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What Have We Learned From the Thunder and Cavs?

The Thunder and Cavaliers are the dream for at least half the league. That’s why it’s so amazing to watch them struggle.

As recently as September, Oklahoma City and Cleveland were the favorites to meet in the Finals. This was the matchup the whole world wanted. The Cavs were supposed to turn into a deadlier, LeBron-ified version of the D’Antoni Suns, scorching the anemic East. The Thunder were supposed to mow down the rest of the West and walk back to the conference finals, where, if healthy, they could beat the Spurs again.

In a lot of ways, these teams are mirror images of each other.

They both have once-in-a-generation superstars at the core of their rosters — the type of players who would make any team competitive and make any game worth watching. They both have secondary superstars who score and piss people off in equal measure.

They both have star big men who are generally pretty great on one end and generally pretty underwhelming on the other. They both have coaches who may get fired if things don’t work out this year. They both are situated in small markets that may not see this kind of talent for the next decade or two.

They both are also struggling this year. The season’s not over, but halfway through, there’s plenty of reason to second-guess the past, overanalyze the present, and speculate about the future.

Look at the Cavs.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles LakersHarry How/Getty Images

I don’t care what anyone says about defense, or Kevin Love, or David Blatt. The biggest problem with this team is that LeBron is a completely different player this year. Whether it’s a conscious choice (saving himself for the postseason) or just some kind of cosmic transformation, LeBron showed up to Cleveland and looks five years older than he did last year. He’s been lazy on defense, and he’s nowhere near as explosive on offense. There are times when he looks like Nets era Vince Carter and the offense turns into an endless barrage of lazy isos and fallaway jumpers. This Vine is an extreme example, but it’s also a good snapshot of what the last few months of LeBron have felt like to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving has been as bad on defense as Love, except he adds the cruel twist of hijacking the offense at the same time. This year’s Cavs inspire all kinds of “hindsight is 20/20” double takes, but nothing looks dumber than when the whole world assumed Irving was the right guy to run Blatt’s motion offense.

Then there’s Love. Congratulations if you had “mid-January” as the time when everyone starts rethinking the Andrew Wiggins trade! Love has been horrible on defense — even worse than in Minnesota — and underwhelming on offense, and now he’s out with a sore back that will probably plague him the rest of the year. Good god.

I was all in on the Love trade — mostly because of LeBron’s age and the finite title window — but most of that enthusiasm assumed his 3-point shooting and passing would make any Cavs offense twice as scary. So far, his shooting’s been off, he’s not getting the ball inside, and, whether it’s his fault or the offense’s, his passing has barely made a difference. It’s all part of the year from hell. And now, after the Cavs gave away the suddenly dominant Wiggins for him, Love has an option to leave this summer that he’d be crazy not to at least consider.

Then there’s Blatt, the coach who looks increasingly helpless to fix any of this, with ideas that have been marginalized almost from day one. The only real solution has been to trade for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov. It’s a dark time in Cleveland.

Now look at the Thunder.

It’s been a rough nine months for Oklahoma City. First came the Serge Ibaka playoff injury right before facing a Spurs team the Thunder had owned with Ibaka in the lineup. He came back, but only after OKC was in a 2-0 hole, and it wasn’t enough to steal the series.

This summer, they went after Pau Gasol in free agency but watched him balk at the midlevel exception and go to Chicago to enjoy the best season he’s had since 2011. Kevin Durant got hurt in October, and a team Zach Lowe and many others had pegged as title favorites suddenly looked very beatable. Russell Westbrook got hurt in the second game of the season, and bad luck turned into a full-on crisis.

Now everyone’s healthy again, but it’s still not quite right. Maybe that’s an indictment of Scott Brooks, or maybe it’s an indictment of a roster that hasn’t seen any real change beyond the James Harden trade that weakened it more than two years ago.

The Thunder beat the Warriors and Magic this weekend, but they also got blown out by Houston on Thursday. That’s how the season has gone since Durant and Westbrook have come back. One night it’s “OKC is BACK” and then it’s “What’s wrong with OKC?”

