Monthly Archives: August 2015

Disasters and Opportunities: How Oklahoma City got on the NBA map

hurricane katrina

Its a process that can be both beautiful and scary all at the same time. A low pressure disturbance, which is basically winds that pick up water vapor, intensifying into something so massive and deadly is why mother nature reigns supreme on the respect scale. Usually these storms run their course, while keeping their impact to a minimum on the area they impact. But every once and a while, these behemoths can impact an area so severely, that the ramifications are felt, not only years later, but also in cities outside of the affected areas.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Buras-Triumph, Louisiana, a city about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.  It struck land as a Category 3 hurricane after intensifying all the way to a Category 5 only 24 hours earlier. As with most hurricanes, the danger didn’t lie in the storm itself, but instead, on the amount of water that was dumped into the area. It is estimated that New Orleans received 8-10 inches of rain over a 4-5 hour period, while also receiving 12-14 foot storm surges from the Gulf of Mexico. That deadly combination of rain and storm surge overwhelmed the aging levee system, which caused it to completely fail. To make matters worse, the natural geography and topography of New Orleans is not very conducive to flooding. The city is already located below sea-level and is surrounded by huge bodies of water (Lake Borgne and the Mississippi River to the east, Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the southeast).

Once the storm passed through, the devastation become apparent. Over 80% of the city was completely flooded and infrastructure was almost non-existent. Bridges and highways were damaged. Hundreds were dead. Tens of thousands were displaced. The once great city was a shell of itself. As the shock and awe of the situation began to wear off, the reality of the monumental recovery/rebuild quickly shifted to the foreground.

When infrastructure and lives are in jeopardy, sports gets understandably pushed down on the priority list. But the NFL and NBA needed to find contingency plans for the two teams in New Orleans. The NFL season was about 10 days away from beginning when the hurricane struck. Nearby metropolises with NFL-ready stadiums  already had NFL teams, like the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Kansas City Chiefs. Many other nearby cities didn’t have stadium capacity necessary for an NFL game. The Saints and the NFL chose San Antonio, Texas as the base for the Saints for the 2005 season, but the Saints only played 3 “home” games in the AlamoDome. Four other “home” games were played in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and one other home game had to be shifted to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Because of all the limbo and travel, the Saints finished the season 3-13.

Unlike the NFL, which only had days to work on their contingency plan, the NBA had at least a month to work on theirs. The biggest question was where the Hornets would be headquartered while the city was being repaired/rebuilt. If this article were a TV show, this would be where the show would feature a flashback. In the mid-90’s, now Oklahoma City Thunder majority owner Clay Bennett was one of the principal owners of the San Antonio Spurs. One of his main duties was to attend the Board of Governors meetings the NBA and its owner has at various points in the season. When that many powerful people are in one room, networking is one of the orders of the day. During those times, Bennett and then NBA commissioner David Stern developed a relationship that would come to affect Oklahoma City in years to come.

stern-bennett-oklahoma-city-thunder

When the NBA started in on their process to find a suitable temporary location for the Hornets, one of the first people to contact Stern was Bennett. The businessman who had roots in Oklahoma through marriage had already convinced the mayor Mick Cornett and other business leaders that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for by the time he made that call. It’s at this point where the show would flashback again. Ten years prior to the events in New Orleans, Oklahoma City suffered its own tragedy. The carnage created by the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building may not have been as widespread as the flooding in New Orleans, but it still affected the lives of many Oklahomans, even still to this day. The bombing became the catalyst to the improvement of downtown Oklahoma City. The City no longer wanted to be known as the “fly over city where the bombing occurred.” Instead, it wanted to compete with the likes of Dallas, Kansas City, and San Antonio in matters of tourism and culture. One of the things approved in the first MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects Plan) was the construction of an 18,000+ seat multipurpose indoor sports arena which originally was known as the Ford Center.

