Europe before eventually coming over but Presti reasoned that the player would be worth the wait, another two years would mean even more refinement of his abilities.
Nemanja Bjelica at 30
The principal business of free agency was signing Durant to a maximum extension, Kevin Durant readily agreed to the extension. The future of the Sonics was secure for another four years. Presti was ready to move on from Robert Swift. Swift had played well in spot minutes but Swift was often inconsistent during the season and difficult to rely upon during the play-offs. A trade was agreed with the Philadelphia Sixers, Swift would be sent East in exchange for a first round pick. Seattle also added another quality rotation piece in the form of Tony Allen. Tony Allen hit unrestricted free agency for the first time and would not return to Boston at all, he was sick of losing. Allen chose to sign with the Sonics on a two year worth $15m.
Keyon Dooling - Dooling signs with the Cleveland Cavaliers on a 2yr/$7m contract
Kevin Durant is re-signed on a maximum contract deal
Tony Allen - Signed by the Seattle SuperSonics on a 2yr/$15m deal
Starting Five: Lowry, Allen, KD, Lewis, Splitter
Bench: Curry, Tony Allen, Odom, Collison, Batum
The season does not go Seattle’s way at all, the roster is beset by injuries early in the season and there is no let up on that front. Ray Allen’s ankle hinders his play due to bone spurs making lateral movement incredibly painful. Allen soldiers on for the first three weeks of the season before the Sonics’ medical staff shut Allen down so that he can get surgery on the ankle. The surgery to remove the bone spurs in the ankle rules out Ray Allen until the New Year providing that there are no complications. The season does not get better for Ray Allen, an old knee injury flares up just a few games after his return from the ankle injury. The Sonics take a cautious approach with the injury due to Allen’s age and previous history. He is ruled out for a few months. Stephen Curry also suffers through an injury-hit season, Curry cannot stop spraining his ankle. Each time that Curry sprains his ankle, the more severe the impact is. Eventually, the ankle becomes incredibly painful and the injury needs surgery to fix the damage done to the joint. Curry is unavailable until the off-season.
Without two brilliant floor-spacers in the offensive scheme, Seattle’s offence sputters. Opposing teams clog the lane and dare the Sonics to hit outside shots, it is a huge issue in regard to the bench unit as neither Nicholas Batum or Tony Allen are good at stretching the defence. The Sonics fall down the standings and finish the season by sneaking into the eight seed. Seattle secures play-off basketball on the final day of the regular season against the Houston Rockets, Kevin Durant scores forty seven to get the Sonics into the second season. There are no heroics in the post-season this year, Seattle are over-matched against the Dallas Mavericks and lose in the first-round. The injuries to Allen and Curry were too much to overcome for the Sonics.
2010-11 Season: (Thunder)
The off-season was huge for Clay Bennett. The Clippers had relocated to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder, the promise to bring professional basketball to the State of Oklahoma finally came true. The team was promising and it had a home-town star in the form of Blake Griffin. Griffin was born in Oklahoma City and he attended OU before entering the NBA Draft. Griffin was also one of the most exciting players in the league, his elite athleticism allowed him to throw down mind-bending dunks. It was an interesting team for the Thunder to build around, Griffin was the core of the team but players like Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan were strong players who had the potential to be future All-Stars.
With this thinking in mind, Olshey understood that he had two holes to fill in the starting lineup. The small forward position had been a revolving door of veteran players who were fine but nothing special, for the Thunder to be truly competitive, OKC needed a player who was capable. The point guard was also a little worrying for Olshey, Baron Davis had been terrible during his as a Clipper and was dumped in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team needed a new starting point guard who could grow alongside the current core of players, Olshey reasoned the Draft would be the ideal opportunity to find players who fit the timeline and were on cost-controlled contracts.
