Berry Tramel: As hopes soar for a second Thunder golden age, remember that Western Conference improvement usually is incremental and not always linear. Lots of switchbacks. Too many hurdles to get too confident.
OKLAHOMA CITY – Sam Presti got excited about some point or another concerning a trend of some NBA basketball team, and then leaned forward and let his voice go into overdrive.
“And that’s in the West!”
Presti’s amazement of the Western Conference’s superiority was evident. And it was circa 2010.
For lo these many years, as long as the Thunder has hung a shingle, West dominance has been an accepted reality of NBA life. Western Conference teams don’t always win the championship — 2021 Bucks, 2019 Raptors, assorted LeBron teams — but almost always have more good teams, more great players and more true contenders.
Which is germane to the Thunder, of course, since it resides in the West, and that’s not likely to change unless the NBA some day scraps the conference format.
The Thunder’s 16th season tips off Wednesday night in Chicago, and optimism is back. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. Santa Clara Williams and Chet Holmgren. Loud City is Proud City again.
The Thunder’s four-year span of low expectations is over. Since summer 2019, when the trades of Russell Westbrook and Paul George ended an era, nobody has expected much out of OKC. The Las Vegas over/under totals for Thunder wins: 32½ in 2019-20; 22½ in 2020-21; 23½ in 2021-22: 23½ in 2022-23.
It’s to the everlasting credit of Presti and Company that only two of those years were tank jobs. The Thunder went 44-28 in the Chris Paul year of 2019-20 and 40-42 a year ago, plus 1-1 in the play-in tournament.
The Vegas over/under number is 44, a remarkable number for a team so young and unproven.
And for a team in the West.
As hopes soar for a second Thunder golden age, remember that Western Conference improvement usually is incremental and not always linear. Lots of switchbacks.
Too many hurdles to get too confident. As Oklahoman Roger Miller sang so long ago, you can’t rollerskate through a buffalo herd. And there will be no skating for the Shai Hey Kids. They’ll have to pick-ax their way through the West.
“We’re still building,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “I mean, let me be very clear on that. We’re still building. This is a young team, and the building process transcends any individual season. We’re always trying to evolve and become better, and this is no different.”
A team like the Thunder had better be building. If you’re not building, the Western Conference is catching up to you.
Those Vegas over/under numbers? Eleven West teams were given at least 42½ victories; only seven East teams were put in that class.
Only three West teams appeared doomed to a losing season — Portland, San Antonio and Houston. The Blazers just started the rebuilding process, the Spurs just drafted Victor Wembanyama and the Rockets have a bunch of young talent.
No wonder NBA executives and coaches and maybe even players feel relief when they relocate to Eastern Conference franchises. There’s a lot less traffic.
The East has contenders. Milwaukee and Boston, of course. Miami is evergreen. Philadelphia has Joel Embiid. Cleveland and New York are intriguing.
But the West has contenders and more. Denver, Phoenix and the superstar-laden Los Angeles teams. The West has a proud old war horse capable of turning back the clock, in Golden State. The West has young teams like Sacramento and Minnesota that already have won big in the regular season. The West has interesting collections of talent like Minnesota and New Orleans. The West has Luka Doncic in Dallas. And SGA in Oklahoma City.
Not every good team can win big. Thus the advice to temper optimism. The Thunder could be better – should be better – this season and still not win as much. Three tiers remain Thunder possibilities – playoffs, play-in tournament, no post-season. The difference in any of those is small, in the West.
“One thing here or there, someone doesn’t develop, someone gets hurt, chemistry on a team isn’t right,” Presti said. “It’s like adjusting the steering on a Formula 1 car. One little thing, and it can throw the whole thing off, because it’s so fragile.”
He’s right. Santa Clara doesn’t develop. SGA gets hurt. Holmgren doesn’t fit. Any of the three would deeply wound the Thunder. No one expects those to happen. But they could. And in the West, recovery from such news is tough.
The Thunder future is bright. Only a series of cataclysmic events could cripple the Thunder long-term. Less than half the NBA franchises would trade 2023-24 results with the Thunder, but almost every franchise would trade futures with OKC.
It’s just that in the West, success takes a little more time to achieve. Remember that as the Thunder season opens, loud and proud.