The Thunder were supposed to be the heir to the Jordan and Pippen Bulls teams. Every move they made was the right one. Every draft pick turned into one of the best 25 players in the NBA. How couldn’t they be the next NBA dynasty? Five years later, that promise is yet to come to fruition, and as each season passes and no progress is made, the fruit looks less and less ripe. One year, they were too young. Another, they were injured. This year, they’ll play the injury card again. Its time to stop making excuses: the Thunder have built something special in one of the closest teams in sports history, but GM Sam Presti and coach Scottie Brooks take away from it with their stubbornness. Along the way, beginning even before the team left Seattle, they wrote the handbook for how to build a perfect team. Unknowingly, they also penned the instructions for how to destroy one.

Presti took the Thunder from being an NBA bottom dweller to what some called the heir to Pippen and Jordan’s Bulls in three, short years. In those three drafts, Presti took what would become the best player in the NBA (Kevin Durant), the most athletic (Russell Westbrook), the best defensive power forward (Serge Ibaka), and the perfect sixth man (James Harden). Every game that passed, the team improved. Durant learned to score from anywhere on the court. Russell kept getting faster. Harden couldn’t miss a shot. They were on a collision course with history. They were going to be the best team in the NBA. They didn’t do it through splashy free-agent moves, they didn’t do it in the spotlight, and they didn’t do it with a team of “me-first” guys. They did it as—however cliché it might sound—a family. It wasn’t a matter of if they would win a title; it was a matter of how many. The team had everything. Four all-stars. A deep bench. A genius GM.

These three would have come back from their Finals loss with such a chip on their shoulder. Presti needed to give them at least one more season together.
These three would have come back from their Finals loss with such a chip on their shoulder. Presti needed to give them at least one more season together.

A genius GM…or so we thought until the disastrous, terrifying, horrible, terrible, repulsing, repeating nightmare-inducing James Harden deal. Harden’s stock was as high as ever when Presti gave him up. The offseason after the Thunder lost to Miami in the Finals, and Durant, Westbrook, and Harden held each other as LeBron celebrated their title, Presti ran in the middle of the three and pried them apart. For what? A shooter that can’t shoot (Jeremy Lamb), an angry and hungry Kiwi (Steven Adams, who is a very solid player, but nothing worth giving up a superstar for), and the 21st pick in this year’s draft. When I say that this trade causes me nightmares, I’m not exaggerating at all. There was no reason to get rid of Harden. Had Presti just amnestied Kendrick Perkins (I’ll get to that in a minute), the Thunder could have signed Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka all at their current contracts with money left over. At the end of the day, owner Clay Bennet was afraid of ponying up a little extra money had the salary cap not have been raised, and he had to pay the luxury tax. Newsflash: Clay, the salary cap was raised, and it was clear that it would be even back in 2012. Plus, even if it wasn’t, you already robbed Seattle of their basketball team. Why rob Oklahoma City of a title too?

Presti has done amazing things in Oklahoma City. Amazingly great...and amazingly horrific. (Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman)
Presti has done amazing things in Oklahoma City. Amazingly great…and amazingly horrific. (Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman)

Yet even with the ‘trade-that-shall-not-be-named’, OKC has managed to do something rarely found in the ego and wallet-inflating sport of basketball: they created a brotherhood that loss, distraction, and rumors cannot break apart. Just watch Kevin Durant’s MVP speech from last week. He spent nearly half an hour addressing every single player on the team, throwing in a personal token about them, what he liked about them on and off the court. It was the definition of the word ‘sincere’. It couldn’t have been faked. He spoke from his heart, and his tear glands responded. When it was Russell Westbrook’s time to be spoken about, KD could barely pull himself together.

“A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player, and I’m the first to have your back, man, through it all,” Durant told the same player that has stolen countless shots and even a playoff series (or two). “Just stay the person you are, man. Everyone loves you here. I love you. I thank you so much, man. You made me better. Your work ethic — I always wanted to compete with you, I always wanted to pull up in the parking lot of the arena or the practice facility, and if you beat me there I was always upset. I always wanted to outwork you. And you set the bar. You set the tone. Thank you so much, man. Thank you. You got a big piece of this [MVP award]. You’re an MVP-caliber player and it’s a blessing to play with you.”

