Thursday, December 18, 2014

OKC and The Great Man Theory of History

My favorite play from OKC season 2.0 may have been a play that never even happened. Last Thursday, in the first half of a TNT game against the Cavs, Kevin Durant wound up in a switch with Matthew Dellavedova on the block. Jeremy Lamb has the ball on the wing, looks off Durant and then swings it to the other side of the court. Durant's reaction, which was nothing short of apoplectic, was something Kobe would have been proud of.

By the end, he seems as much incredulous as angry. Like, what does Lamb think this is? The whole point of OKC's offense is to get Kevin Durant the ball. When KD has a little buddy like Dellavedova (6'4 200) on his back, you can abandon whatever Plan A was and just give him the damn ball.

Of course, what's crazy about KD is that just about everyone is a little buddy to him. The first rule of playing good defense is to be longer and faster than the guy you are guarding. Durant is 6'11 235 with a 7'4 wingspan - there's no one in the NBA who is both longer and faster than him. Even Anthony Davis and his prodigiously long arms (7'5 wingspan) allow him to go reach-for-reach with Durant, not tower over him. KD, in contrast, can unfurl his arms from the bannisters and overwhelm almost any other perimeter player.

What makes the Thunder so dangerous is you can say the same thing about Westbrook. There are guys who are longer than Russ (6'3 185 with a 6'7 wingspan) but there is no one out there who is faster and more athletic than him. As Mark Jackson talked about on the telecast the other night, he played PG for a very long time in the NBA - 1987 to 2004 - and he never saw a PG with the athletic ability of Rose and Westbrook.

There's no one in the NBA who can guard Westbrook 1-on-1 and there's no one who can guard Durant 1-on-1. They may have lost the Finals to LeBron and Wade, but it wasn't because they weren't scoring at will on those guys. They were. When you have two guys like that, you don't need to have too complicated an offense. At the end of the game, the only play Scott Brooks needs to use is everyone get the hell out of the way so one of my guys can score. The Thunder can run the spread pick-and-roll as well as anyone else, but they might be the only team who can isolate their top scorers and be just as efficient.

They haven't won a title yet, but they've done about everything else:

2010 (21) - Lose to Lakers (eventual champs) in 6 games
2011 (22) - Defeat Nuggets in 5, Grizzlies in 7, lose to Mavs (eventual champs) in 5
2012 (23) - Defeat Mavs in 4, Lakers in 5, Spurs in 6, lose to Heat (champs) in 5
2013 (24) - Defeat Rockets in 7, lose to Grizzlies in 5
2014 (25) - Defeat Grizzlies in 7, Clippers in 6, lose to Spurs (eventual champs) in 6

The only teams that have been able the to beat the Thunder when healthy are those good enough to win the whole thing. Oklahoma City has to get better, but they are much closer to the top than teams like Golden State and Houston. The Rockets and the Warriors will get better if they win two playoff series this year. If the Thunder win two, it will be a disappointment. Here are the series records of the notable teams in the West since 2010:

Spurs - 10-4
Thunder - 8-5
Lakers - 5-2
Mavs - 4-3
Grizzlies - 2-4
Clippers - 2-3
Warriors - 1-2
Blazers - 1-2
Rockets - 0-2

I don't think the extra playoff experience (13 series) is a bonus in and of itself so much as it is an indication of just how talented the Thunder are. If you play 13 series in 5 years, you are sending good to great teams home on an annual basis. They have 2 nuclear weapons they can go off at any time in a series.

The scary thing is that OKC's role players are getting better right along with their stars. As long as everyone stays healthy and stays in town (two big ifs, for sure), they have the pieces to make the next 5 years even better than the last 5. For far too long, Scott Brooks insisted on playing aging veterans like Kendrick Perkins, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha way too many minutes in the playoffs, minimizing the advantage of the length and athleticism of OKC's stars.

With KD and Russ back in action, we are getting a look at version 2.0 of the Thunder. We are finally getting to see what happens when the they have length, shooting and athleticism at the other two spots on the floor next to their Big Three instead of age, age and more age.

They start Andre Roberson and Steven Adams and they bring Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Anthony Morrow, Nick Collison and Perkins off the bench. Perry Jones III had 31 points in an NBA game this season and he can't even crack their 10-man rotation. In my admittedly biased (#PJ34ever) opinion, that speaks to Brooks still not maximizing his team's potential, but the FO has at least made sure that his mistakes are nowhere near as damaging as in year's past by clearing out the end of their bench and not giving him any of his safety blanket veterans to cling too.

While they haven't had a tough schedule since their stars have returned, the plan has worked like a charm so far. The Thunder are 8-1 since Westbrook returned from injury on Nov. 28. If he isn't the MVP, he's definitely the M-E-P, most entertaining player.

If there's one reason to delay the coronation, though, it's the strength of the rest of the West. The Thunder may be better than they were over the last 5 years, but the West is too. That's why I think OKC is the most compelling team in the NBA - so much of the balance of power in the league depends on what happens to them over the next 1.5 seasons. Of all the great teams out West, the Thunder are the only one with a realistic shot at establishing a dynasty in the near future. There are great players on every other team, but the only one with a combination of two superstars in their prime is Houston and Dwight could be exiting his. In a world where the grand plan in OKC doesn't come to fruition, the Western playoffs are an uber-competitive free for all where every team has a chance and the eventual champion comes down to a few lucky bounces. In short, it's the world Adam Silver and David Stern envisioned during the last lockout.