The Ford Center became the biggest selling point for Bennett in his quest to secure Oklahoma City as the temporary location for the Hornets. The 18,203 seat arena did not have a permanent tenant and was readily available for most any day the schedule called for. In addition, the business community stepped up to support the Hornets and cover a lot of the costs from the relocation. With all that in place, Stern and Hornets owner George Shinn made the decision to grant Oklahoma City the opportunity to temporarily house the Hornets for the 2005-06 season. While other cities may have been larger with more resources, such as Las Vegas or Kansas City, Oklahoma City offered no competition as far as pro sports goes and was ravenous in their pursuit to prove themselves on the big stage.

And prove themselves they did. The city took to the team like a fish to water. It was the combination of a young fan base cheering for a young team. Oklahoma City was okay with just having a team, while the team was thrilled to have a crowd cheer for them. For five years prior to the move to Oklahoma City, the attendance for the Hornets had dwindled to about 14,110 people per game. They finished last or second to last in 3 of those 5 seasons, and were worst in attendance the season before Hurricane Katrina hit.

The attendance in Oklahoma City averaged 18,168 as the Hornets went on to finish No. 11 in attendance in the league. The fans got to see Chris Paul’s rookie of the year campaign. They got to see the return of a hometown hero in Desmond Mason. They got to see one of the most vicious dunks ever when Kirk Snyder jumped over (yes, jumped over) Von Wafer for a dunk. They got to see the emergence of David West, who gave the fans three game-winning shots in that one season alone. They got to see a team that extolled many of the virtues they lived by; a team that many thought wouldn’t do well, but instead, stayed competitive throughout the season as they finished 38-44. Most importantly, the NBA decided to give OKC a second season, as the numbers in terms of population size weren’t yet where they wanted them to be in order to support two professional sports teams. The NBA knew that while the fan base for the Saints was strong, the fan base for the Hornets was not quite at that level. Instead of seeing an arena full of empty seats like they had before Katrina hit, the NBA decided to give New Orleans another year to recover, while also providing them some games in the Big Easy to whet their appetites.

chris paul okc

The 2006 offseason was the first offseason Oklahoma City ever got to experience, and it was a busy one at that. The team drafted 3 rookies (Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, and Marcus Vinicius), traded for Tyson Chandler, and signed Bobby Jackson and marquee free-agent Peja Stojakovic. While it was an exciting time to be an Oklahoma City Hornets fan, it was also starting to become bittersweet. When Stern and Shinn commented on the success of Oklahoma City as an NBA city, they always followed that up by stating they were fully committed to returning to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season. Being a Hornets fan in Oklahoma City began to feel like we were the committed mistress in a relationship that would be nothing more than a short-lived affair. The fan base loved their new team, but knew it belonged to someone else.

In the background, though, Bennett was trying to buy majority ownership of the Hornets from Shinn. He would allow Shinn to remain with the organization as a minority owner, but wanted majority rule in decision making. Shinn rejected the offer, citing the NBA’s desire to successfully return back to New Orleans. With that, Bennett set his sights on some other franchise to purchase.

As the season started, the Hornets came out like gangbusters. They started the season 4-0 and got all the way to 8-3 before the wheels started falling off the bike. Injuries derailed the seasons of Stojakovic, Paul, West, Jackson, and Chandler. The Hornets continued to battle hard through the injuries, but were never able to put enough victories together to make any sort of impact, as they finished with the same record as the previous season.

With that, the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets once again became the New Orleans Hornets. While the hearts of many Oklahoma City fans were broken, there was another development happening in the Pacific Northwest.

During the season, Bennett purchased the Seattle Supersonics from Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz. The move was likely backed by the league to get a ground swell of support for the construction of a newer, more profitable arena in the Seattle area. When the local owner couldn’t get it done, the NBA tried to bring in the new kid in the NBA circles to put pressure on the Washington legislature to get an arena deal done. Bennett went to Seattle and laid down his plan: he would try to get an arena deal done for that next season (07-08). If nothing was done by then, Bennett would pursue other options. A blind man could have seen from a mile away what Bennett meant by “other options”.

