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The Thunder assemble to create dynamic ‘Avengers’ lineup

The Thunder’s all-time starting five has parallels with “The Avengers”

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2019 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Superheroes and athletes are closely related.

They are both perceived to be larger than life figures. In sports and comics, there are heroes and villains. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos is considered to be a villain, but in the NBA, it was the ‘Heatles’ (aka the Heat’s Big Three) in the early 2010s.

SB Nation has chosen to have a ‘Marvel Week’ to celebrate the connection between Marvel and the NBA.

When I heard about this theme, my mind started wandering, and the idea of doing an Avengers lineup for the Oklahoma City Thunder popped into my head.

For those who do not know, the Avengers is an All-Star team that usually defeats a villain like Thanos or Loki.

The Avengers’ lineup which I have selected is the best starting five in Thunder history. I have focused only on the Thunder’s history, and it will not consider the Seattle Supersonics.

Point guard: Russell Westbrook
Marvel character: Thor

There should be no debate about the starting point guard for the Thunder’s all-time starting lineup. Russell Westbrook was the Thunder for so many years before he was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets. Westbrook’s aggressive, athletic style of play was hugely exciting to watch on a nightly basis.

In terms of a direct comparison to a Marvel superhero, Russell Westbrook is Thor. Thor uses his speed and power to battle through swathes of villains to win the fight. Russell Westbrook is built the same way, I have personally seen Westbrook go through five defenders and then finish at the rim.

Russell Westbrook is also highly resistant to injury; he has rarely spent time sat on the bench due to injury. Russell has only played under sixty games once during his career. The layoff was due to a torn meniscus. This injury occurred when Patrick Beverley drove into his knee during the 2012-13 Playoffs.

Westbrook’s strength and resistance are similar to Thor’s invincibility. Thor is a Norse god, and as such, he is resistant to injury. In the comics and the movies, Thor takes a tremendous amount of punishment but manages to keep moving.

Thor’s invulnerability to injury is unlike other heroes. A superhero like Black Widow or Iron Man can be defeated because they are mortal at the end of the day, Thor is much harder to put away.

The other similarity between Westbrook and Thor is that both are divisive. The first two Thor movies were terrible, the characters felt wooden, and Thor was too strait-laced. He had new abilities, but Thor was overlooked in the early days of the Avengers.

A lot of people chose to focus on Iron Man’s wittiness or Captain America’s stoic demeanor. Thor’s behavior was overlooked or criticized. Russell Westbrook is a similar sort of figure. He is a polarising basketball player. Westbrook is loved and hated in equal measure by fans.

There will be people who praise Westbrook’s athleticism and finishing at the rim, but there will be an equal number of people who complain that Westbrook is an inefficient chucker who does not help a team win games.

I fall into the first category; Westbrook’s impact on a team is undeniable. He will grab a group by the scruff of its neck and get them over the line; it is the ideal first pick for the Avengers lineup. You always need someone with leadership at the point.

Shooting guard: James Harden
Marvel character: Doctor Strange

Harden was a tricky pick to decide as this is not the Houston version of Harden, who is an insanely polished scorer. James Harden, in his final season in Oklahoma City, was an All-Star caliber player, but he was not an MVP. In the end, I have chosen Harden to start at the two-guard next to Russell Westbrook.

I will admit that I have cheated slightly with my Avengers Lineup, I have moved Serge Ibaka down to center instead of the power forward spot that he occupied for the Thunder. Ibaka’s playing center removes the dilemma of selecting two wings from the pool of Harden, Durant, and George.

Harden fits nicely next to Westbrook in the back-court, his deep shooting covers Westbrook’s deficiency in that area of the game. Moreover, Harden’s presence on the floor provides the Thunder with another playmaker who can run the offense at a high level and make reads for team-mates.

The issue with taking Harden is that the team is left unbalanced defensively. James Harden can be a good defender, but more often than not, he lacks the situational awareness to make the right play on defense. The ‘Avengers’ lineup will be a little leaky on the defense, but I do not doubt that the team can simply outscore its opponent.

