After ousting the defending champion Dallas Mavericks in a seemingly easy four-game sweep in the first round this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to have the look of a champion. With the likes of Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook, it seems hard to argue that this team is not a force to be reckoned with and, indeed, history seems to indicate that OKC has the right components to earn the first championship in team history.
An apt comparison can be found between this year’s Thunder squad and the 2002-03 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.
Typically, winning teams are built around star power. This Thunder squad seems no different. They focus their game around two superstars in Kevin Durant, an easily chosen top three player in the league, and Russel Westbrook, who has taken great strides in his game this season. Further, they are backed up by a number of key role players who know their job and execute to perfection.
While Durant seems slightly more offensively dominant, Tim Duncan had the same ability to take take control of a game. Both finished the season with a field goal percentage right around 50%, and were effective both on the glass and in assisting their teammates.
Westbrook plays a similar role to Tony Parker’s on that team. Again, Westbrook plays a more offensively-minded game, but both act as floor generals and set up the offense, looking to get the ball to Durant/Duncan for an easy look, but also able to stop-and-pop or take it to the hole.
Both teams feature a number of key role players that help the team excel in the regular season and, if the Thunder are able to follow suit, can lead to a title. As the Spurs were more a defensive team, their role players were required to produce more on the offensive side of the ball, whereas the Thunder have a team that allows their rotation guys to play key defensive roles.
James Harden seems to be the Stephen Jackson of the squad, providing a scoring punch that opponents find hard to stop, along with the ability to go off at a moment’s notice. That year, Jackson scored over 20 points in a quarter of the Spurs’ playoff games. Thus far, Harden has had consistent scoring in his sixth-man role, but has the ability to take control of the game, as was clear from last night’s 29 point performance.
Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins act as defensive stoppers, similar to the roles played by Bruce Bowen and David Robinson, who had lost a step in his final year in the NBA, but was still a defensive juggernaut.
Again, as the ’02-’03 Spurs were more defensively gifted, they needed more scoring production from their role players, such as Manu Ginobili and Malik Rose. The Thunder get more production from their stars, but players such as Daequan Cook and the newly-acquired Derek Fisher are able to fulfill similar roles.
Grantland/ESPN writer Bill Simmons pointed out similarities between the Thunder and the 1990-91 NBA Champion Chicago Bulls. Again, the comparison is an apt one: compare Durant/Westbrook to Jordan/Pippen, Perkins/Ibaka to Horace Grant/Bill Cartwright, Harden/Fisher to B.J. Armstrong/John Paxon.
In short, Oklahoma City is built to win. They are working with a formula that has been successful in the past, focusing on a balance between the star power and role players, and their dominance was clear in the first round. If they are able to maintain a consistent level of play throughout the remainder of the playoffs and can keep opponents in check, they may prove, once again, that stars playing with consistent, effective role players is the right route to becoming an NBA champion.
2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs
1990-91 Chicago Bulls