The Oklahoma City Thunder have the odd distinction of owning the history of what most fans consider a completely different franchise, at least officially. Since moving from Seattle in 2008, the NBA considers the old SuperSonics to be merely the precursor to the modern Thunder, on the same level as the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers and Rochester/Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City/Sacramento Kings (phew!) for franchise continuity.
But indeed, most fans—and this very publication—think of the Thunder more like the Baltimore Ravens in football or the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA. Their history is their own; their old home, should it get an expansion team as the Cleveland Browns and Charlotte Hornets did, should get their history back when they do.
As such, the 1979 champion SuperSonics will have to wait until the NBA is back in Seattle to get any more than this passing mention here. The Thunder will have to settle for a lockout season in which they fell short in the Finals—this piece is about 2012.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy a tale of a team that, but for playing in a small market with underfunded ownership instead of the nation’s 15th-largest media market with a giant coffee corporation’s resources at their helm, might have ended up a dynasty.
The On-Court Record
The 2012 Thunder went 47-19 over the 66 games of the lockout-shortened 2012 season. That’s a 58-24 82-game pace, and combined with the team’s 60 and 59 wins in 2013 and ’14, represents one of the best three-year runs any franchise has enjoyed during a contending window. Only the truly great franchises, the Celtics and Lakers and Spurs and Warriors of the world, tend to be that good for more than a flash in the pan.
The team’s powerhouse offense was second overall in the league, which when combined with the 11th ranked defense produced the third-highest Net Rating (plus-6.5) in 2012.
OKC stormed through the playoffs. They swept the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. They dropped the 2009 and ’10 champion Lakers in 5. And then they dusted the 2013 runner-up and 2014 champion Spurs in six in the Western Conference Finals.
Only when they ran into LeBron James and the Miami Heat, losing in five games after winning the first game, did they finally bow out short of a title.
Consider that. Oklahoma City played four teams that between them won six championships in a row between 2009 and 2014…and almost beat them all. If they’d pulled that off, especially if they didn’t need a Game 7 for Miami, they’d have a case for the greatest playoff run of all time.
But they didn’t. They lost. And that’s what ultimately matters for their legacy.
The Featured Players
When James Harden is your sixth man, at least one of two things is true.
The first is that you’re probably deep enough to seriously contend for a title. Which, of course, the Thunder were.
The second is that you’re probably misusing your personnel. Harden came off the bench while Thabo Sefolosha and Daequan Cook started 64 of the 66 games ahead of him at shooting guard. Are we supposed to believe that Harden couldn’t have started over those guys?
Not that it mattered. At 31.4 a game, Harden was third on the Thunder in minutes behind the two guys we’re about to talk about. He scored 16.8 points per game, shot 39.0 percent from long range, and posted 3.1 VORP, second-highest on the team.
Kevin Durant was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career by 2012. He played 38.6 minutes per game, scored 28.0 points and grabbed 8.0 rebounds a contest, and except for being turnover-prone (3.8 a game), he was building the flawless game that makes him one of the biggest superstars of the 2010s.
You want advanced stats? Try 5.8 VORP and .230 WS/48. There have been quite a few better seasons in terms of those two catch-all stats on this list. LeBron led the league with 7.6 VORP and .298 WS/48 in 2012. But for 66 games, 5.8 VORP prorates out to 7.2 for 82 games, a superstar’s total in any year.
Russell Westbrook was still a few years away from the counting-stat hounding advanced-stat disaster he’s become lately. Westbrook’s .075 WS/48 in Washington in 2021 was below the Starter’s Mendoza Line, as his complete inability to shoot breaks the very formulae that advanced stats rely on.
In 2012, however, Westbrook’s role within the team concept tended to do better for his advanced stats. “Mr. Triple-Double” averaged just 23.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. It is the only season of his career where Westbrook did not record a triple-double at all.
But 3.0 VORP and .165 WS/48 is fantastic for a point guard, and even though he couldn’t shoot a 3 to save his life (31.6 percent), his ability to attack the basket led to a 45.7 FG% that is the second-highest of his career to date.
The rest of the Thunder? Defensive specialists (Serge Ibaka, Sefolosha) and absolute scrubs. Their depth cost them a title in the end.
