Seattle’s Heir: 20 Years Later ‘96 Sonics and ‘16 Thunder
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Seattle and Oklahoma City will forever be bound by nylon. After talks for a new arena in Seattle broke down in 2008, Chairman Clay Bennett decided to move the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City and rebrand the team as the Thunder. Fast forward seven years, and the Thunder are widely considered championship contenders and are led by the best duo in the NBA.
On one side of the spectrum we have forward Kevin Durant, whose résumé consists of five all-star appearances, four scoring titles, and one MVP award. In Durant’s lanky 6-9 frame is a repertoire that includes range from 30, the handle and playmaking of a guard, and a “I’m the best player in the world” mentality that has KD destined for the hall-of-fame.
On the other side we have possibly the most athletic point guard the game has ever seen. Russell Westbrook, drafted just a year after Durant, plays with a ferociousness and intensity that is unmatched. His 2015 campaign was nothing short of spectacular as he won the NBA all-star MVP, his first scoring title, and had a historical stretch where he had four straight monster triple doubles. There were times throughout the season where Westbrook simply took over the game in every aspect possible while putting up video game numbers.
Now, it is easy to say that these two superstars are the top duo in today’s game, but are they even the best duo within their own franchises history?
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The Seattle SuperSonics, were a powerhouse in the ‘90s, and were also driven behind the play of another forward and guard combo. Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp are known as one of the greatest 1-2 punches the game has ever seen, and interestingly enough, they too were drafted just one year apart. Between Payton’s trash talk, and Kemp’s thunderous dunks, the duo led the Sonics to the best record in the Western Conference four times. In ‘96 they led their squad to a franchise high 64 wins and a trip to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately Michael Jordan was also invited to that party and drank all of Seattle’s jungle juice. Regardless, when 90s basketball is discussed, it’s impossible to overlook the Glove and the Reign Man.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp brought an excitement to Seattle with a flair that was ahead of its time. The same may be said for Durant and Westbrook’s revolutionary style of play. Although their impacts on the NBA are very similar, their games are extremely different.
Shawn Kemp was known for his imposing presence, standing 6-10 with a chiseled 230 pound frame. Kemp’s physicality led him to six straight seasons of averaging a double-double, highlighted by thunderous dunks that left fans in awe, opposing players on a poster, and the rim in pain. Kemp was an inside force, who shot just a total of 119 total three-pointers in his career. On the contrary, Kemp’s counterpart Durant shoots an average of 316 three-pointers a season. Durant spends the majority of his time on the court on the outside looking in, relying on his finesse and silky smooth jumper to get his buckets. While Kemp relied on physicality, Durant uses his grace which makes dropping thirty in a game look seamlessly easy.
Gary Payton was known as a true point guard, a pass-first shoot-second player, whose defense was second to none. A floor general who controlled the tempo of the game with his leadership complemented by his first class trash talk. On the other hand, Westbrook has changed the way people look at the lead guards. Westbrook isn’t labeled a “traditional” point guard, but instead a scoring ball handler who became just the fifth point to lead the league in scoring. Westbrook and Payton may have different styles of play, but their competitiveness and fire are undoubtedly in the same category, and a cut above many.
It’s clear that these two duos have made their mark on the NBA, and their impact is unquestioned. They simply have two different styles in doing so. But what is the difference between these two legendary tandems? Perhaps it is the fact that Payton and Kemp played seven seasons together, and this season marks the 8th season for Durant and Westbrook, and maybe...just maybe, this eighth season will make all the difference.