That’s special. That’s why that speech is being called the best by an athlete ever, and that’s why Durant is the perfect teammate: he doesn’t care about his stats or his image, he just cares about his team getting a win. That’s it. He loves basketball. He loves his teammates. He’s the main reason why OKC is such a special team on the court. They’re frustrating as hell sometimes, trying to share the ball just for the sake of sharing the ball, but when Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook are all clicking, taking their shots, and playing together I’d take them over any trio in NBA history.

But basketball is a team sport, and the backbone of that team has to be the coach, and there are few worse in the NBA than Scottie Brooks. Just like Presti’s unwavering confidence in the $8.5M black hole of offense known as Kendrick Perkins, Presti refuses to question the $4M a year Scottie Brooks, a coach whose idea of running a play is, “Oh, well, since we have two of the best players in the world, how about y’all just stand around and look at each other?” Presti is so focused and determined to demonstrate loyalty in Oklahoma City that his fans are losing faith in him, his coach, and his center. His loyalty is morphing into stubbornness every move (or lack thereof) he makes.

Brooks coaches with that same stubborness. For the past 3-years, OKC’s starting lineup has been identical night in and night out: Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka, and Perkins. While Harden was on the team, Brooks refused to start him, even though Harden publicly said that he wanted to start, and he would have been starting on any other team in the world. Sefolosha is an above average defender and horrible on offense. Harden was a top-15 player in basketball. His decision to start Thabo never made any sense, but the same Swiss shooting guard kept trotting out and the bearded star stayed on the bench.

A comedy of errors... (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
A comedy of errors… (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

That problem is nothing compared to Perkins. Kendrick Perkins is the worst player in the NBA. He brings nothing to the court. On defense (his “strength”), Perk averages a weak 3.6 boards and 0.4 blocks a game. And he’s slow. The reason there isn’t a recorded 40-time for him is because the timing device ran out of battery before he could finish. He plays stupidly too, and if there was a stat that kept track of bonehead fouls, he would destroy the competition (for the first time in his life!). In game 6 of this year’s Clippers series, he already had 2 fouls after playing just 5 minutes. Normally, they come at more inopportune times. But wait! There’s more! When Perkins is on offense (this only happens if he can get back quickly enough), teams leave him open and use their extra defender to double-team Durant.

Yet for whatever reason, Brooks keeps playing Perkins game in and game out, even during crunch time of a must-win playoff game, despite the fact that Steven Adams has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the year and grew into a whole different beast against the Clippers.

Whoever is on the court is going to be beloved in Oklahoma. That’s in large part due to Sam Presti. Nobody calls OKC the Thunder. They’re OKC. Oklahoma City. Players visit schools in the area, feed the homeless, or go to a hospital, or do something to help their city.

No team does more for their community than the Thunder.
No team does more for their community than the Thunder.

Whenever someone joins the team, they’re required to go the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and the connected museum to understand the people and city they’re playing for. Even though only the new guy is required to go, every last guy on the team makes the trip too. They make a point to stop and read the names of everybody who died in the attack every single time. That’s whose families they play for. When Durant made that speech, he mentioned every player on the team. To him, Oklahoma City is a member of the team too. It’s who he plays for.

“There’s so many things that just try to bring us down here in Oklahoma,” Durant said. “Natural disasters, the Oklahoma City bombing. I feel as though us being here, the Thunder, we’re just trying to shine a bright light. Hopefully something like this represents what we’re about.”

But now it’s looking like that bright light might fizzle out before it got as bright as it should have. Presti doesn’t have any plans to amnesty Perkins and free up cap space. Nor does he plan to fire Scottie Brooks before his contract expires in 2016. By that point, it might be too late. Durant is a free agent by the end of 2016 season, and like LeBron did after years of coming up just too short in a small market, he could bolt.

The balance is wavering back and forth: is this franchise the next Spurs or will they miss their chance like Sacramento? Durant and Co. will figure this out, in spite of their GM and in spite of their head coach. There’s too much talent and chemistry for them not to. Could they use a new coach? Probably.[1] It doesn’t matter, though. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what team is played on the court. Even diluted by Presti’s recent moves and Brooks’ “coaching”, there’s not a team in the world that can do more damage as a team than the Thunder. They’ll do it with their city. They’ll do it with one another. Eventually, the trade and the mind-boggling lineups will be forgotten. Oklahoma City won’t just be the city that got bombed. They and their superstars will be world champs. Together.

[1] If Presti was judged only on trades, coaching decisions, and free agency moves, he should be out of a job too. That’s not how it works, though, and Presti is the NBA’s best drafter, which he proved again this year by stealing Steven Adams with the 12th pick.