In a world where the Thunder start racking up championships, our narrative about the last few years changes dramatically. All of a sudden, instead of the 2011 Mavs and the 2014 Spurs, the model for future champs is the 2012-2013 Heat. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's plan of slash-and-burn tanking becomes a lot more appealing while we have to hope that guys like Anthony Davis and Dante Exum can take the next step to superstardom and dethrone the Thunder in much the same way as they did the Spurs. The mass of power at the top of the West this season becomes our very own "vacation of history", as the great ring of power is passed from Kobe to LeBron to Durant.

If we look at things from that POV, we can turn basketball into tennis. The Spurs become Federer while the Thunder are Nadal - the aging champion trying to turn back the clock on the brash young challenger whose raw physicality forces us to change some of our assumptions about the game. Once that becomes the frame, the only real question is when Federer is passed by Nadal and whether there's a Djokovic or Murray out there who can beat him at his own game. Or will we need to wait for the next generation, for guys like Milos Raonic to turn the tables on today's great players?

That's the kind of thinking LeBron used when he made his infamous boast about the number of titles they would win in Miami. If Chris Bosh can open up the floor, then LeBron and Wade can play 2x2 against any other team's great players and they win that match-up. The grand experiment in South Beach didn't last, but you can't say it wasn't phenomenally successful in their time together - 2 rings, 4 NBA Finals appearance, the second-longest win streak of all-time and a cumulative mark of 14-2 in playoff series. KD and Russ (26) are the same age that LeBron was in 2010. Imagine how good the Heat would have been if LeBron and Wade were the same age, Bosh could block 3 shots a game and they had 3-4 young lottery picks slotted in as role players.

No matter who they face in the playoffs, KD and Westbrook are going to come into a series with a huge match-up advantage. If they face the Warriors, they are going to outscore Steph and Klay. If they face the Rockets, they are going to outscore Harden and Dwight. If they face the Blazers, they are going to outscore Lillard and LMA. That logic doesn't hold in every situation, as the Spurs were able to defeat the Thunder last season with KD and Russ going HAM, but it sure makes it awfully tough for the other team. Think of all the things that went right for San Antonio - they were playing about as high a level as could possibly be played - and all the things that went wrong for Oklahoma City - not just Ibaka's untimely injury, but that they were letting an NBA head coach dress in a uniform and play 32 minutes in Game 6 of the WCF.

There are a hundred factors that go into whether or not a team is going to win a playoff series and a lack of appreciation for those factors is why guys like Dirk and LeBron were so unfairly blamed for their lack of ringz for most of the last decade. You can always write playoff counter-factuals and there's no way to prove or disprove them. And if that's the case, are these broad narratives we tell about the rise and fall of great players nothing more than our attempt to find patterns and impose character arcs on what is essentially the outcome of chaos theory? Or do all these things sort of even out over a broad enough time scale? Is modern analytics looking too much at the trees and not enough at the forest? If the great players of history figured out a way to win multiple championships, should we expect the great players of today to do the same?

One of the reasons I find this so fascinating is that I was a big history buff growing up and I loved to read about the great empires of the past - the Romans, the Arabs, the Mongols, the British. One of the great debates in historical thinking is whether we can attribute the patterns of history to the actions of a few Great Men (and Women) - to the Julius Caesars, Mohammads, Genghis Khans and Queen Victorias - or whether they are contingent factors of historical inertia. In short, is a person solely a product of their historical times or can they stand above the tide of history and by sheer force of will change the tides?

The Great Men view of history says that we can study the life and times of guys like Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin (or more positively) Churchill, FDR and Lincoln, and from their actions and experiences, we can see how the world became what it is today. The more sociological view of history (which is more popular in the modern era - history majors can feel free to correct me on this if I'm wrong) is that we need to study the economic trends and the broader socio-political forces behind the rise of the Third Reich and Soviet Communism and that Nazi Germany was always doomed to lose WW2 because they didn't have the men, the money or the industry to knock out the US and the USSR at the same time.

At the risk of further belaboring this analogy, do we need to get into the weeds with all 30 teams to try and find a pattern through the noise? Or can we track the rise and fall of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, see how their teams win and lose in the playoffs and use a superstar-laden view of historical determinism to make more accurate predictions than a statistical one? We already know which approach is going to sell more sneakers.

If the Thunder become the next great dynasty, the march of NBA history will go on as it always does. If they don't, our vacation from history over the last few years could be extended indefinitely.


  1. Fantastic article, love the comparison to the great man theory. Might be tough to extrapolate that out to the NBA, but I agree that people want to judge the superstars and not admit that it's a team game. Ignoring the repeated success of the Spurs, as they will.

  2. Interesting article. NBA's such a different animal compared to other sports in terms of how much impact one player can have - there's only five players on the court and the ridiculously low cap on max salary ensures LeBron gets paid less than half what he's worth.

    The Spurs were a perfect storm of how great a team can be without a superstar. Their big three all took a pay cut: Parker only made $12.5 mil, Duncan made $10.4, Manu made $7.5, and of course Kawhi was still on his rookie contract making under $2 mil. That's a lot of added value. Take the true market value of those four, subtract what they were actually paid, and you might get close to the added value LeBron brought to Miami.

    Add on the facts that Pop is a genius, those top four fit extremely well together, and the Spurs organization has a fantastic ability to bring in high-character role players, and you've got an advantage that's borderline impossible to emulate. It's much easier to just build around a superstar.