Tramel: Can OKC Thunder in the NBA bubble mimic success of Joe Gibbs' Washington teams?
Hard to remember, but the NFL’s Washington franchise once was known for more than scandal. These days, the Washingtons are known for treating women poorly and sporting the offensive Redskins name that finally has been stricken.
But once upon a time, Washington made news by winning Super Bowls, with a classy coach in Joe Gibbs and a musketeer culture that stood strong in troubled times. Gibbs’ gang won three Super Bowls in the 1980s; two of those titles came after NFL work stoppages that included picket lines, scabs and star players not standing with the union. The latter did not affect Washington.
Those 1982 and 1987 teams did not cross picket lines. Those teams practiced without coaches when their facilities were shuttered. Those teams had strong veteran leadership which made up for whatever talent void Washington faced against the NFL’s elite.
Which brings us to the Thunder in the summer of 2020.
Basketball instead of football. Pandemic instead of labor strife. Orlando bubble instead of condensed seasons.
But as NBA competition resumes this week, the little-engine Thunder has a secret sauce that portends well for the playoff push soon to come. This team seems to be together.
“I love our spirit as a team,” Billy Donovan said after a Friday exhibition win over Boston. “I love our togetherness as a team. I think that’s a big part of this, when you haven’t played for four months and everybody’s coming back together.”
I know what you’re thinking, and I’m with you. We cynics know that kind of talk is gobbledygook. Kumbaya only goes so far. Harmony is fantastic until you’re punched in the nose. Chemistry doesn’t get the ball past the Clipper wall of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverly. Talent and aggression do.
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But this is a different time. Same as the nine-game NFL season in 1982. The NBA bubble is unlike anything we’ve seen before. A four-month break. Player quarantines. No fans. Games in conventional halls. Morning tipoffs. This is like soccer with a game clock or golf on the Moon.
In crazy times like this, maybe a little brotherhood goes a long way. And there is reason to think the Thunder brotherhood is legit.
For one, OKC has been void of Orlando intrigue. Who’s choosing to skip the bubble? Who’s leaving the bubble? Some teams have players zipping in and out like they’re on a Disney teacup ride.
None of that with the Thunder. Dennis Schröder revealed he’ll be leaving to be with his wife for the birth of their child, but that’s indicative of the spirit. No secrets. Solid values. Nothing to see here.
Second, Chris Paul still seems bent on restoring his leadership reputation. CP3 got sideways with Blake Griffin in LA and James Harden in Houston, but in Oklahoma City there’s been nothing but camaraderie.
Paul, remember, brought a tailor to Thunder headquarters and had all his teammates outfitted for suits of their choice. He commandeered a Lincoln Financial Field suite for the Thunder to watch the Eagles-Seahawks playoff game in January. Paul has taken the young players under his wing and empowered the veterans to lead alongside him.
Even on the bench, Paul is as engaged in a game as any player on the court. Celtics coach Brad Stevens marveled at CP3, after the Friday exhibition.
“The whole place, there’s nobody else in here,” Stevens said of the makeshift Orlando gym. “And Chris Paul dominated the game with his voice … that was a great lesson for us. Chris Paul did a great job organizing his team.”
Paul can be demanding, but his bedside manner is a little more advanced than Russell Westbrook’s. Going from Westbrook to Paul likely has a well-spring effect on a roster.
“He’s definitely been the biggest staple on our team in terms of leadership,” Andre Roberson said, after Paul led the cheeringleading for Roberson’s emotional return to the court after being sidelined 30 months. “Just being a vet in this league for so long, he’s groomed these guys pretty well. Gotta keep it going.”
The NBA is a talent-driven league. All the goodwill you can bottle won’t overcome a talent discrepancy. But this Thunder team has excelled (40-24) by sticking together and winning close games.
“I don’t know if you can ever be a great team without great togetherness,” Donovan said. “Listen, you’ve got to have talent, you’ve got to have good players. They’ve got to play together, but when you have a team that is connected and they are willing to play for each other, that is really what allows you to become a really good, quality team.
“We’ve done it because we’ve been a really good collective group together from top to bottom. These guys have done a great job with their relationships. They’ve done a great job spending time. I think it’s critical. I think it’s really valuable. The best teams I’ve ever been around have had really, really good connections.”
Joe Gibbs’ Washington teams weren’t overrun with talent. They were quarterbacked by Joe Theismann, Jay Schroder/Doug Williams and Mark Rypien. Their decade stars were Russ Grimm, Art Monk and Darrell Green. Not exactly the Bill Walsh 49ers or the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys.
But those ‘Skins took advantage of troubled times by sticking together. Maybe the Thunder can do the same.
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 oklahoman.com/berrytramel.