Oklahoma City had the eighth pick in the Draft and the front office had identified a player who could fill the small forward spot. While the Thunder were still the Clippers, the front office canvassed California colleges. The big colleges were widely covered by nearly all NBA scouts but the smaller colleges such as San Diego State, Fresno State and Pepperdine were widely ignored. The Clippers chose to send video co-ordinators, college scouts and front office executives to watch players. Paul George was a California kid but he was not on anybody’s radar until a scout watched a Fresno State game. The game itself was not a great quality tie but George stood out, his length and athleticism profiled him to be an NBA athlete. The Clippers added George to their Draft Big Board and scheduled a work-out with George. During the work-out, George was hugely impressive and the Clippers took Paul George eighth in the Draft.
The decision to take Bledsoe was simple for the Thunder, there were few point guards in the Draft who could be compared against Eric Bledsoe. The guard out of Kentucky was a one and done who spent the most of time at the shooting guard spot whole John Wall ran the offence. However, the Thunder liked Bledsoe’s athletic ability and defensive intensity, Bledsoe seemed committed to preventing anybody from scoring on him. His play-making was not brilliant but it would be functional enough for Bledsoe to survive in the league. It was a risky pick but the Thunder took Bledsoe with the hope that he could develop into a quality player.
Paul George at 8, Eric Bledsoe at 18
The Thunder wanted to be aggressive in free agency and recruit young, talented players who would want to play on a team that was going places. This strategy fell apart on the first day of free agency, all of the players who the Thunder were tracking declined to sign in Oklahoma City. The key reason was evident, Oklahoma City was a small market that was unproven. No player wanted to strand themselves in the Midwest without the certainty that the team would be competitive and widely supported. The Thunder were left scrambling on Day 2, the focus changed to signing rotational pieces who could complement their core of players. The bench already have two solid bigs, Chris Kaman and Ryan Gomes were serviceable veterans who could be relied upon. The bench unit needed play-making and floor-spacing, there were a few players left on the market who could fill the role as required by the Thunder.
Jordan Farmar had spent the first few years of his career in a limited minutes role for the Los Angeles Lakers. Farmar had won a championship as a Laker and had developed hugely as a player, his three-point shooting had dramatically improved since his time at UCLA. Despite the team success, Farmar felt stifled in the Lakers’ scheme, he rarely had the opportunity to handle the ball with Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher handling the majority of play-making duties. Oklahoma City offered $24m over a three year period and the opportunity to have a bigger role in the offensive scheme. Farmar readily agreed to join the Thunder in the team’s first season in OKC.
Anthony Morrow had impressed many with his three-point shooting for the Golden State Warriors. Morrow’s quick trigger was admired by many around the league but the issues in his game made him an unviable proposition for the Warriors, they needed more solidity at the shooting guard spot to compensate for Monta Ellis’ defensive deficiencies. The Warriors made him available for the trade and the Thunder quickly snapped Morrow up for just a second round draft pick. Morrow’s shooting would space the floor for the Thunder and add more scoring in the reserves. Oklahoma City also agreed a contract extension with Anthony Morrow whose contract expired in 2011. Morrow would be secured for another two years at the price of $4m per year.
The position of coach also needed to be addressed, Mike Dunleavy was allowed to leave during the summer and the Thunder needed to hire a new coach. Oklahoma City wanted to hire a coach with experience of developing younger players and building a franchise into being a play-off team. The front office also preferred a younger coach who could relate to players better, Olshey had seen the fires that George Karl caused in Denver by conflicting with his players unnecessarily. It made no sense to add another worry to a long list of concerns for a recently established franchise.
Eventually, the ownership and Olshey settle on Vinny Del Negro, the former Bulls’ head coach. Del Negro had mixed reviews in his stint with the Chicago Bulls, there was criticism about his rotations and game management late in games. However, Del Negro had a good reputation as a developmental guy who could improve young players, the primary aim of the Thunder. Del Negro made sense and he took charge of the team during the off-season.
