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NBA's Thunder Strikes Gold In Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City will experience something new tonight: NBA playoff basketball.

Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder is averaging a league-high 30 points per game. Analysts say he's an all-but-unstoppable force.
Matt Slocum / AP
Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder is averaging a league-high 30 points per game. Analysts say he's an all-but-unstoppable force.

Not only are the Oklahoma City Thunder in the postseason -- the team is favored tonight over the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, even though the Lakers lead the series 2-0.

The Thunder are a great turnaround story. Last year, they were one of the worst teams in the NBA. And two years ago they were in Seattle, playing as the SuperSonics.

So how does an NBA team improve so drastically? Before this year, there were 10 teams in history who had improved by 25 or more wins from one season to the next. In every case, they did it by adding a current or future star, usually a Hall of Famer: The 1980 Celtics drafted Larry Bird; the 1970 Bucks signed Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar); the '98 Spurs drafted Tim Duncan and got David Robinson back from injury.

The Oklahoma City Thunder did it an entirely different way: Their current squad just got better.

"The Thunder is a total outlier in terms of what we're used to in NBA success," says Kevin Pelton, an analyst for Basketball Prospectus.

Improving by 27 wins when your team's biggest addition was a backup point guard is shocking. But it does help when your one all-star is Kevin Durant, the most exciting young player in the league.

Pelton says Durant has become an all-but-unstoppable force.

"He's gone beyond an all-star top superstar, to where he may finish second in the MVP voting."

Durant, who averaged a league-high 30 points per game, has always been a good scorer. But basketball researcher Wayne Winston says that in his first two years in the league, he played terrible defense and didn't help his teammates that much offensively.

"I will totally stand by the fact that Kevin Durant did not make his team better in the first two years in the league. When he was on the court, they were a worse team," says Winston. "And I will totally stand by the statement that when [Durant] is on the court this year, he makes as much a difference as LeBron [James], Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki -- any of the other greats."

Winston, a pioneer in basketball statistical research, says Durant's improvement is one of the most amazing things he's ever seen. Other basketball statisticians say the only amazing thing is how wrong Winston was about Durant -- at first.

But most basketball analysts credit NBA coach of the year Scott Brooks with dramatically improving the Thunder's defense. Also important is the patience exhibited by Sam Presti, since he took over as the team's GM in its last year in Seattle.

At the time, it was assumed that the Sonics were tactically terrible just to drive away locals and pave the move to Oklahoma City. That might have been a motivation, but the team's front office knew that to be good in the future, it had to be bad in the short term. And they also knew that Oklahoma City would embrace any NBA team, no matter the record.

Ed Kelley, the editor of The Oklahoman and a lifelong resident of the state, backs up that assertion.

"I have said publicly that having a permanent NBA franchise in Oklahoma City is the single biggest thing ever to happen to Oklahoma City."

Yes, The Oklahoman is partly owned by the wife of the Thunder's owner. But Kelley's point is echoed throughout the city -- from the day a crowd in the hundreds attended the unveiling of the new team's name and colors, to the five days it took the team to sell out all of its season tickets.

In the team's first year, the city has been thunderstruck. In fact, the locals are getting ready for an unprecedented bit of sports history, with a bevy of Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys expected to be taken in the first round of tonight's NFL draft.

With the Lakers in town tonight, some say it could be the most eventful date since this day in 1889, when Oklahoma City was first established.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.
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