Of the eight players to play at least 900 minutes for the Thunder (normally I’d say 1000 but 66 games rather than 82), four had a PER of at least 19.0 (the Big Three plus Ibaka.)
Nick Collison‘s 12.1 is just another in a long series of entries in his curious 14-year career, all with Seattle or Oklahoma City, as a lifelong benchwarmer. Getting paid $60 million to average 5.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per game is one heck of an accomplishment in its own right. And it’s not like Collison was Robert Horry (7.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1107 games, and $53.7 million in salary a decade before Collison did it.) Collison doesn’t have seven rings, numerous huge playoff series-changing highlight shots, and a huge national following of fans and media yelling that he should be in the Hall of Fame.
Nick Collison was, instead, just a lovable towel-waver who got to make $60 million and never had to leave his adopted hometown the way so many players put the “journey” in “journeyman.”
Kendrick Perkins, meanwhile, just stunk—an 8.7 PER, 0.0 VORP, and .056 WS/48 despite advanced stats tending to overvalue big men. You have to be a special kind of awful to put up those numbers as a center in 26.8 minutes a game.
And at last, Daequan Cook, who inexplicably got picked to start over Harden when Sefolosha got hurt, posted a microscopic 9.2 PER, and he was no Sefolosha defensively. Even Harden, who would become infamous for his lack of defensive effort in Houston, was a better defender in terms of advanced stats than was Cook that season, so it’s not like role mattered.
Speaking of scrubs, though, special dishonor goes to Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher, who both posted .011 WS/48 in 501 and 407 minutes respectively. In each’s defense, Jackson was a 21-year-old rookie and Fisher was 37 and playing out the string at the veteran minimum after the Thunder claimed him off waivers. Still…to put up advanced stats like that on a 47-19 team? Ouch.
Is Scott Brooks a good coach? That’s a thorny question.
On the one hand, he coached the Thunder to a Finals appearance in 2012 and 60 wins in 2013. That ’13 squad was a solid contender of its own before Patrick Beverley‘s cheap shot on Westbrook changed the complexion of the playoffs entirely.
Brooks coached the Thunder to 59 wins in 2014, and that was without Harden.
And the year he got fired—2015—the Thunder fell just short of the playoffs despite injuries plaguing Westbrook and Durant all year. They never had a healthy roster out there and still went 45-37.
Hired by the Wizards, Brooks has made the playoffs three times in five years, but the 2020 COVID bubble Wiz were so bad that they entered the bubble in ninth place in the East and played so badly that in the official standings, they fell behind Charlotte—who watched the bubble games on TV—and finished 10th.
Brooks’ biggest knock as a coach is possibly that he hasn’t embraced modern threes-and-layups basketball, but c’mon. He’s got Russell Westbrook on his team. If there’s a player in the league you want to absolutely ensure never shoots a 3-pointer, Westbrick—the worst shooter of all-time from that range with a minimum of “one more than Charles Barkley” attempts—is the guy.
Then again, the Wizards did finish dead last in shots within 3 feet, next-to-last in 3PAR, and despite the third-highest FTR in the league, Washington posted a hideous minus-.087 D’Antoni Index.
That is the smoking gun. Brooks coaches just fine when he’s got three Hall of Famers as the top three guys on his team for minutes. Give him an ordinary roster and his inability to evolve costs his team games.
Or Westbrook just sucks now and his stat-hounding is more to blame than his coaching. Your choice.
You want an honorable mention? Two words: Seattle SuperSonics.
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder peaked for four years between 2011 and 2014. They stunk when they first got to town in the middle of a rebuild that started in Seattle when the Sonics drafted Durant second overall in 2007. They stunk after Durant left following the Thunder blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 West finals. They stink now—they went 22-50 in 2021.
But for one glorious year, the Thunder made the NBA Finals and did so with a playoff run where they beat the defending champion, the back-to-back champion from two and three years prior, and the team that would win it all two years later. And the team they lost to in the Finals would win the title again the next year. To get all the way to runner-up against that playoff strength-of-schedule is astonishing and worthy of praise.
NEXT: Orlando Magic. Probably for the best that this site is small-time since Nick Anderson probably won’t read it. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading! (even you, Nick, if you are.)