Vinny Del Negro - Hired as Coach
Jordan Farmar - Signed to the OKC Thunder on $24m/3yrs
Anthony Morrow - Traded to the Thunder, signed contract extension (2yrs/$8m)
Starting Five: Bledsoe, Gordon, George, Griffin, DJ
Bench: Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Ryan Gomes, Chris Kaman
The Thunder’s inaugural season in Oklahoma City goes well and the team draws plaudits nationally. It is one of the most exciting young teams in the league, a team that is liable to dunk every singe ball. Blake Griffin has an exceptional season playing at home, Griffin averages twenty two points, eleven rebounds and flashes a burgeoning passing game. Griffin is sent to the All-Star Game and wows in the Dunk Contest after he throws down a monstrous jam over a car. There is a lot to be proud of for Neil Olshey, Oklahoma City played very well for stretches of the season. Griffin was the obvious stand-out but Eric Gordon also had a hugely productive year. Gordon averaged twenty two points per game on hugely efficient shooting, his ability as a deadeye from beyond the arc generated offence in crucial moments for the Thunder.
Despite all of the positives, the Thunder were troubling at times. The coaching decisions made by Vinny Del Negro did not always make sense, Del Negro insisted a conservative defensive scheme which did not take advantage of the front-court’s mobility. Although Del Negro had done well in terms of building Eric Bledsoe’s rather raw game, his decisions as a coach did not fill Neil Olshey with the confidence that Del Negro had the ability to be a head coach.
Oklahoma City were also terrible defensively, the inexperienced starting five were taken for a ride by much more experienced teams. The players with the exception of Paul George did not understand situational awareness on defence and missed rotations too many times for the front office’s liking. The Thunder struggled hard during the middle of the season, the offence had dried up and the defence was leaking points. Before the turn of the year, Oklahoma City had an outside chance of making the play-offs, from February onwards Oklahoma City were consigned to the lottery. The Thunder stumbled to a 36-46 record and missed the play-offs.
Sonics vs Thunder:
Oklahoma City and the Seattle SuperSonics played each other three times during the season and the season series went the Sonics way. OKC lost the season series 3-0 and the game in Seattle was particularly interesting. The game took place at the Hec Edmundson Pavilion while the KeyArena was being renovated. The college stadium led to a college atmosphere as the Seattle fans booed the introduction of the Thunder, Clay Bennett was the enemy of the Sonic fans.
A chant of ‘Fuck Bennett, Fuck Stern’ reverberates around the arena as the game tips off. The hostility of the fans translates into the game itself, it is an aggressive affair where physicality is commonplace. Two minutes into the game, Eric Bledsoe makes a hard drive towards the rim to get the Thunder’s first points. Kyle Lowry slaps Bledsoe hard on the arm and fouls him, Lowry then turns to the crowd and raises his arm in the air. The noise intensifies, the game is on. OKC try to match the intensity displayed by Seattle but it is impossible, the Sonics run away with the game in the third quarter and the Thunder suffer a bruising loss.
Rest of the League:
Over the last two years, the Cleveland Cavaliers had two disappointing play-off exits. The injury to James in 2010 ended their run and the loss in 2009 to the Lakers was painful. It led to discontent from James camp, he needed a ring to validate his status as the best player in the world. James had seen how greats of the game such as Charles Barkley and John Stockton had been derided for not winning a ring, he needed a roster capable of winning a title. He did not know whether that would occur in Cleveland but LeBron made the decision to give the Cavaliers a chance to make the dream happen. James offered an ultimatum to the Cavs’ front office, get me Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony was available for trade, he requested a trade after the 2009-10 season ended. For James, Anthony would be the ultimate running mate. A smooth scorer that defences would have to respect, a complementary player who would find himself on the end of passes from LeBron. Danny Ferry did not waste any time making the trade, he realised that Anthony being on the roster would get LeBron to re-sign in July. Masai Ujiri drove a hard bargain and the asking price was high but the price needed to be paid, a future without LeBron would be incredibly bleak. Daniel Gibson, Shaquille O’Neal, Mo Williams and two future unprotected first round picks were sent to Denver in exchange for Anthony. It was a king’s ransom but hopefully it would get the King to stay.