As Royce Young wrote after the Rockets loss:

And as the clock ticks on them, the benefit of the doubt is starting to fade. The Thunder have real, tangible issues and there seems to be an inability to remedy them. Their defense is often shoddy and their offense often too top-heavy. … They’ve lost their past three road games by double digits, falling behind early in all of them. They’re sloppy. They’re unfocused. They’re unstructured. This is a team that hasn’t been immune to midseason issues the past few seasons, but a strong record was able to cover those blemishes. With the ditch they’re currently in, there’s no hiding them anymore.

After two years without a scoring shooting guard to replace Harden, OKC went after Dion Waiters, hoping he could inject some life into the offense. And instead of getting a bargain on Gasol this summer, the Thunder are apparently chasing Brook Lopez. Think of Lopez like a crappier version of Gasol, except a lot more expensive. And injury prone.

It speaks to the desperation with the Thunder right now. Three years ago, it looked like this roster would dominate for the next decade. Now Durant’s free agency is approaching in two years, and he really might leave. In the meantime, the West is better than it’s been in years, and after the nightmare first two months, the Thunder really might miss the playoffs.

So while one title contender looks to Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith to save the season, another is counting on Dion Waiters and sizing up Brook Lopez. What world is this?

Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City ThunderLayne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, obviously. Both teams have so much talent that writing them off would be insane. Maybe Blatt’s bowling trip turns the season around in Cleveland, and maybe the Thunder will tear through the West for the next three months on the way to running the table in the playoffs. OKC has a higher ceiling talent-wise, but Cleveland is working with an easier conference. It’s not hopeless for either team.

In the meantime, what makes the Thunder and Cavs most fascinating is their one key difference.

One team built patiently through the draft, preserved flexibility, and stubbornly refused to overpay for additional pieces the past few years. The other went all in and transformed the entire roster in one summer, mortgaging lottery picks and cap space to bring in the best superstars on the market. The blueprints were on opposite ends of the spectrum, but in either case, it’s hard to imagine the blueprint working any better. 

Some people will cite critical missteps to explain what’s gone wrong the past since. They will second-guess the Harden trade, definitely. They’ll second-guess the Wiggins trade too. They will zero in on everything Irving and Westbrook don’t do as point guards. None of the skepticism is unfair.

The coaches will take heat too. One coach is criticized for being too creative for his players to buy in (Blatt), and the other is criticized for not being creative enough (Brooks), and neither criticism is really wrong. One lesson of the Cavs and Thunder could be that you can hit the jackpot in the draft and free agency, and none of it matters if you don’t hire the right coach.

But it’s probably more nuanced than any one problem or any one solution. Brooks and Blatt are perfect scapegoats, but the issues extend beyond them. You can’t even pin it all on certain personnel moves.

I’ll always believe that the Harden trade destroyed a potential dynasty, but I also know in my heart that OKC could’ve contended the past two years if Ibaka and Westbrook had stayed healthy. Everyone’s rethinking the Love-for-Wiggins trade now, but remember when hundreds of basketball experts said Love would give the Cavs the best offense in basketball?

Who knew Love and LeBron would show up to Cleveland and regress in just about every phase of basketball? Would anyone be worried about Durant leaving if Ibaka hadn’t gotten hurt and the Thunder had won the title last year?

Some of this is luck, isn’t it?

It feels like almost a third of the league has spent time losing in hopes of replicating the Thunder model. Draft a once-in-a-generation superstar, surround him with lottery picks, and own the next decade. In the past few years, that’s been the dream in Philadelphia, Minnesota, Boston, New York, Milwaukee, Utah, D.C., and Charlotte. Meanwhile, every year there are two or three teams clearing cap space and stockpiling assets, hoping to turn into an overnight title favorite like Cleveland this summer.

The Thunder and Cavs are living the pipe dreams that belong to at least half the league. That’s why it’s been so amazing to watch them struggle.

While the NBA divides itself between the haves planning for May and the have-nots planning for 2017, the two most star-studded teams in basketball are living proof that even when almost everything goes right, it can still go wrong. Maybe it’s a bad coach, maybe it’s a bad injury, maybe it’s a superstar who gets old at the wrong time. The lesson of the Cavs and Thunder is that it’s always fun to play armchair GM and plan for the future, but actually living it looks a lot more impossible.

How do you win an NBA title?

Draft smart, be patient, stockpile assets, get lucky at the perfect time in free agency, and … Sometimes, you’ll still be desperate by the end.