In the NBA, like in so much of popular culture, new rules the day. Something bursts onto the scene and sucks up all the air. For a while it is everywhere and everything. Then, one day, it stops being cool. And just like that, it’s thing — the thing that made it fresh and exciting, the thing that made people stop and pay attention, the thing that made people want more — is just “meh.”
Look no further than the performance of “Happy” at the Grammys for Exhibit A: a once fun song now reduced to an irritant. Or maybe you were one of the determined souls who gritted their way through the 37th and final season of How I Met Your Mother last year.
In the NBA, nothing excites like the new group of stars — the Super Team — awkwardly trying to combine powers without trampling one another. I don’t think anything in sports in my lifetime has generated the torrent of feeling that swirled around LeBron, Wade, and Bosh at all times in their first two years together. It was often hard to tell what exactly it was, some boiling mixture of hatred, awe, and fascination. But what was undeniable was its intensity, the force with which it pervaded every basketball discussion.
The Heat are the best example, but certainly not the only one. The early Pierce-Garnett-Allen Celtics years dominated the league’s headlines. Lob City was cool for a little while. Following the Kobe-Dwight Lakers was like staring wide-eyed at a train careening towards a cliff. Hell, even Stoudemire and and Melo had their moment.
Young players, the potential franchise saviors we know so little about, are just as gripping. Imagine how far the watchability ranking of the Timberwolves would plummet if Wiggins got hurt. His thin shoulders are the only things separating the Timberwolves from “Fun Team To Check In On” to “The Team That’s Unfortunately Playing The Team You Want To Watch That Night.”
Still need convincing? Look no further than the earthquake that was this year’s NBA trade deadline. The onslaught of movement, players crisscrossing the nation until the map was nothing but a scribbled mess, generated more excitement in a few hours than all of the actual games played this season combined.
For a few years, the Thunder were firmly entrenched in the cool category. They were Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. They were talent. They were youth. New city. New name. The Thunder were it.
But the league changed around them and they pretty much stayed the same. They traded Harden, who went on to become one of the league’s six best players. They added a few role players, got rid of a few role players. They drafted some young guys, and watched as those guys became pretty good or not so good.
After making uncannily steady progress — a little further in the playoffs every year culminating in their 2012 Finals loss to the Heat — injuries struck and they took a few steps back.
At some point it became fact. The Thunder were stale.
Why watch the Thunder when you can watch Curry and Thompsons rain threes? Why watch the Thunder when you can watch Love stand helplessly in the corner as LeBron drives to the hoop? Why watch the Thunder when you can watch the Wizards and Raptors fight to make the leap in the East, or watch Rose try to climb the mountain back to superstar status and return the Bulls to glory, or watch the Mavs or the Rockets or the Bucks or just about anything else?
With change happening so fast, the Thunder have become the league’s biggest constant after the Spurs. That’s certainly not bad company. But, unless you’re really an NBA nerd, it’s not making you jump out of your seat.
To tell the truth, I was never all that in on the Thunder. They were cool, I guess, but in a distant “Western Conference Team That Doesn’t Affect My Life” kind of way. When they met the Heat in the 2012 Finals, I desperately wanted LeBron to win his first title and silence the haters. But after the Heat’s riveting seven-game series against the Celtics — which hit an emotional peak in Game 6 when LeBron responded to the threat of elimination by strolling onto the Garden floor and scoring every time he got the basketball — the five-game Thunder series was a relative snoozer.
So when the prevailing feeling towards the Thunder turned into apathy, I nodded my head in approval.
Then, a few weeks ago, I saw the light.
I was reading an article on Grantland, and in it they linked to a video circling around the Internet of the “Four Five Seconds” music video, interspersed with clips of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. One of those weird videos some fan with way too much time on his hands spends hours putting together. It’s a masterpiece.
Kanye starts his verse:
“Woke up an optimist.”
Kevin Durant looks calm as ever, expression blank.
“Sun was shining I’m positive.”
Russell Westbrook grins his gigantic grin.
“Then I heard you was talking trash.”
As Kevin Durant walks down the court, he turns suddenly and makes an angry gesture.
“Hold me back I’m bout to spaz.”
Russell Westbrook, laying under the basket after taking yet another blow driving into the lane, bangs the floor angrily.
“Yeah, bout four, five seconds from wildin.”
Sold. Sign me up. Where do I buy my Westbrook shirt?
Look, new is fun. But ultra-talented with something to prove is better than fun. And if one thing became clear to me while listening to Kanye narrate Durant and Westbrook’s emotional journey, it’s that the Thunder have had enough.
They’re not so young anymore. They’re no longer innocent. The steady progress that was their hallmark lays shattered. So enough being the perfect son. Enough being soft-spoken, humble, doing things the right way. Time to be mad.
All the attention. The criticism. The creeping doubt. The “Russell Westbrook shoots too much” digs. The “Kevin Durant’s too nice” comments. The “they shouldn’t have traded James Harden” noise. Enough.
This is the Thunder in 2015. It’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It’s two of the five best players in the NBA. It’s two guys that will never mesh perfectly, but who are forever linked. It’s two brothers. And if they’re the 8th seed, they’re going to be the most terrifying 8th seed you’ve ever laid eyes on. They’ll walk into Golden State, or Memphis, or whoever has the misfortune of earning the one seed this year, and they’ll skip the niceties and go straight to throwing haymakers.
Over the All-Star break, Durant was asked what storylines he would like the media to focus on more. His response:
“To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to, so I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write. You’re going to love us one day and hate us the next.”
So don’t like the Thunder. Be bored by them. Say the rest of the league has passed them by. Keep fanning the flames. The post-Yeezus Thunder era has begun.