Once the trade was formalised, the Cavaliers went to work as they attempted to procure a third star. Danny Ferry did not know if LeBron James was going to re-sign, his camp had kept the Cavaliers in the dark throughout the process but he needed to build under that assumption. Ferry was no idiot, he knew that the Cavaliers needed a big man to complete the core. A big who could rebound, score efficiently and play good interior defence, that was the ball game for the Cavaliers. There were two All-Stars on the market who fit that billing, Chris Bosh and A’Mare Stoudemire. Bosh was in high demand across the league, his versatility as a player was hugely desirable for a contending team as he could fit into a number of different roles. Ferry wanted Bosh but it seemed that Miami had made a stronger offer, an offer that Bosh found difficult to turn down. The focus shifted to A’Mare Stoudemire, the Phoenix big man.
Stoudemire had played excellently over his nine year career as an efficient finisher for the Suns. Stoudemire’s ability to consistently finish efficiently would be valuable in an offence which would revolve around LeBron running the pick and roll. Moreover, A’Mare was willing to leave the Suns. Stoudemire recognised that the competitive window was closed and he did not trust Robert Sarver to build another contending team. In Cleveland, Stoudemire saw a team that was one piece away from contending, he reasoned that he could be that piece. He was willing to come to Cleveland if LeBron would be there, if LeBron had gone elsewhere, A’Mare was going to New York.
On July 10, in a television special with ESPN, James revealed his free agency decision. The television special covered his long list of suitors before eventually getting to the heart of the matter. James sat there wearing a red-checked shirt acutely aware that his choice would change the landscape of the league for the next four years, it was not a decision he took lightly.
“This Fall, I’mma keep my talents in Cleveland”
Those words changed basketball, the Cavaliers had re-stocked their talent and would be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference for the next four years. It sparks an arms race league-wide with the first domino falling in Miami. The Heat made the Conference Finals in the previous year but Riley was not satisfied with the roster especially with news that LeBron would re-sign in Cleveland and A’Mare Stoudemire would join him. Pat Riley moved quickly to sign Chris Bosh on a four year maximum deal as a retort, Miami now had three All-Star level players who could go head to head with the Cavaliers. The Eastern Conference had become a question of talent and Miami needed to add more talent to the roster in order to compete effectively.
The Dallas Mavericks were a team defined by play-off failure. The team had always performed well in the regular season but the post-season was a different story. The loss in 2006 was painful, the first-round exit to the Warriors was downright embarrassing. It seemed like the window of contention had passed for the Dallas Mavericks but the team picked up steam in 2010-11. Dirk led the team to another brilliant regular season record but this time the post-season felt different. The Sonics were annihilated, the Lakers were handled with ease and suddenly Dallas were in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in a long time. At the moment where the Mavericks needed their franchise player to step up, Dirk Nowitzki came to the fore. Dirk hit a hot streak against the San Antonio Spurs and did not look back, he was unstoppable. Nowitzki’s signature fadeaway came easily and reliably as Dirk dissected the tough, gritty San Antonio defence. Duncan could not stop him and Dirk’s scoring outburst meant that the Mavericks were in the Finals for the first since 2006.
The Miami Heat had walked a tough path to the Finals. The Heat came through a difficult first-round series against the Iguodala-led Sixers before beating the Chicago Bulls in a seven game thriller in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. The Heat came face to face with their rival, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for an amazing seven game series. The teams were evenly matched which led to the games being incredibly dramatic, no one team was able to establish a dominant lead during games. If the Cavs scored, the Heat would immediately peg them back. Cleveland had the best player in the series but the Heat had the better coach and one of the most explosive back-courts in the league.
