America has a complicated relationship with underdogs.
We are a nation of incorrigible frontrunners who feel constantly sympathetic to the plight of teams and people that don’t have a chance in hell of overcoming the countless and massive obstacles placed in front of them. At the same time, we distrust old money and nepotism. We appreciate the nouveau riche, the American dreamers, the rabbits who pull themselves up by their rabbit bootstraps and become famous defending O.J. Simpson and then sire a family of confusingly adored socialites. But just as we are suspicious of the Kardashians, a clan that, it bears remembering, are less than a handful of generations removed from being Armenian immigrants, we’re also suspicious of those who seem to have gotten through the gauntlet without the appropriate amount of pain and suffering. Because we’re jerks, and we like being jealous.
Sports generally slot into the tracks of this narrative without much need for lubrication, and the 2012 NBA Playoffs could have been scripted for TV. LeBron James, for going on two years now, has been the object of our immense hate, having tarred and feathered himself via the autoerotic asphyxiation of taking an hour on television to announce what could’ve been covered in a tweet. The Heat, after acquiring James’ and Chris Bosh’s services to pair with the already established magnificence of Dwyane Wade, fall into the category of the nouveau riche, the basketball Kardashians, seemingly undeserving of their immense wealth, gifted it by a rigged free agency. Pat Riley floats in the background, Emperor Palpatine, manipulating this Empire from behind Erik Spoelstra.
Then there are the Thunder. Located in the anonymous metropolis of Oklahoma City, a place many Americans couldn’t identify on a map even though it bears the name of its home state, the Thunder have pieced together a blistering juggernaut through what is viewed as the organic, natural way of building a team: the draft. They took Kevin Durant, whose success was about as safe a bet as you could make on any <20-year-old, and they drafted him second overall while still the Seattle SuperSonics. This, of course, was as lucky as any card the Heat have been dealt, considering that Seattle/OKC only chose Durant after Portland, in the driver’s seat at pick #1, selected the ruined wonder that is Greg Oden. Compare this with the Indianapolis Colts, who deserve 100% of the success they earned after betting on the right horse by taking Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. The Thunder are lucky as hell.
Of course, Durant isn’t the only lynchpin of the Thunder. In the first round of the 2008 draft, the SuperSonics selected billionaire playboy philanthropist Russ Westbrook — he may not be in the new Avengers movie, but he sure as hell plays like he is — fourth overall. Credit where credit is due for this pick, since Westbrook has never fit into the proper shell of a point guard and so has been a risky proposition as long as he’s been playing basketball at a high level. But again, Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo had been fortuitously taken from the board already, and the Thunder passed up the chance to select Kevin Love. Selecting Serge Ibaka at 24 in that same draft is the truly impressive move, considering the inherent risk in such a raw prospect no matter what. Ibaka has become OKC’s nuclear option; without him, they’d be closer to a caterwauling offensive party-bus like the Nuggets than they are to the balanced Heat.
Once the Thunder took furry extraterrestrial James Harden third overall in 2009, their core had been established, and they almost immediately ascended into grace despite the low expectations of the world at large. Voila, coronate the underdog overachievers.
But in actuality, the Thunder are the epitome of NBA new money. As a franchise, they alighted from a town that loved them to settle in a town that, reportedly, also loves them; they’re the guy, leaving his old wife for a new one, who we forgive: we forgive him first, because we love his new wife, and second, because he’s so damn charismatic. Having blindly stumbled into Kevin Durant and been not-stupid enough to avoid botching the pick, they’ve placed a solid cast of characters around him and built a finely oiled basketball machine that will likely explode when the value of its young parts becomes too much to ballast to stuff into the salary cap. The Thunder are a franchise in the glow of its moment, beautiful and young, convincing us they’re the spoiler despite being as entitled and blessed as Miami.
To really identify the Thunder-Heat narrative as we imagine it, all we need to do is go back a year, when the Mavericks got mega-hot behind one of the greatest playoff performances of all time from one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Dirk Nowitzki, who lifted a worthy but overmatched Mavericks squad to transcendence. The Thunder are not that. The Thunder have deity-given gifts; you couldn’t date the Thunder. And in that way, they’re no different than the Heat.
Miami’s villain-status derives from the misconception that somehow, building a team in free agency is less noble than building a team through the draft. It’s the real-life equivalent of stumbling into your money rather than earning it; the Thunder are Facebook, and the Heat are Real Housewives. Next to the scheming and prognostication of making draft picks, luring some guaranteed-thing to your city seems easy. Tell that to the Nets. Miami has no such apologies to make about Dwyane Wade, the cornerstone of their franchise, and he’s the reason LeBron and Bosh came to the Heat — Miami’s investment in Wade paid off long-term AND won them a championship in the interim. Wade is the Heat’s Durant, and where Miami savvily used Wade to attract the best assets available, OKC savvily shored up Durant’s superstardom with blue-chip young players. There’s no fundamental difference.
And remember: LeBron James left a city behind; the Thunder left a city behind. Blood is blood. In today’s NBA, the Thunder and the Heat are debutantes arriving at the ball, and they’re wearing the same dress, whether we like it or not. Morality is not the question when considering the draft vs. free agency. The question is: which works better? We’re about to find out.