Tag Archives: New Orleans Hornets

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.

Advertisements

5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

stern bennett oklahoma city thunder

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings  |  5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few months, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

“What about Oklahoma City?”

Those four words are probably the most important words ever uttered when it comes to professional basketball in the state of Oklahoma. Those words were mentioned in a conversation then NBA Commissioner David Stern had with then New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn. The context of the conversation occurred shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in September of 2005. With much of the city destroyed and many of its citizens in exile to different parts of the country, the city of New Orleans was in no position to support either of their pro teams (the Hornets and the Saints). As Stern and Shinn were going to a list of contingency plans, Stern uttered those fateful words to Shinn.

hurricane katrina

A lawyer by trade, Stern has always shown the chops to be prepared for any situation, and to be ready with a definitive solution. When he asked Shinn about Oklahoma City, it wasn’t asked as  inquiry. It was asked as rhetoric. Stern knew what cities were hypothetically viable to support an NBA franchise in the short term. People tend to think the only thing needed to support a pro-sports franchise is population and a venue. But there’s so much more to the equation than that. Of course, you have to have the numbers (citizens). The more people in a given area, the more it is likely that 19,000 people will purchase tickets and attend games. You have to have an arena that is technologically up to date (availability of HD cables), and able to produce revenue outside of the NBA product (in-arena restaurants, kiosks, box seats, etc.). The city has to have a business community that is willing to take risks to cover the team’s operational costs if things don’t go as planned. And you have to have a fan base that is starved to support a professional team, no matter what the circumstances or parameters are.

A few months before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, then Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett made a trek to New York to discuss the possibilities of Oklahoma City someday being considered as an expansion or relocation site. He had a brand new state of the art arena and business leaders willing to assist with money and influence. But as Cornett later quipped in an interview with Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports, “…the prometrics weren’t in our favor. We had no track record of major pro sports. Stern couldn’t have been kinder, but he left us with no hope for a team.” But alas, every garden starts with but a single seed. Stern, in his due diligence, probably heeded Cornett’s request and did some research of his own.

Some of the businessmen in the Oklahoma City area had previously had dealings with Stern and the NBA, so it wasn’t like OKC was a complete anomaly to the Commissioner. One of those businessmen was Clay Bennett, who once was a principal owner of the San Antonio Spurs in the 90’s and was the team’s representative at the NBA’s Board of Governors. Bennett probably kept the words Oklahoma City within an earshot of Stern every time they spoke. Even though the “prometrics weren’t in (OKC’s) favor” as Mayor Cornett stated, the fact that Oklahoma City was trying (MAPS I and II, Ford Center, downtown renovation), and was constantly being mentioned by associates of Stern probably kept the city in the back of Stern’s mind.

stern shinn oklahoma city hornets

So when Stern proposed that question to Shinn, he knew that he would be met with some opposition. As soon as you mention Oklahoma, most people outside of the region think of 3 things:  The Dust Bowl, the musical, and the Murrah building bombing. A progressive city was probably not on the list of adjectives to describe Oklahoma City. But Stern had already done his research and knew that OKC already had most of the components in place to be a successful temporary relocation site. They had the venue, just enough citizens in the metro and surrounding areas, and the business leaders. All he needed to do was convince Shinn that this would be a viable relocation site.

As is the case with the spirit of Oklahoma, when we are given a chance, we usually shine. When Cornett and Bennett made their presentation to Shinn, he was blown aback with the viability of this option. The business leaders of the City, led by Bennett, provided Shinn with a revenue guarantee. Basically, the business leaders would foot the bill if certain revenue goals were not met. With a new arena, the backing of the City’s business leaders and Stern, and not many other viable options, the decision was made to grant Oklahoma City 35 guaranteed home games for the 2005-06 NBA season.

chris paul oklahoma city hornets

With that, OKC was welcomed into the professional sports brotherhood, even if it was only temporary. And Oklahomans voraciously ate it up. We had always wanted to eat at the big boy table, and now, from out of nowhere, this opportunity was bestowed upon us. Fans came in flocks to attend a New Orleans/Oklahoma City (NOK) Hornets game. The uncertainty of how long the team would stay kept some people from becoming too attached to the team. But even with that, the team sold out over half of its games that were played in Oklahoma City. The Hornets, who had finished last in attendance the previous season, went from averaging 14,221 fans to 18,168 fans, which was a 78% increase.

