Throughout the course of the 2013-14 NBA season, we have witnessed history repeat itself.
LeBron James has completed his evolution as the Michael Jordan of this generation, a player whose talents have no equal rival, and has transformed the Miami Heat into a force to be reckoned with. We have seen Tim Duncan turn into a younger Bill Russell, a player who even in his “down” years has exceeded expectations and kept the San Antonio Spurs on top of the NBA.
And then we have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the duo who could very well become the next version of John Stockton and Karl Malone — two Hall of Fame players who have the dubious distinction of never winning an NBA title.
To the casual fan, this may all be a bunch of hogwash. But look closely, and you will see that Durant and Westbrook are currently traveling on a similar path to that of Stockton and Malone.
In 1997, Malone was in his 12th NBA season when he won his first MVP award and, along with Stockton, he led the Utah Jazz to their first ever NBA Finals berth. But Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were too much to handle for Stockton and Malone, and the Bulls beat the Jazz in six games in both the 1997 and ’98 Finals.
So you ask yourself this: If the Jazz had two Hall of Fame players, why couldn’t they get over the hump? The answer to that question is the same answer as to why Durant and Westbrook can never seem to get over the hump — a nonperforming supporting cast.
Despite the brilliance of Malone and Stockton, the players surrounding them were the main reason they were never able to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. I mean look at their supporting cast over the years: Mark Eaton, Threl Bailey, Tyrone Corbin, Greg Ostertag, Byron Russell, Howard Eisley and so on. These were the core players who surrounded Stockton and Malone during their 19 years together in Salt Lake City, and every time during the big moments of the playoffs, their supporting cast would leave the duo high and dry.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are in an eerily similar predicament; no matter how brilliant Durant and Westbrook are, they will never be able to get over the hump with an inferior supporting cast.
But the supporting cast issue is a part of a bigger problem that also plagued Stockton and Malone — playing in a small market.
The Jazz never really had the cap space to sign the type of supporting players required for superstars to win an NBA championship. Back in those days, the Collective Bargaining Agreement was, in a way, anti-small market. The bigger markets got larger shares of the revenue, leaving markets like Salt Lake City to fight over the crumbs.
Even though today’s CBA is more small-market friendly — every team gets an equal share of the league’s revenue — the Thunder will still have a tough time acquiring the pieces needed to surround Durant and Westbrook with quality talent, as the payroll for small-market teams such as the Thunder continues to lag behind those of the bigger markets. As much as many bemoaned the trade that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets, the Thunder really had no other choice as he was out of their price range.
The Thunder are already a legitimate contender. The big question now regarding this team is can it surround its two young superstars with the talent that can get OKC over the hump? Here’s an even bigger question: Do the Thunder have the resources to surround their two young superstars with championship talent?
Until that becomes a reality, get used to watching the new edition of Stockton and Malone — two superstars who, due to circumstances beyond their control, can never seem to get to the promised land.