History provides this warning to Thunder: Success can be fleeting
The Thunder produced a 27-win turnover almost exclusively by internal growth
The 1997 Washington Bullets had a similar surprising run but didn't build on it
Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti knows he must keep this team humble and hungry
In 1997, after winning 16 of their final 21 games, including a winner-take-all clash with the Cavaliers on the last day of the season, the Washington Bullets advanced to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, where they faced the defending champion Bulls.
It was a lively time in the nation's capital. Chris Webber and Juwan Howard were young, rising players out of Michigan. Ben Wallace was just beginning his eventually stellar career. Seven-foot-7 center Gheorghe Muresan entertained with his size and joie de vivre. Rod Strickland was one of the top point guards in the league.
As such, the Bullets played the Bulls competitively in their first-round series. They lost all three games, though it was by a combined margin of 18 points. Michael Jordan had to score 55 for a five-point victory in Game 2. The final game was a one-point margin, after which Jordan told reporters that the Bullets, with their young nucleus and talented frontcourt, were the team of the future.
Does all this sound familiar?
It should. Look at Oklahoma City. After the Thunder's tantalizing first-round series with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant declared that OKC would be an NBA force for years to come.
A strange thing happened to that Bullets team (now known as the Wizards): Its three-month run of glory, in which everything coalesced perfectly, was derailed by injuries and off-court troubles the next season. Out of sheer frustration by its lack of advancement, that team of the future was dismantled, never becoming the powerhouse many envisioned. (Washington didn't return to the playoffs again until 2005.)
This is not to say that the Thunder will traverse the same difficult road of the Bullets. But just because a team performs as admirably as the Thunder did against the Lakers doesn't mean taking the next step is a foregone conclusion, something that young general manager Sam Presti said he specifically addressed in his exit interviews with players.
"We have a lot of faith in our guys," Presti said. "We understand that as we continue to try to build and grow, there will be plenty of adversity that we encounter. We also understand and respect that there is a fragility to the league and there are a lot of variables that separate winning and losing. It is no different than the process we all go through as we try to achieve success. We just have to continue to stay focused on what it was that helped us achieve this first level of our success."
There are many reasons to believe Oklahoma City will avoid the pitfalls that doomed that Bullets team. First off, the Thunder are the first team to achieve such a turnaround -- they won 27 more games this season than they did in 2008-09 -- almost exclusively with internal growth. Of the other top reversals of fortune, all were accompanied by the acquisition of a Hall of Fame-caliber player. The 2008 Celtics, who improved a record 42 games, added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The '98 Spurs (36 more victories) drafted Tim Duncan and welcomed back David Robinson from injury; the '90 Spurs (35) benefited from the Admiral's arrival; the '05 Suns (33) signed Steve Nash; the '80 Celtics (32) drafted Larry Bird; and the '70 Bucks (29 wins) drafted Lew Alcindor.
The Thunder went from 23 wins to 50 victories through the leadership of Scott Brooks, who won Coach of the Year; the emergence of Kevin Durant, who became the youngest NBA scoring champion of all time; and a dedication to defense and unity that is more prevalent on college campuses than at NBA arenas. It certainly is easier to make a point to this group, which is not far removed from those difficult days of excessive losing under P.J. Carlesimo.
"When you win only 20 games, you cherish every win," Thunder forward Nick Collison said. "And so I think I still have a little bit of that in the back of my head. I appreciate it more than I ever did after being on some down teams."
Oklahoma City appears to be made of a different fiber than that Bullets team, if for no other reason than the apparent sense of entitlement embodied by Washington's Webber and Howard, stemming from their days as part of Michigan's Fab Five when they made it to back-to-back NCAA championship games as freshmen and sophomores.
Their off-court antics -- including Howard's arrest for drunken driving just a few months after signing a $105 million contract with the Bullets (he completed an alcohol education program in order to get the charges dropped); Webber's arrest on charges of marijuana possession, resisting arrest and second-degree assault (a jury acquitted him of the most serious charges); and their missed team functions because of late nights on the town -- accelerated the team's demise and led many to think they lacked the work ethic and discipline necessary to maximize their potential.
Durant and the rest of his Thunder teammates seem to be more grounded, in part because Presti has done a fine job of piecing together disparate parts that complement each other nicely. However, it doesn't take much to upset the delicate balance. The Thunder will likely offer Durant a lengthy and lucrative contract extension this summer. But what about Jeff Green, the fifth pick in 2007 draft, who, according to sources, isn't optimistic about his chance to grow as a player in the shadow of Durant, a dynamic that will only continue if he remains an undersized power forward with the Thunder?
What happens when Durant gets his contract and his young teammates deduce that the only way for them to be paid similarly is to start taking some of the shots that they were willing to give up to him during this magical season? Will the Thunder be able to withstand the inevitable injuries that were mostly absent this season but at some point will emerge in a sport that takes a brutal toll on players' bodies?
What Oklahoma City captured this year is intoxicating. It also can be fleeting. Things happen. Human nature takes over. Life intervenes. Even at 32, Presti knows this. He has been around the league long enough to understand the difference between sustained success and lightning in a bottle. Sometimes it is in your control. Mostly it is not. He is doing everything he can to help it remain a part of the organization.
"Last season, we were coming off a year where externally there were questions whether or not we would be able to win nine games," Presti said. "Going through that adversity certainly brings a sense of humility to the group -- and knowing that none of our wins from this season that we were fortunate enough to accumulate are transferable to next year. I do think there can be a real sense of entitlement in this league, but I think this group understands that we have to earn our way as we are trying to establish a certain level of consistency and an identity."
NBA Truth & Rumors