It's hard to remember now, but the Thunder didn't get off to the best start in Oklahoma City. After a 1-12 start in 2008 that cost P.J. Carlesimo his job, they hit rock bottom right before New Year's Eve, when they had a 3-29 record. There are only four players left from that team: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha. As a small-market franchise with little chance of attracting big-name free agents, they were determined to build through the draft, which meant taking (a lot) of lumps at the beginning.
They turned the corner in 2009, going from 23-59 to 50-32, one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NBA history. Just as importantly, they picked up two 20-year olds in the draft: James Harden at No. 4 and Serge Ibaka at No. 24. Harden, like Westbrook, struggled to live up to the expectations in his rookie season, but Oklahoma City's front office recognized they would need to live through his growing pains. Despite their youth, they gave the Lakers, who went on to win their second consecutive NBA championship, an unexpectedly tough six-game first-round series.
By 2010, they had arrived. With Durant in his fourth year, Westbrook in his third and Harden in his second, they had one of the most dynamic perimeter trios in the NBA. Instead of battling for the No. 8 seed, they were in the thick of the race for home-court advantage, so the front office made a bold trade at the deadline to accelerate their timetable. They sent their starting front-court of Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to Boston in exchange for Kendrick Perkins, who would give them the heft on the low block they would need to withstand the Lakers and the Spurs. The deal also freed up playing time for Ibaka, who had established himself as a rising young star in his second season.
In the playoffs, the Thunder made quick work of a dangerous Nuggets team in the first-round before outlasting the Grizzlies in a classic seven-game second-round series. Everything was set up for a colossal WCF showdown between a young team a year ahead of schedule and an old team four or five years behind (the Mavericks), but the Thunder's youth ended up costing them in the fourth quarters of a series that was a lot closer than the 4-1 margin would suggest. Perhaps the biggest red flag was Scott Brooks' refusal to play the match-up game with Rick Carlislie, sticking with Perkins even though Dallas didn't have a low-post scorer for him to defend.
Last season, Oklahoma City grabbed the torch from the three teams that had dominated the West for more than a decade. They went 12-3 against the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs in the post-season, establishing themselves as the team to beat going forward. However, they learned just how far they still had to go on the game's biggest stage, losing 4-1 to the Heat in the NBA Finals. Durant and Westbrook were outplayed by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, while Erik Spoelstra ran rings around Brooks, changing the dynamic of the series by matching up Shane Battier with Perkins while Brooks stubbornly refused to make any adjustments.
This season, for the first time since 2008, Oklahoma City's smooth rise to the top of the league no longer looks pre-ordained. Harden is gone, a victim of a salary crunch and the franchise's determination to stay young rather than go into the luxury tax. Kevin Martin has filled in reasonably well, but he can't replace Harden's well-rounded offensive production. Durant and Westbrook have stepped up their games in his absence, but how will the Thunder's notoriously stagnant half-court offense fare in a seven-game series without their best passer? And with the Mavs and the Lakers aging out of contention, there's a whole new generation of teams built in Oklahoma City's image looking to knock them off. In 2013, the hunters have become the hunted.