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Failed promise of the Thunder

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After Oklahoma City reached the 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden set expectations.

“A dynasty is being built here,” Harden said.

It sure appeared to be trending that way.

The 2010 Thunder were the youngest playoff team in NBA history. In fact, they were so young, they kept the same core, and the 2011 Thunder became the second-youngest playoff team in NBA history. The 2012 Thunder were the youngest NBA Finals team in decades.

Oklahoma City was loaded with talent. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden were future MVPs. Serge Ibaka became a near star.

The Thunder were a nova.

But like all stars, their enormous and powerful fire eventually burned out.

Oklahoma City closed a chapter by agreeing yesterday to trade Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. The Thunder have now completely turned over their roster since the 2012 Finals, leaving Harden’s proclamation unfulfilled.

Harden was the first to go. When he didn’t agree to a contract extension, Oklahoma City traded him to Houston in 2012. Durant left for the Warriors in 2016. Ibaka got traded to the Magic the same summer. Now, Westbrook exits.

After ascending so far so quickly, the Thunder not winning a title with any of those players is a historic disappointment.

Oklahoma City’s average age (weighted by postseason playing time) was 22.9 in 2011 and 23.8 in 2011. It was still just 25.7 in 2012, when the Thunder lost to the Heat in the NBA Finals.

Just four teams since the NBA-ABA merger have reached the Finals while so young. The other three eventually won a title.

The youngest NBA Finals teams since the merger:

  • 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder: 25.7
  • 1986 Houston Rockets: 25.4
  • 1977 Portland Trail Blazers: 24.2
  • 1977 Philadelphia 76ers: 25.5

The 1977 Portland Trail Blazers won the championship that year.

The 1977 runner-up 76ers had Julius Erving, who was in his first NBA season. He helped Philadelphia return to the Finals in 1980 (loss), 1982 (loss) and 1983 (win).

In an incredible example of the staying power of a young NBA Finals team, the Rockets lost momentum after the 1986 Finals. In the next seven years, they had four first-round exits and two second-round exits and once missed the playoffs entirely. But because Hakeem Olajuwon was just 23 in 1986, he remained a superstar long enough to lead Houston to titles in 1994 and 1995.

It seemed the Thunder might have similar staying power.

Oklahoma City re-tooled around Durant and Westbrook after trading Harden. That edition of the team peaked with a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals.

Then, the Thunder built around Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Then, Westbrook and George without Anthony. Those teams fizzled with first-round losses. Oklahoma City trading George to the Clippers ended that plan.

Now, dealing Westbrook closes an entire era.

The Thunder accomplished plenty in this period. Only the Spurs have a better regular-season winning percentage in the last 10 years. Oklahoma City reached four straight Western Conference finals. When healthy, the Thunder were a mainstay that deep into the playoffs.

But they never won even a single title, a blemish that would’ve once seemed so unlikely.

Zion Williamson has right knee soreness, won’t play final preseason game

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It’s the preseason, and so teams are trying to be extra cautious with their stars. That will apparently be the case this week as No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson has reportedly not traveled with his New Orlean Pelicans for the final preseason game of the year against the New York Knicks.

Williamson has apparently strained his right knee, and his not heading to New York with the team isn’t looking like it’s just for rest as the regular season approaches. Williamson may actually have a bit of soreness working against him right now, which is the last thing any NBA fans want to hear right now.

Via Twitter:

The release from the Pelicans says that Williamson remained in Louisiana to undergo further testing on his right knee.

Hopefully this is nothing serious and the season can get off to a thrilling start. It certainly looks to be headed in that direction based off of how Williamson has performed already in preseason action.

New Orleans kicks off the regular season on Oct. 22 against the defending champion Toronto Raptors in Ontario.

Michael Jordan opens first of 2 medical clinics in Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — An emotional Michael Jordan unveiled the first of two medical clinics he and his family funded in Charlotte, North Carolina that will provide care to underprivileged members of the community.

The six-time NBA champion and Hornets owner was on hand Thursday for the grand opening of the $7 million Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinic. Tears streamed down Jordan’s cheeks as he said, “this is a very emotional thing for me to be able to give back to a community that has supported me over the years.”

The clinic, located in a lower-income section of the city, will provide vital access to primary and preventive care to individuals in the community, including those who are uninsured or underinsured.

Jordan vowed to do more, saying “this is just the start of a battle of being able to touch as many people as we can.”

Jordan first announced the $7 million gift in 2017.

Andrew Wiggins doesn’t agree with people who don’t rank him very high

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This season, his sixth, is going to be the season where Andrew Wiggins looks and plays like he loves the game. His steadily-declining shooting percentages are going to rocket back up. He’s going to break out as an elite player who should have gone No. 1, and not just a guy who gets empty-calorie points.

That’s what Wiggins is thinking, anyway.

ESPN put out its list of top 100 players in the league and very reasonably did not have Wiggins on it, despite him scoring 18.1 points per game last season. In an excellent job of trying to create a second story out of the 100 list by asking about the “snub,” Wiggins said he isn’t worried about what people say about the four-years, $122 million still on his contract, but he wants to re-establish himself, he told Eric Woodyard of ESPN.

“Everyone is counting pockets. Some people are mad about [it], some people are happy for you,” Wiggins told ESPN. “That’s how the world goes, especially when you’ve got something they don’t have or do something they don’t do. That’s how the world goes.

“Even when I averaged almost 24 points and got the max deal, people were still saying stuff,” he added. “Look at max players and some max players don’t average as much, but it is what it is. I’m just trying to get right, get back on track.”

If you just shrugged your shoulders, join the rest of the league.

Most Timberwolves fans have moved on from counting Wiggins as the second star to help out Karl-Anthony Towns. Most front office people on other teams have moved on as well, as evidenced by Wiggins’ nonexistent trade value (sources around the league say Minnesota has tested the market only to find no team that wants that contract unless the Timberwolves throw in sweeteners). 

Minnesota’s new head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said Wiggins has to be a ‘main contributor’ if the Timberwolves are going to return to the playoffs. Which is one reason most experts have them missing out.

But Wiggins believes in himself. Timberwolves fans should expect and want nothing less than that, they just may not want to get their own expectations too high.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse shreds Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson

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The Raptors no longer have championship-level talent.

They still have championship-level expectations for effort and attention to detail.

Newcomers Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson are learning that the hard way.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

That is HARSH.

But the last time he was coaching, Nick Nurse was overseeing a dominant defense deep in the playoffs. It must be a dramatic adjustment going to preseason intensity and sans Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Nurse might also be trying to motivate Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson, who have the tools to be more effective.

This aren’t new issue for these forwards, though. They were available so cheap for a reason.