With the revenue goals, not only met, but vastly exceeded, and New Orleans still in rebuild mode, the team and the NBA decided that Oklahoma City would get another season of Hornets basketball. With that increase in revenue, the team decided to trade for defensive center Tyson Chandler and sign sharp-shooter Peja Stojakovic to a near max contract. OKC would get 35 home games, while New Orleans would get the remaining 6 home games.

Attendance started strong, with OKC selling out 6 of their first 10 home games. But when the word came that it was a certainty that the Hornets would return to New Orleans, attendance, understandably, waned a bit. But it was during that time frame, that another domino got put into place.

schultz bennett sonics thunder

After failing to buy a majority stake of the Hornets from Shinn, Clay Bennett decided to set his sights on the Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics, and Stern for that matter, had been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the city over the viability of their venue, Key Arena. After putting the money up for the baseball stadium and the football stadium, the city was not in the mood to pay over $500 million to subsidize another arena.

The team’s then owner Howard Schultz was losing money because of the team’s lease with the arena, and because of attendance issues. He sold the team to an outsider hoping that even the veiled threat of relocation would send the city into action to build a brand new arena. Instead, the city passed Initiative-91 which prohibited Seattle from supporting teams with city tax dollars. This initiative basically doomed any new stadium being built in the city of Seattle.

Clay Bennett gave the city an ultimatum of 12 months to approve a plan for a new arena. When that time ran its course, he put in motion plans to move the team to Oklahoma City. He was met with opposition and litigation, but in the end, the city felt it would be better if Bennett payed a hefty sum to get out of the lease instead of waiting the lease out and getting nothing in return.

bennett silver stern nba thunder

Adam Silver took over for Stern as NBA Commissioner on February 1st, 2014. But much like the space between presidential election day and presidential inauguration day, the real Silver era doesn’t begin until after the All-Star break. This space in between from Feb 1st – 14th is more of a hybrid era where we praise the exiting commish and wonder what the new commish has in store.

So in this hybrid period, I just wanted to say to Mr. Stern, “Thank you.” Thank you for giving Oklahoma City a chance at proving it’s worth as a pro-sports city. The process of OKC getting a team was a messy mixture of tragedy, finances, and politics. A lot like Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather, Stern acted as an objective facilitator to Oklahoma City and helped us step into the world of professional sports.

5 for 5: The Run

durant westbrook thunder lakers fisher farmer

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings  |  5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

When the Thunder went into the 2009-10 season, their expectations weren’t that high. They were coming off a 23-win season that saw them change coaches mid-season and continued cultivating the young talent that would eventually become their core. They drafted James Harden with the 3rd pick in that year’s draft and ushered in Serge Ibaka, who was drafted in the previous year’s draft, but stayed in Europe for an extra season of development. With the coaching staff firmly entrenched under Scott Brooks and a full year after the Seattle to Oklahoma City transition, the team was looking for tangible improvements on the floor and in the win column.

