by Matt Caputo / @MattCaputo

According to a 2011 US Census, Oklahoma City proper has a population of 591,967. The greater OKC metro-area population is about 1,252,987 people. OKC is a television market in the mid-40s and that’s smaller than many non-NBA cities. There are no other teams representing OKC in any of the other major sports leagues.

The somewhat controversial shuffle of the Seattle Sonics to the Sooner State to become the OKC Thunder and very quickly NBA Finalists made sense. An NBA team was coming to a town with a brand new arena in 2008 and that team had Kevin Durant. Success was just around the corner.

In their fourth season, the Thunder reached the NBA Finals, falling 4-1, against the Miami Heat and LeBron James. Durant’s greatest heroics came in the Western Conference Finals. Durant played every minute of Game 6 and dropped 34 points in the 107–99 victory over San Antonio. He also collected 14 rebounds and 5 assists in the process. It was the win that really put OKC on the map of the big league world. With that win, OKC fans took claim to one of the many great sports experiences that had been so foreign to them: a trip to the NBA Finals.

The Thunder couldn’t quite break the Heat. Durant played 20 Playoff games and averaged 28.5 points over them. They played tough, but weren’t quite battle-ready enough for the seasoned and very determined Miami Heat. Despite a Game 1 win, the Thunder lost four straight and showed signs of desperation at times.

Still, the Thunder reaching the Finals was the kind of hallmark OKC fans dreamed of when the lanky Rookie of the Year came to town. That progress is something the NBA is betting on, something they’re already seeing returns on. With seemingly supersonic speed, the Thunder are among the most popular teams in the League. Now, it’s all about what the future will hold for Durant and he’s already on pace for where many (I for one) thought he could be.

Durant has a supernatural scoring touch and he’s still learning new ways to get buckets. He’s on his way to being a true rival to LeBron. In the Playoffs, Durant couldn’t help the Thunder beat the Heat, but he officially arrived at a point where he’ll be competing directly against LeBron for a while. If that’s so, eyes from far and wide will turn to OKC and the shape of the NBA will be forever changed. The last NBA Finals was totally new territory for OKC and Durant has a habit of maturing and adapting to new territory quickly.

Over the summer, Durant set a record for the most points scored in an Olympic basketball tournament. By all accounts he’s a dangerous scorer, but his defense needs improvement, maybe even an overhaul. Still, the fact that he’s always been aware of his defensive deficiencies makes you think he’ll get up to par soon enough.

He’s got sloppy footwork and relies on some immature tactics to make defensive plays. But he’s 24, is really only two years into the workforce—if you count his first three NBA seasons as years he still could have been in college. He’s got his whole life ahead of him and he’s already been to the NBA Finals.

So, from now on, OKC is going to be a place that—no matter how small—will have the attention of anyone who cares about basketball. New York, L.A. and Chicago are all taking notice of the Thunder. It’s a unique situation for Durant, who attended a few high schools and made a quick pit-stop at the University of Texas. He’s taken a brand new franchise to the NBA Finals. Chesapeake Energy Arena is literally the “house that Kevin Durant (and a great supporting cast) is building.”

Durant has been to three All-Star games and has won three scoring titles in five seasons. It took the Thunder three Playoff trips to reach the Finals. There’s good reason to think the Thunder will soon return to the NBA Finals. And the reason is Kevin Durant.


Where should Kevin Durant rank in the SLAMonline Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2012
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Greg MonroePistonsC8
49Tyreke EvansKingsPG14
48Brandon JenningsBucksPG13
47Stephen CurryWarriorsPG12
46Ricky RubioTWolvesPG11
45Al JeffersonJazzPF14
44Anthony DavisHornetsPF13
43Serge IbakaThunderPF12
42Al HorfordHawksC7
41Ty LawsonNuggetsPG10
40Danny GrangerPacersSF6
39Tim DuncanSpursPF11
38John WallWizardsPG9
37Monta EllisBucksSG8
36Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF10
35Roy HibbertPacersC6
34Tyson ChandlerKnicksC5
33Eric GordonHornetsSG7
32Kevin GarnettCelticsPF9
31Manu GinobiliSpursSG6
30Amar’e StoudemireKnicksPF8
29Marc GasolGrizzliesC4
28DeMarcus CousinsKingsC3
27Paul PierceCelticsSF5
26Andre IguodalaNuggetsSG5
25Rudy GayGrizzliesSF4
24Josh SmithHawksPF7
23Derrick RoseBullsPG8
22Joe JohnsonNetsSG4
21Steve NashLakersPG7
20James HardenThunderSG3
19Pau GasolLakersPF6
18Chris BoshHeatPF5
17Kyrie IrvingCavsPG6
16LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF4
15Tony ParkerSpursPG5
14Dirk NowitzkiMavsPF3
13Andrew BynumSixersC2
12Blake GriffinClippersPF2
11Kevin LoveTWolvesPF1
10Carmelo AnthonyKnicksSF3
9Russell WestbrookThunderPG4
8Rajon RondoCelticsPG3
7Deron WilliamsNetsPG2
6Dwyane WadeHeatSG2
5Dwight HowardLakersC1
4Kobe BryantLakersSG1
3Chris PaulClippersPG1
2Kevin DurantThunderSF2
1LeBron JamesHeatSF1

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’12-13 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Maurice Bobb, Rodger Bohn, Brendan Bowers, Franklyn Calle, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Adam Figman, Eldon Khorshidi, Eddie Maisonet III, Ryne Nelson, Ben Osborne, Allen Powell II, Sam Rubenstein, Jonathan Santiago, Abe Schwadron, Leo Sepkowitz, Dave Spahn, Ben Taylor, Tzvi Twersky, Peter Walsh, Tracy Weissenberg, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Dave Zirin.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.