Dwyane Wade played at an MVP level, he always raised his game in the post-season but it was the Heat’s point guard who was surprising in this series. Russell Westbrook, the 2008 draftee out of UCLA, had developed into an All-Star in 2010-11. His athleticism and speed made him impossible to guard, Westbrook was quick to use his pace to create offence. Electricity crackled from his game and Westbrook played with startling intensity on both ends of the floor, Russell roasted Baron Davis who was unable to stay in front of Westbrook. The often erratic defence was focused as Westbrook took on all comers defensively, Davis was stopped with ease while Carmelo Anthony was given fits due to Westbrook’s quick hands. In the end, Russell Westbrook was the difference-maker, Cleveland did not have a player who could match his impact at the point guard spot. The Heat advanced to the Finals in seven games to play the Dallas Mavericks.
The Heat won the previous season on the back of their strong play, an exceptional series for Westbrook was the deciding factor. Against the Dallas Mavericks, Westbrook was more inconsistent and took fans through every stage of an emotional rollercoaster. Westbrook staged a ballsy comeback in Game 2 to win the game despite being seventeen down at the half, it was a game where Miami needed Russell to step up, Wade had not shot the ball went. All highs must come down and that was the case in Game 7. Westbrook had a horrific game, he carelessly turned the ball and could not throw a rock into the ocean. Russell kept on pulling up from the elbow and every time the ball caromed out. A strong scoring night from Jason Terry secured a comfortable win in Game 7 for the Mavericks who finally won a championship. Tears streamed down the face of Dirk, after the years of play-off headache, he had won the most elusive prize, an NBA title. Tears also streamed down the face of Russell Westbrook, he could not contemplate that the title was gone in such a cruel fashion. Wade pulled his team-mate off to the side and shared in his grief, it was the least he could do for the young guard.
Oklahoma City struggled on the defensive end of the floor in the previous season and this was a weakness that Neil Olshey wanted to address during the Draft. The Thunder did not have a high lottery pick, OKC would pick at 12th in the Draft. There would not be scope to acquire a player like Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker who could be considered game-changing point guards, the kind of player who would elevate the ceiling of the Thunder. However, the Thunder had identified a player who would improve the team’s defence. Kawhi Leonard was a player identified by Thunder scouts when the team was still based in Los Angeles.
Leonard was raw, his shooting mechanics needed serious work and he did not have a feel for making reads with the ball but his length, athleticism and defensive smarts was impressive. Kawhi had a physique ready for the NBA and the front office was encouraged by the background research conducted on Leonard. Everybody from his high school team-mates to his coaches at San Diego State University stated that Leonard was a diligent worker who was committed to building his game. Neil Olshey were aware that the San Antonio Spurs were interested in acquiring Leonard, the Thunder front office had fielded trade calls from the Spurs in regard to the 12th pick. While George Hill was an interesting piece to acquire for the Thunder, Kawhi Leonard was viewed as too good of a prospect to miss out on. In 2011, the Oklahoma City Thunder took Kawhi Leonard with the 12th pick in the Draft.
Kawhi Leonard at 12
The Free Agency period was busy for the Thunder, the front office looked at the roster and realised that the team needed serious overhaul. The bench unit needed to be improve with veteran talent. Ryan Gomes and Chris Kaman had under-performed in the previous season and the Thunder made the decision to add players in free agency who could improve the roster. The veteran players would be a steadying influence on a locker-room that was filled with young players. Oklahoma City struggled to draw players to a fledgling franchise but a few players agreed to test uncharted waters.
Shane Battier came to the Thunder on a one year deal worth $6m, Battier was intrigued by the idea of getting solid rotation minutes while mentoring young defensive talent. Grant Hill was another player who liked the idea of playing for the Thunder, Oklahoma City promised minutes on a play-off team, Hill did not get that offer anywhere else. He chose to sign for the Thunder on a vet minimum. Delonte West was a player with a chequered history, West had incidents at his previous stops that meant that a lot of teams did not want to sign him. Oklahoma City were willing to take that risk, they signed Delonte West on a one year deal minimum contract.