With no arena deal in place, the wheels were already put in motion to try to get the Sonics to Oklahoma City. After a legal battle and about $100 million dollars in relocation fees and lease payments, the Seattle Supersonics officially became the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Disaster begets opportunity. That’s just the way the cycle works. In a Utopian scenario, Katrina never happens, Seattle keeps their team, and Oklahoma City eventually (somehow?) gets an expansion franchise. But that’s not how it happened. Tragedy and disaster happened. Because of that, an opportunity arose. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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A look at the Thunder’s 2015-16 schedule

durant westbrook ibaka thunder

Click here for the Thunder’s full 2015-16 schedule.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Do you know what the above picture says? It says, just like the looks on their faces, “Can we please get this sh!t started?”

On Wednesday, August 12th, the NBA (finally!) released their schedule for the upcoming season. The Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves with 24 primetime games, second only to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, who each have 25 primetime games. The primetime games include any games on TNT, ABC, or ESPN. In addition, they also have 9 games scheduled to be aired on NBATV. Being a nationally popular team can be a gift and a curse. All that attention usually means the team is predicted to do well in that particular season. But it can also be taxing on the players who have to play a schedule with slight variations that makes it a bit more difficult. Every team plays 82 games, with the same basic format depending on what conference they play in. But not every team has to face a top notch opponent once or twice a week for the entirety of the season. The schedule makers normally don’t have to worry about where to slot the Charlotte Hornets or the Portland Trailblazers because those teams don’t move the needle like the the aforementioned Thunder, Cavaliers, and Warriors do. But for certain teams, the schedule makers have to plug in their primetime games first and then go on from there.

Road Schedule Imbalance

The first thing I noticed when I saw the schedule was the imbalance in road games from the first half of the season to the second half of the season. In the first 41 games, the Thunder play 16 road games. In the final 41 games, they play 25 road games. While some may look at this as a detriment, I see it as a benefit. A home-heavy schedule in the beginning of the season allows for more practice time, which, for a team that was never fully complete due to injuries last season, will be extremely beneficial. Many don’t realize that Kevin Durant never got to play with Enes Kanter, DJ Augustin, and Kyle Singler. By the time the Thunder traded for these players, Kevin Durant was in the beginning stages of being shut down for the season. By the time the second half of the season rolls around this year, the Thunder should be firing on all cylinders.

Injured Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, left, pumps his fist at teammates Enes Kanter, center, and Steven Adams, right, cheer in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, Sunday, March 8, 2015, in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City won 108-104. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

There’s an even greater imbalance after the All-Star break. In the 28 games post All-Star break, the Thunder will play 17 of those away from the Chesapeake Energy Arena. It’ll be imperative that the Thunder build up enough currency in terms of wins and losses before the All-Star break to help supplant the road-heavy schedule at the end of the season.

More rest in-season

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has made it a priority to provide players with more rest during the season by extending the All-Star break, limiting the amounts of back to backs and 4 games in 5 days. Due to their geography, teams that are in the middle part of the country don’t have to embark on long road trips, which limits the amount of back to backs. The Thunder only have 15 back to backs this season, compared to the league average of 17.8. In addition, the Thunder, like most teams in the league, only have one 4 games in 5 nights stretch, and it happens in the first week of the season (Nov. 1 – Nov. 5).

But that in-season resting may be a mirage. Due to the fact the Thunder are centrally located, it allows them to travel more often without racking up as many miles. The Thunder alternate between home and road in the first 8 games of the season, and don’t have their first multiple game road trip until December 21st. With so much travel, that feeling of rest may seem like a farce.

Opponents

Every team has their built in schedule (2 games each versus the teams in the opposite conference (30), 4 games each against division opponents (16), 4 games each against 6 other conference opponent (24), and 3 games each against another 4 conference opponents (12)). Luckily for the Thunder, the teams they only have to face three times out of the Western Conference are the Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, and Phoenix Suns. When you are building up a record, the less you have to play great teams, the better. Unfortunately, two of the three games against the Warriors and Grizzlies will be on the road.

