The Thunder has a championship-caliber roster. Of that there is no doubt. But there are different kinds of championship rosters.
The Thunder has the top-heavy variety. As in, vulnerable.
That’s what we’ve learned from the first two games of the Western Conference Finals. The value of Serge Ibaka, and the mighty gulf in talent and impact between the Thunder’s three elite young stars and the rest of the squad.
Rare talent elevates NBA teams. Rare talent certainly describes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Ibaka; the first two offensively, the latter defensively, a truth we know for certain after watching the Spurs average 117 points a game so far in this series.
That’s the way most NBA champs are built. The Heatles. The Lakers of Kobe, Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Celtics of Garnett, Allen and Pierce. The Spurs back in the day when their now-aged stars were in their primes. It’s a tried and true method, so long as you can collect such talent.
But it’s fragile. A strained tendon (Kevin Garnett 2009) or a torn ACL (Derrick Rose 2012) or a torn meniscus (Russell Westbrook 2013) changes the playoff landscape. No matter how valiant the effort, no matter how determined the cause, the Celtics weren’t winning without Garnett, and the Bulls weren’t winning without Rose, and the Thunder wasn’t winning without Westbrook.
Which explains the joy in Oklahoma on Friday, when the Thunder announced that Ibaka might return from a strained calf injury that kept him even from traveling to San Antonio for the first two games of the series. Perhaps Ibaka might even play Game 3 Sunday night in OKC.
Such a proclamation restored to all of Thunderland, inside and outside Thunder headquarters off Britton Road, a missing ingredient: hope.
The Thunder has no hope without Ibaka. The Thunder has talked bravely; even played bravely for awhile, leading midway through the second quarter of Game 2 and midway through the third quarter of Game 1. But the truth is, the Thunder can’t beat the Spurs without Ibaka. The roster isn’t built for it.
A few NBA title contenders have deep and gradual rosters. These Spurs, for instance. The difference in impact between Tony Parker, who I assume is San Antone’s MVP, and Manu Ginobili or Danny Green, no better than the fifth-most important Spur, is not gargantuan. Some games, Green will have more impact than will Parker. Some games, Ginobili will have more impact than Kawhi Leonard.
But that’s not the kind of roster the Thunder has. Kendrick Perkins will never impact a game like Ibaka will. Caron Butler never will impact a game like Kevin Durant will. Thabo Sefolosha never will impact a game like Russell Westbrook will.
These Spurs are reminiscent of the 2004 Pistons, who were virtually starless. Or all stars, depending on how you looked at it. Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace. Even close observers of that grand old team would be hard-pressed to agree on a consensus order of rank.
Not so with the Thunder. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka. Then a big drop to Reggie Jackson, and another big drop to whoever. The Thunder has some fine role players. Many good role players. But not the kind of role players who can stand in the gap when one of the stars goes down.
That’s what we learned in 2013, when without Westbrook the Thunder offense was outmuscled by Memphis. That’s what we learn now, when without Ibaka, the Thunder defense is crushed by San Antonio. Let’s hope it doesn’t taken the China Syndrome, the loss of Durant, for the lesson to be fully delivered. We get it.
“That’s sometimes how the cards are dealt,” Durant said of two straight playoff calamities. “You’ve got to get through it. That’s what being a professional’s all about. Guys have to step up. Last year, Reggie stepped up in place of Russ, and it made him into a better player. Guys have had to step up in Serge’s case.
“It’s part of the team. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. Nobody really cares. We have to do a good job rallying around each other and giving guys confidence that’s going to step in and play big minutes for us and believe in ‘em and trust ‘em.”
Rally. Step up. Believe. Trust. All great traits. All great attributes. The Thunder really does believe in that stuff and puts it into practice.
But there is no antidote for losing a Westbrook. There is no antidote for losing an Ibaka. The Thunder’s not winning without Ibaka, same as the Heat wouldn’t win without Chris Bosh. No matter what Durant and Westbrook, LeBron and Wade, do in the void. Not against the best in the league.
Oh, the Thunder is saying all the right things. Durant. Scotty Brooks. Even Ibaka himself, on Saturday.
“I've been hearing a lot of people saying my team lost two games because I was out,” Ibaka said. “It's not true. It's not true. I believe in my guys. I believe in my teammates, that they can do better, with me or without me. It's not an excuse because Serge Ibaka was not there. It's just that San Antonio won the first two games, they played better basketball.”
I don’t know if the Thunder lost because Ibaka was out. But I know the Thunder can’t win without Ibaka. I didn’t appreciate his value until watching the Thunder play without him. Just like Westbrook last May. Incredibly instructive.
The stuff of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A chance to see what the world is like without someone. Without George Bailey, Bedford Falls was a mess. Without Ibaka, or Westbrook, or, God forbid, Durant, this Thunder roster, with its current construction, is not championship-caliber.
Top-heavy is the best way to win an NBA title. So long as everyone stays healthy or gets healthy. It appears Ibaka has a chance at the latter. Which is the only reason for Thunder hope.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.