The other free agency aim was more difficult to achieve. Chris Paul had quietly been on the market for the last six months, the Pelicans had come to the conclusion that the team would not be able to compete with a core of Paul and Gasol. New Orleans felt rebuilding for the future would be a better option rather than wasting energy on trying to contend during the current timeframe. The Pelicans’ asking price was high, New Orleans wanted young players, future assets and a veteran presence for the roster. For a lot of teams, this was too much to give up but a team like Oklahoma City who had prospects and future assets were well placed to make a strong offer. In the race for Paul, only two serious suitors had come about, the Nets and the Thunder. The Brooklyn Nets made an interesting offer but the outright refusal to include Brook Lopez in trade talks meant that New Orleans were unconvinced by the offer. Oklahoma City’s offer of Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Chris Kaman and two unprotected first round picks was too much to turn down. Chris Paul was sent to Oklahoma City in a trade, Paul came back to the City where he became a superstar. Paul agreed a maximum contract extension with the Thunder that locks up CP3 until the 2014-15 off-season.
The masterpiece of an off-season threatened to go awry, Vinny Del Negro had felt disrespected last season by the Oklahoma City media. There had been more than a few editorials and opinion pieces written about Del Negro that were highly critical and struck a nerve with the young coach. Del Negro discussed these issues with Olshey and the team’s ownership who did not provide the backing that Del Negro expected. He chose to resign in August which left the Thunder without a coach for the upcoming season.
In a stroke of good fortune, Doc Rivers and the Boston Celtics mutually agree to part ways. Rivers, a top-tier coach, came onto the market. Oklahoma City did not wait, they offered to pay Rivers $15m a year for the next five years if he chose to coach the Thunder. Doc was shocked by the numbers, a coach had never been paid that much money before. Rivers readily agreed and was installed as the head coach of the Thunder in a matter of weeks.
Vinny Del Negro resigns as Head Coach
Doc Rivers - Signed as Head Coach for 5yrs/$75m
Chris Paul - Acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Pelicans receive Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Chris Kaman and two unprotected first round picks.
Grant Hill - Signed to OKC on 1yr/VetMin
Delonte West - Signed to OKC on 1yr/VetMin
Shane Battier - Signed to OKC on 1yr/$6m
Starting Five: Paul, George, Leonard, Griffin, DJ
Bench: Farmar, Morrow, Battier, Hill, West
In a lock-out shortened season, the Thunder take a leap. The previously leaky defence is now water-tight, Paul leads the team on defence, the Thunder do not give up easy buckets. It is a team capable of locking down all perimeter spots and forcing opponents to go up against DeAndre Jordan, a burgeoning rim protector if they want to get buckets. As a result of the defensive improvement, Oklahoma City go 41-25 for the season, the team has moved from being a promising young side into being a contending team with the acquisition of Paul. Chris has a brilliant individual season on both sides of the ball, his ability to throw accurate lobs to Jordan and Griffin is devastating while his tough-minded defence causes havoc against opposing point guards. As a result of the team’s success, Oklahoma City have two representatives at the All-Star game, Paul and Griffin. Paul’s impact is not limited to the basketball court, his return to Oklahoma City, the place where he started his career creates a huge amount of energy in the local community. The fans have two players that they can call their own, the Peake is always sold out and it is almost impossible to get a ticket.
In the play-offs Oklahoma City play another prodigious young team. The Memphis Grizzlies had been assembled slowly since the seismic trade of Pau Gasol. Mike Conley was the first building block, the trade of Gasol returned Tyson Chandler and in 2009, Memphis took Harden in the Draft. The slow build paid dividends for the Grizzlies as they rolled out a lineup of Conley, Harden, Mayo, Ibaka and Chandler for the team’s first post-season game in a long time. The first-round series is an absolute war between both sides, the two hungry sides went toe to toe and gave up no ground. The pendulum of momentum swung back and forth so many times during the seven games with Oklahoma Cry eventually prevailing over the Grizzlies due to a buzzer-beating layup from Chris Paul. OKC’s play-off tracks were stopped abruptly by the San Antonio Spurs in the next round, the Spurs’ ball movement cut the Thunder apart. The end of the season was disappointing but there was real belief that the Thunder could kick on and win a title in next few years.