Toughest Stretch

January 5, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) look on during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Thunder 117-91. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The toughest stretch for the Thunder will be a 15 game gamut from February 6th to March 12th that will see them face the world champion Warriors three times, the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans twice, and once against the San Antonio Spurs. Nine of those games will be on the road, including a stretch of 6 out of 7, with the Warriors being the home game in between. Its a stretch where finishing 8-7 will put a smile on your face.

Top Home Games

Oct. 28 – vs. San Antonio – First game of the season. Against the Thunder’s biggest rival/big brother. With (hopefully) a complete and healthy roster. Not enough has been written about how Durant looked in Las Vegas last week. While he didn’t participate in any 5 on 5 contact drills, he did participate in every other drill. And he looked like Kevin Durant. Which is great news.

Nov. 18 – vs. New Orleans – Welcome back, Kendrick Perkins. Say what you want about Perkins, but his voice is still resonates in the locker room. Although they understood the move, many on the team were not entirely thrilled that Perkins was traded. He was like the wise sage on the team, if a wise sage cursed and spoke with a southern drawl. In reality though, this game is more about seeing how Anthony Davis continues to develop. He knocked on the doorstep of greatness last season, and will likely kick down that door this season. If the Pelicans can continue to pick up pieces here and there, they may be a team to contend with in the future.

Nov. 27 – vs. Detroit – Good riddance, Reggie Jackson. If the previous game on this list was to welcome back an old friend, this game is to jeer what became a malcontent at the end of his run with the Thunder. Reggie Jackson could have stayed a Thunder. He could have taken the 4 year/$48 million dollar contract they offered him before his 4th season and been one of the top 6th men in the league. Instead, knowing he was good enough to be a starting point guard in the league, he decided to pout his way through the first 50 games of the season, when the Thunder were needing every able body they had on deck due to their plethora of injuries. It wasn’t that he wanted out, because I agreed that he had the talent to be a starter in the league, and it showed in the extension Detroit gave him (5 yrs/$80 million, ironically, the same exact extension James Harden received when he was traded). But it was in the manner that he conducted himself to meet that end. Because of that, he will likely face at lot of this in his first return to the ‘Peake:

It may reach Patrick Beverly-like levels before its all said and done.

Dec. 25 – vs. Chicago – Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook have not gone against each other in a regular season game since December 6th, 2010. Let that sink in for a minute. The two most athletically gifted specimens the point guard position has arguably ever seen have not faced each other in five full years!? The Christmas wish of a lot of NBA fans is that these two make it to this game in one piece and finally give us the show that has been five years in the making.

Feb. 21 – vs. Cleveland – Durant vs. LeBron. Westbrook vs. Irving. A possible Finals preview? Last season we were robbed of seeing these two teams at full strength in their two match-ups. LeBron James sat out the meeting in Oklahoma City, while Durant sat out the game in Cleveland with his injuries. Hopefully, the injury bugs turns away from these two games.

Feb. 27 – vs. Golden State – In the one game Oklahoma City was fully healthy against the Warriors, they beat them pretty convincingly. It always goes back to “what if?” when it comes to last season. In another meeting last season, Durant put on a show for the Oracle faithful, scoring 30 points in the first half before succumbing to a sprained ankle at the half.

Apr. 11 – vs. Los Angeles Lakers – Possibly the last time to see Kobe Bryant in a Lakers uniform. I’ve always said that the Spurs are who we modeled ourselves after, but the Lakers are who we wanted to beat. A lot of that has to do with the respect Durant and Westbrook have for Bryant, which he has verbally reciprocated time and time again.

Another great season is ahead for NBA fans. The league has once again tabbed the Thunder in their upper echelon of teams. With that said, I only have one question: Is it October, yet?

The Thunder (finally!) sign Josh Huestis

josh huestis thunder

A long-standing national nightmare is finally over. The hostage situation in Oklahoma City that engulfed most of the basketball world for the past year has thankfully reached its conclusion. The Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday (finally) signed last season’s first round pick, Josh Huestis, to a four-year rookie scale contract. What’s that? You don’t know who Josh Huestis is? You never realized there was a hostage situation brewing for the past year in Oklahoma City? Ooooh, you thought the only recent hostage situation involving an NBA player was in Houston in early July, when the Los Angeles Clippers (yes, the entire team) sequestered DeAndre Jordan in his home and forced him to sign a near-max contract to return back to LA. Well, I guess you aren’t a true NBA fanatic, then.

