Excruciating. Painful. Exciting. Worrisome. Captivating. Grueling. Torturous. Unbelievable.
Watching the Thunder and Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals has been all of that and more. It's now been four years since the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and the inevitable rise of the same core that could have made history in the Pacific Northwest has crescendoed to an appearance in the Finals, perhaps on the brink of winning a championship. That's difficult for Sonics fans to watch.
It's especially difficult since Durant played his rookie season in Seattle. Unlike most franchise moves, this one came with a jeweled prize. Ray Lewis never played for the Cleveland Browns. Pau Gasol never played for the Memphis Grizzlies. We saw our Titanic sinking for a couple of years before it finally went down, except in this case we knew that it contained the Heart of the Ocean deep inside it's bowels.
It's rare to watch a rookie and know that he's going to be one of the top five players in the game, but you could always see it in Durant. There was hardly a transition for him to go from dominating college players to flowing nearly as easy in the pros. He dominated as the top rookie in the class, winning Rookie of the Month honors four times, and scored a franchise rookie record 20.3 points per game.
He was tall, lanky, could create his own shot, accurate, and immediately you could tell that he'd become one of those highly-annoying players for other teams to face because of how often he'd just throw the ball up and watch it go in. Over and over again. That rare quality that you can't quite define but exists somewhere between Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwan. Unstoppable. If it's even fair to say it, you could say that Durant projected to be something like a much better version of MVP and NBA Champion, Dirk Nowitzki.
He was also 19-years-old and moving to Oklahoma City.
There's no question, in my mind, that Durant is a championship-level player. It's so rare to see, especially in this day when teams assemble "Super Teams" within the cap like the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, to have a team build through the draft and build a team capable of winning a championship around one of the greatest players in the league. The "championship-level player" is bestowed upon only a few per decade: Duncan, Kobe, Shaq, Dirk. Since 1998, the only teams to represent the Western Conference in the Finals are the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks, and now the Thunder.
Incredibly, the Seattle SuperSonics are one of the last six teams to make the NBA Finals from the Western Conference, if you just date it back to 1996. Now the re-incarnation of that team is three wins away from capturing a title just four years into their run in Oklahoma. Of course, the Miami Heat have dominated most of this series and have home court advantage from this point forward, but make no mistake that Durant is going to win a championship (or four) someday. That's just how the NBA works. Players win titles, not teams.
You just have to hope to be lucky enough to get one of those players.
So we sit and watch these Finals and we wonder, "Is this how it's going to go down?" Seeing Durant play for the Thunder is like witnessing some exquisite Tsunami. On one hand you're saying to yourself, "Please stop. Don't hurt 'em." and on the other you're saying "But holy crap, you are something amazing to watch."
We want to root for Durant. We want to see the amazing. Just not like this and hopefully, not with this team.
I don't pretend to know what Durant's future will hold, but an Oklahoma City championship is not a foregone conclusion. I present to you Exhibit A-G: Shaquille O'Neal and the Magic, Pau Gasol and the Grizzlies, LeBron James and the Cavs, Chris Bosh and the Raptors, Ray Allen and the Bucks and Sonics, Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves, Allen Iverson and the 76ers.
I especially like to point out Shaq and LeBron. Two NBA Hall of Fame players. Two number one picks. Two players that made an NBA Finals with their original teams. Two players that exited those cities without a title. Sure, it's a significant difference when you factor in that the Thunder have a core of James Harden and Russell Westbrook already built around Durant, but nothing in this business of the NBA is a foregone conclusion. Isn't that right, David Stern? This is just a business?
Within a week, somebody will be an NBA champion, whether it's Durant or LeBron. There's reason to believe that LeBron will win his first championship and why he should be favored to do so, but there's also not a doubt in my mind that even if Miami wins game four and leads game five by twenty points, this series isn't over until it's over. If Durant is in the game, his team is in the game.
However, as painful as this series might be to some Sonics fans, remember what I said about Shaq, LeBron, and Garnett. Also, try to remember who represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals in 2009. Was it the Celtics? No. Was it the Heat? Nope. The Nets? You're not even trying anymore.
There was a 23-year-old phenom, more physically gifted than Durant or any other player in the NBA, who put the team on his back and carried a franchise to it's first Finals since 1995. Three years later, and Dwight Howard's future in Orlando doesn't look nearly as bright. What's to say where Durant and the Thunder will really be in three years time? This is the NBA, where entire franchises with history, success, and adoring fans can up and move across the country with nary a whimper or a counter-argument.
I was naive enough to believe that Kevin Durant would be a Sonic for life and that the franchise would stay in Seattle, which is why I jumped for joy when Seattle won the number two pick in the draft lottery. If the Thunder don't wind up winning three of the next five games, the future goes right back to being up in the air and a new fight begins just as it does for every team in the league. I believe that Durant will win a title some day, but if the Thunder don't win these NBA Finals with this team, a guarantee on future success is as good as a promise to make a valid effort to remain in Seattle. Recent history shows that you win when you get the opportunities or you hold your breath.
It's more than reasonable to see Durant as a championship-level player, but there are rarely championship teams that don't have that one player, so it's Durant that holds the key to everything in his future and the Thunder's future. You can believe that having Durant is a key to winning a title some day, but there's never any guarantee that you'll have held onto that player when that moment comes. And if you do believe that, now who is being naive?