Rest of the League:
The trade deadline is story of teams on divergent tracks and the deadline in 2012 was no different. The New Orleans Pelicans who had chosen to rebuild dealt Paul Gasol to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers had not started the season well, the team had played at a .500 pace for significant stretches of the early season. Philly did not seem able to beat the Heat, Magic or Cavaliers, those games were schedule losses. However, the team’s form had picked up over the Christmas period and the front office chose to retool rather than rebuild. Andre Iguodala and two first round picks were sent to Philly so that the Sixers could have the top-end talent needed to compete against the Conference’s best teams.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had spent a few years building towards winning the team’s first NBA title. Finally, the Cavaliers were back in the Finals and the team faced the San Antonio Spurs. The path to the Finals was easy for the Cavaliers, the talents of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and A’Mare Stoudemire had melded into a potent cocktail. The Cavaliers led the league in offensive efficiency and James had adapted well into a new role on the team. James had committed himself to defence and play-making, he was the point guard for the Cavaliers as he consistently set up good looks for Stoudemire and Anthony to finish. When the coaching staff approached him about adjusting his role, James was initially reluctant. LeBron did not love the idea of handing over some of his responsibilities to Anthony but he accepted the suggestion for the good of the team. The coaching staff had made the right decision as Carmelo Anthony enjoyed the most efficient scoring year of his career, it was highly effective, the point forward working in harmony with the pure scorer.
San Antonio’s path to the title was more laboured, the team had played a bruising six game series against the Los Angeles Lakers to secure a Finals’ berth. The Spurs had not enjoyed much success in previous years and there were times that Coach Pop believed that a rebuild could be a viable option but he chose to stick with his three guys. Pop genuinely believed that Duncan, Ginobili and Parker was enough to win an NBA Championship with the right combination of players around them. Pop was also certain that Parker needed to carry a heavier scoring load, Duncan would not always be able to lead the team and it was time to think about the future of a dynasty. Parker being made first option was a difficult acclimatisation period for the Spurs, the entire offence scheme needed to be re-wired to make the Frenchman as effective as possible. Parker had a brilliant season, an MVP calibre season as he guided San Antonio through rocky waters to the promised land of the NBA Finals.
Game 1 and 2 of the series were tense, tight affairs. Neither team were able to play freely and dominate the game, the caginess of the game favoured San Antonio would stole the first two games on the road. A big game from Manu Ginobili put the Spurs in the driving seat as they headed back to Texas. The final four games of the series was a different story all together. The criticism of James had built steadily over the last few years so and now the talk was a blazing inferno that threatened to torch LeBron’s legacy. He could not allow his story to be define by play-off failure. James came onto the floor in Game 3 looking glassy-eyed and detached, no pundits could quite make out James’ feelings until the game started. On the first possession of the game, James knifed past the defence for an easy finish, he ran back emotionless. Soon the buckets flowed in, James hit nine straight in the first quarter and single-handedly destroyed the Spurs’ defence. It was a taster for the rest of the series, over the last four games of the Finals, LeBron averaged forty five points, fifteen rebounds and nine assists. When his legacy was challenged, James stepped up to the plate and delivered the finest basketball of his career.
The final six minutes of Game 6 was a formality at the Quickens Loans Arena, the Cavaliers were up by fifteen and bar any unforeseen calamity, Cleveland would win the title. The game clock hit zero and the fans lost their mind, delirious in celebration as the Curse was finally broken. James collapsed to the floor crying, he had achieved his life goal, he had brought a championship home to Northeast Ohio after years of heartache. He wept as he embraced his family and team-mates, he pointed at Carmelo as they rejoiced. Melo was like a brother to him, two kids who had met as teenagers were now finally lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, it was the stuff of dreams.
I would like to say thank you to anybody who has read this, this has been pretty challenging for me to write. It required a lot of planning and visualisation to try and map out five years of the NBA which are different to the reality.