Rewind back to last year’s draft. The Thunder owned the 21st and 29th picks in the draft. At 21, they selected Mitch McGary. While that pick was viewed as a bit of a stretch due to McGary’s injury history and previous suspension in college due to marijuana usage, the talent was definitely there to help explain the pick. With the 29th pick, the Thunder selected Josh Huestis from the University of Stanford. Collectively, much of the NBA wondered, “Who?”. Draft Express didn’t even have a “strength/weaknesses” pre-draft video on Huestis. Here was a guy that was slotted to go in the middle to bottom half of the 2nd round or to go undrafted, and instead, he was selected by the Thunder in the next to last pick of the first round.

When the news came out about a month after the draft that the Thunder had made a handshake agreement with Huestis and his agents to have the rookie “red-shirt” his first season without signing his guaranteed rookie-scale contract that every first rounder gets, many members of the media chalked it up to the Thunder being cheap again. But in addition to being cheap, some members of the media were worried that Huestis was going to be taken of advantage of. Tom Ziller of SB Nation wrote a scathing article on the deal, in which he stated, “this (the deal) almost assuredly breaks the spirit of the NBA’s draft rules, if not the letter.” Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote a more balanced article in which he stated, “It (the deal) seems ridiculous, almost exploitative. The gains for the Thunder are obvious at first glance.” But then he goes on to write, “Huestis in this telling appears the dupe of a dictatorial regime. But that holds only if you assume that $1.5 million would have been available to Huestis in any other scenario…”

Huestis went on to play with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate for the entire season and ended up earning about $25,000 for his one season with the Blue. He averaged 10.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game on 31.6% shooting from 3-point territory. That last stat is an important because the Thunder need role players that are able to play on both ends of the floor. The one skill Huestis was known for was his defense. It’s his development on the other end of the floor as a 3-point shooter that the Thunder want to enhance. While Huestis’ time on the Blue wasn’t memorable, he did develop into a role similar to what he will play on the Thunder.

john huestis thunder press conference

The fear from many writers was that the Thunder made this deal from a position of power and would exploit, not only Huestis, but also NBA salary cap and draft rules from that position. In the worst case scenario, the Thunder never offer Huestis the contract that he deserves as a first rounder, which in turn, would help the Thunder stay under the luxury tax or pay less money if they were over the tax. In essence, the Thunder would circumvent having to pay a first rounder, while paying less (or no) money towards the punitive luxury tax. From a cutthroat business perspective, it would’ve been a win/win for the Thunder. The team stays away from paying money to a player while also preventing or lessening the amount they have to pay to the NBA.

But the NBA, while being cutthroat as a business, is also very good at remembering a front office’s transgression, especially players and their agents. As a small market team, it would behoove the Thunder to not burn too many bridges throughout the NBA. Which is why the supposed “nuclear option” was never at play for the Thunder. Renege on this hand-shake agreement, and agents would be very leery to even suggest Oklahoma City as a destination to their player clients. Huestis and the Thunder were always in lockstep in this deal, and the writing was clearly on the wall when the Thunder traded Perry Jones to the Boston Celtics in early July.

The Huestis deal is a basic 4-year rookie contract where the first two seasons are guaranteed and the last two are team options. Since Huestis signed the contract this season, he gets locked into this season’s rookie salary scale, which will pay him $950,200, instead of the $918,000 he would’ve earned last season. Huestis will likely see a lot of his playing time this season at the Cox Convention Center, playing for the Blue. With a deep and talented, there will likely be no minutes for Huestis on the Thunder this upcoming season. Huestis comes into this season rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle he suffered earlier in the summer, and will likely start the season on the injured list. With this signing, the Thunder sit at 15 guaranteed contracts.