Harden’s superhero comparison was challenging to decipher at first. He is such a unique player that there are no visible names that come to mind. Eventually, I concluded that Doctor Strange is similar to Harden.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Doctor Strange to be an extroverted, curious figure. One of the first scenes that we see in Doctor Strange is Stephen Strange joking around with his staff while conducting brain surgery.

Harden is bon vivant. He is the type of person who is willing to keep the atmosphere light-hearted. Harden is a laid-back person, but he can destroy the other team without even trying.

The other character trait that Doctor Strange and James Harden share is that they are relentless in their development of self. In the comics, Strange suffers a car crash in which his hands are severely injured. The damage means he can no longer operate on people.

This adversity led to Strange traversing the globe before eventually learning about the mystical arts. Strange masters and channels this new information into a potent power for good, he becomes Doctor Strange. The desire to learn and innovate is why Doctor Strange is an apt comparison for James Harden.

One of the core ideas that must be understood when understanding James Harden is that he does not believe that any innovation is too far-fetched. He will spend time over the summer learning a move, breaking it apart before eventually repeating the step a thousand times.

He is a deep thinker about his craft who pushes boundaries to get an edge on the competition. Harden’s curiosity is the reason why the step-back has become so popular. Harden wanted a move that was unstoppable and spent an entire summer refining the movement so it would work in games.

Small forward: Kevin Durant
Marvel character: Iron Man

Kevin Durant was an easy pick for the small forward position. He is one of the best players in Thunder history but also one of the most reviled players in Thunder history. It would be mad not to select Durant as part of the Avengers Lineup; he is simply too good to leave out.

Durant would be the leading scorer on the Thunder’s “Avengers” team. No shot is a bad look for him because of his efficiency from all three levels. I would expect him to take on this responsibility despite being an individual who is not particularly suited to leadership.

Durant’s Marvel comparison was pretty easy. Kevin Durant is like Iron Man. Iron Man is a character who possesses a full range of tools to defeat a defense, much like Durant’s scoring abilities.

Iron Man quarterbacked the Avengers to success against Loki and the Chitauri horde in Avengers Assemble. Iron Man’s role in that conflict was significant. He diverts a nuclear missile, which would have devastated the Earth. In the films, Iron Man consistently displayed the ability to make the winning play.

Durant played this role for the Thunder, time and time again. He could be relied upon to knock down last-second buckets that would steal a victory for Oklahoma City. When Russell Westbrook was absent due to injury, Durant’s burden increased, but he did not flounder.

The opposite occurred, Durant got his head down and put up crazy stat-lines on a nightly basis. It did not matter that the Thunder was missing its second star; as long as KD got thirty points, OKC had a chance at winning the game.

Durant also shares a few personality traits with Iron Man. In the films, Iron Man is portrayed to be an individualistic character who is happier working alone than working with others. An excellent example of Iron Man’s unusual nature was in Avengers Assemble.

When the Avengers are brought together for the first time by Nick Fury, Tony Stark is quick to suggest that he works best alone, and he does not need the help of Captain America or Black Widow. In the first movies, it appears that Stark cares more about himself than the team as a whole.

Durant parallels Stark in this sense. He has consistently made decisions that benefit his career over everything else. Durant’s refusal to sign long-term contracts with the Warriors did not allow the front office time to consider building for the future. There was a constant pressure to win in the short-term.

Stark and Durant also both have moments within their arc where they go from being heroes to villains. In Stark’s example, Iron Man is a villain in Captain America Civil War as he opposes Captain America due to the Sokovia Accords.

Stark favored greater regulation of the Avengers after his own experiences with Ultron, while Steve Rogers believed the Avengers should have the freedom to trust their judgment. It created a clash between both heroes in which each person could be understood.

