Basketball season arrives Thursday night, with the Thunder in the Alamo City, ironically having surrendered the high ground of the NBA's Western Conference.
The Thunder had two huge advantages on the Lakers' all-star cast. Young legs and continuity. Now, courtesy of the James Harden trade, only youth is a Thunder bastion.
The Lakers formed a Hall of Fame lineup, but at a price. LA is the Over the Hill Gang; backcourt mates Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant were born in the ‘70s. Plus, the Lakers, who in recent years have struggled with Kobe and Pau Gasol cohesion, now must wait as Kobe learns to play with Nash, and Nash learns to play with Dwight Howard, and Howard with Gasol, and Gasol with Nash, and Howard with Kobe, and, well, you get the idea.
No reason why it shouldn't eventually come together, other than Kobe's psychological power plays, but it will take time.
Now, of course, the Thunder needs a little time itself. Harden is gone, upsetting the pristine chemistry of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Harden, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison. A top seven that was ready for a third playoff run together, now needs a tuneup.
Harden out, Kevin Martin in. A comparably effective player but with no history with his new comrades.
“You can't force it,” Sefolosha said of the chemistry, perhaps instructing not just his own squad, but the Lakers, too. “But we've got guys on the team that are really great at welcoming new players. Just like they did myself. Kevin, Nick, they do a great job welcoming guys and making them feel part of the team.
“The chemistry on the court will come. We have 82 games to play, so I'm sure it will come.”
Keep Harden on this roster, and no way does the Thunder finish anywhere but No. 1 in the West standings.
Now, I still think OKC will emerge with home court advantage. The Thunder will play with a chip on its shoulder all season, recalling the NBA Finals disappointment. Plus, the Thunder is too young to know better.
While the San Antonios and the Lakers realize the regular season exists to merge with new teammates and start peaking when springtime arrives, the Thunder still treats every game like it's San Juan Hill.
That should be enough to get the Thunder the top seed. But then come the playoffs, which very well could be determined by who has integrated its newcomer(s) best. The Lakers with Nash and Howard; the Thunder with Kmart.
On the Thunder side, the starting five remains intact. That's novel in this fluid league.
“That starting five has done a good job over the years,” Scotty Brooks said, talking like it was the Dodger infield of Garvey, Lopes, Cey and Russell.
In reality, the quintet of Durant, Westbrook, Thabo, Ibaka and Perkins has been together since March 2011. That's 20 months. But that's a lifetime in the NBA. Check out the Mavs, if you don't believe it, and the roster overhaul they've endured since winning the '11 NBA title.
“We know we can play,” Thabo said. “I think it's a good thing we get to start the season with the same starting five. And we'll see where it goes from there. Definitely it's a good thing we have some chemistry going. We know each other's game. That's a big plus for us.”
But the plus could have been bigger. The Harden trade is good for OKC's long-term future. Maybe even for OKC's short-term future.
But for now, for this season? The Thunder surrendered the high ground.
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.