Lanky and Speedy, or a Cautionary Tale for the Oklahoma City Thunder

May 10, 2011

A pair of guys in their early twenties.

One is a lanky, marvelously athletic and versatile star forward hailed around the NBA as the Next Big Thing. The Lanky One is nothing short of a clear-cut phenom, unquestionably a talent worth building franchises and arenas around and fully capable of Putting The Team on His Back and winning a title.

The Lanky One has a sidekick, of course. His sidekick is a jet-fueled little point guard who is able — and more than willing — to carry the scoring load on an off night for Lanky, or make it tough for opposing defenses to concentrate their attentions too heavily on him. The Speedy One relies on a blazing first step and good instincts around the basket to make himself primarily a scoring weapon. But as he develops, he steadily gains court vision and passing that make him the perfect second fiddle to Lanky.

Lanky and Speedy reach the playoffs sooner than anyone thinks they will. Quickly, they are the envy of the league: a bright young duo destined for a career spent flying around the court together as youths and putting scares into established favorites, then mastering their powers together as they reach maturity and seriously contending for championships each year, and finally becoming crafty old veterans fending off a new generation of challengers before fading into retirement together.

This is the way the careers of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should unfold, in an ideal world. But they match so closely with a previous Lanky and Speedy — in terms of physique, style, and in light of developments this postseason, storyline — that it’s not safe to assume that’s how it will go.

I’m talking, of course, about Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. These two had the world at their fingertips in the late ’90s much the way Oklahoma City’s duo appears to now. We all know how it ended.

There are two huge caveats, of course, to the comparison. The first has to do with dollars. A big part of the KG/Marbury feud was Garnett’s massive $126 million extension that essentially broke the league. That contract reportedly lit the flames of Stephon’s envy. The second is that Stephon Marbury turned out to be an egomaniac.

The current collective bargaining agreement limited Durant’s extension to $85 million, and the Thunder will be able to offer Westbrook a max deal of his own. And Westbrook, as far as we know, doesn’t do things like eat vaseline. So if money and insanity are the only things that drove apart Lanky and Speedy the first, OKC will be fine.

But what if not?

It’s been an intriguing storyline this postseason for the Thunder. With each and every loss the team has suffered, Westbrook has drawn criticism for his tendency to freelance. It may be people creating controversy for its own sake, yes, but the duo has reportedly jawed at each other on the bench during late timeouts. And while they insist everything is fine, questions about whether Durant and Westbrook can co-exist are becoming more persistent and more valid with each passing loss.

There was the Thunder’s game 4 loss to Denver, where Westbrook took 30 shots to Durant’s 18 (KD still scored one more point). Their game three loss to Memphis, which saw Westbrook’s dazzling performance through three quarters flame out in a blaze of turnovers and forced shots.

Durant deserves a hefty plate of blame for the Memphis collapse. He couldn’t free himself of the insane Tony Allen enough to even catch the ball; for a superstar to be erased as completely as Durant was down the stretch was jarring. And while Allen was locking a chain around KD and dropping him to the bottom of the ocean, Westbrook had little to do but freelance — especially because James Harden was on the bench.

But still, and despite the fact that everyone involved is smiling for the cameras, their actions on the court hint ominously at the beginning of an Alpha-Dog battle that could be devastating to Oklahoma City.

When Paul Pierce, Allen and Garnett joined up, they were all old guys who knew their chance for a title was slipping away. When LeBron, Wade and Bosh teamed up, they were all frustrated because they couldn’t beat the Celtics. But maybe two players this good simply can’t begin their careers together without first realizing they need help. Maybe players of this talent level need to be humbled on their own before they realize they need a partner.

Of course, maybe OKC will rally and win the finals. Maybe Stephon Marbury was just a nutjob.

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