The events of the Civil War meant Stark went from being a hero to villain. Durant was a hero in Oklahoma City, but his decision to join the Warriors changed the perception of Durant. Durant was seen to be a villain for ruining the competitive balance of the NBA.

Power forward: Paul George
Marvel Comparison: Ant-Man

Paul George slots in at the power forward spot and his role on the team would be to bolster the Thunder’s defense. On a team that has three high-usage players, George’s skills as a playmaker would not be relied upon, but his defense would be invaluable.

George was an easy pick as his wide-ranging skillset means he is the ultimate utility man for the Avengers Lineup. On a winning team, you need a player who can fill in the gaps, and George is the ideal candidate for this role. Paul George is a terrific defender, but his offensive game is polished, he is a sniper from behind the arc who can work out of secondary play-making situations.

Like Harden, George’s superhero comparison was not easy. Paul George is not a second-tier hero like Hawkeye, whose primary role is to support the other Avengers. George is capable of being a leading option at times, and that ability needs to be recognized within his comparison.

The more I thought about George’s comparison, the more Ant-Man felt like the right fit. Ant-Man is a relatively new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he has played a crucial role in the Avengers trilogy. It was Ant-Man who discovers time travel, an essential factor in defeating Thanos.

Ant Man’s contribution went under the radar in a bombastic movie that focused on writing the correct ending for leading heroes such as Iron Man. Still, his discovery was the starting point in the fightback against Thanos.

George is a similar sort of figure. He will make contributions that do not catch the eye but are necessary for winning basketball. George places himself in a position to deflect the ball and hassles the opposing player into mistakes. It is not a highlight play that will make SportsCenter, but good perimeter defense is a requisite in today’s NBA.

Ant-Man and Paul George have one other fundamental similarity; they have both been leading men at some point in their career. Ant-Man carried a movie by himself before eventually settling into a supplementary role on the Avengers. George led the Pacers for years and then became Russell Westbrook’s wingman in Oklahoma City. Ant-Man and George are capable leaders, but they thrive when they can play off others.

Center: Serge Ibaka
Marvel Comparison: Hulk

Serge Ibaka deserves his place on the all-time Thunder starting lineup. He was a foundational player for Oklahoma City since the team moved to the state in 2008. On history alone, Ibaka makes this list, but Ibaka’s fit on this roster cannot be underrated.

Ibaka brings solidity on defense and floor-spacing on offense. Serge Ibaka is an extremely talented rim protector and shot blocker. His interior defense is necessary on a team with a back-court that is not brilliant defensively.

I would say that Hulk is a close comparison to Serge Ibaka. Hulk’s role within the Avengers has grown over the years, but his core responsibility is protecting his team-mates. Hulk is called upon to prevent other heroes such as Black Panther from being defeated in battle. He is the group’s guardian.

Ibaka has grown into this role throughout his career. He defends the rim like it is his best friend. Moreover, Serge Ibaka is a player who is willing to throw hands if an opposing player tries to cause conflict with his team-mates. Ibaka steps up when his team-mates need support, much like the Hulk.

As a character, Hulk’s primary responsibility is to protect his team, but occasionally he goes on rampages where he destroys the opposing forces. Hulk went on a rampage during Avengers Assemble in which he killed the Chitauri airships and created holes that Hawkeye could exploit.

Serge has displayed an ability to go on scoring bursts, which can swing the fate of a series. Ibaka is not a high volume scorer, but from time to time, he will go on a hot streak where he knocks down every single bucket and wins a game by himself.

Ibaka’s perfect nights usually occurred in pressure moments when Oklahoma City needed that edge to win the series. Similar to the Hulk, his rampages only come to the fore when the Avengers need him most.

The ‘Avengers’ lineup is Westbrook, Harden, Durant, George, and Ibaka. These are the five best players who have donned the Thunder jersey over the years. The real-life heroes who played brilliantly in their time in Oklahoma.

If you guys enjoyed this article and want to indulge more into the world of Marvel, please check out the link attached to the article.

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