Hindsight being what it is, the most important addition to the Thunder that season didn’t even don a jersey. After Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlismo in late November of the previous season, the team also fired Carlismo’s number one assistant Paul Westhead. On December 31st, probably in response to Brooks’ inexperience as a head coach, the team hired veteran assistant coach Ron Adams, whose specialty was defense. The teachings of Adams didn’t immediately pay dividends as the team saw their opponents’ scoring average go from 102.2 ppg before his arrival to 103.7 after his arrival. But the seeds of his defensive principles started to take root after the team had an entire offseason and training camp with Adams.

ron adams mo cheeks thunder

The team came out the next season with a defensive mindset that immediately showed results not only in the stat column, but also in the win column. They improved their defensive rating from 20th to 9th in the league, and held opponents to 98.0 ppg, which was a 5 point improvement from the previous season. The continued evolution of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into All-NBA stewards also helped in the improvement process, as well. The result was a 27 win improvement that netted the Thunder the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Their opponent in wait were the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Run

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

thunder western conference champs

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings | 5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

The first part of this series focused on the beginnings of the Thunder organization in Oklahoma  City. For the second part of the series, I want to focus on what was the apex for these first five years of Thunder basketball, the 2012 NBA Finals. For a little comparative perspective, there are 9 NBA teams (in their current city/team format) that have never reached the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have never tasted the fine champagne of a conference championship. I’m excluding the Brooklyn Nets from the list because they’ve only been in Brooklyn for one season and went to the Finals as the New Jersey Nets twice. The proximity of Brooklyn, NY to Newark, NJ (about 15 miles apart) negates a huge change of fan base because of distance. I’m also excluding the Washington Wizards because they made it to the Finals as the Bullets, but decided to change the team’s name in 1997 due to the negative connotation between actual bullets and WashingtonDC being mentioned in the 90’s as the murder capital of the US.

The road to the Finals that season was like the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits album; that is to say a long, strange trip. To begin with, it was a season that almost never was. Although this lockout never reached the DEFCON 4 levels the ’98-‘99 lockout did, it was still nerve-wracking to watch every labor meeting end with the two sides having separate press conferences to disparage the other side. It was like watching your parents, after a nasty divorce, arguing over your custody.

nba lockout

When you are a fan of a team that is drastically improving and just entering the prime of its championship window, the last thing you want is a work stoppage. Anything that cuts into a year of your team’s development when you are close to becoming a perennial contender is the ultimate of detriments. The chemistry built from the previous seasons basically gets thrown out the window if players are allowed to sit for 15-18 months with no access to team coaches or trainers. Not to mention, the veteran players would be a year older and there would be a ton of questions regarding roster moves.

But alas, on November 26th, 2011, after months of hearing about BRI, luxury tax, hard caps, and mid-level exceptions, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached between the NBA and the players’ union. Instead of playing an entire 82 game schedule, the regular season would be trimmed to 66 games with the first day of the season beginning on Christmas. If seeing your team in the NBA Finals is Christmas in June, then seeing the NBA come back from a lockout was, literally, Christmas on Christmas. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings

kd russ

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

For the first defining moment, you have to, of course, start at the beginning. But, it’s not the beginning that you think. While the Thunder were established in 2008, the road to having them in OKC began in December 1994. It was during that time that Timothy McVeigh visited and decided that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building would be the site of his mayhem.

After meticulously planning and gathering the necessary materials, McVeigh, and his accomplice Terry Nichols, put their plan into action for April of 1995. They rented a Ryder moving truck on April 15th in Kansas and packed it with its deadly payload on the 17th and 18th. The next day, they drove down to Oklahoma City where, at 9:02 AM, they detonated the 4,800 pound monster that resided inside of the Ryder truck. The blast completely dismantled the north side of the building leaving countless people injured and 168 dead in its wake. It was the deadliest terroristic attack on US soil that the nation had seen up to that point.

okc bomb

Once the smoke cleared though, the choice was clear. We would not stand to be known by the evil of the tragedy, but by the fortitude with which we recovered. We chose to be known by the way we rose together, instead of by the way we momentarily got knocked down. That mindset, which comes naturally to Oklahomans, galvanized us to remember those lost, while also promising them that we would rise stronger than before. The possibilities were there, but the question was how would be we get there?

While the Metropolitan Area Projects Plan (MAPS) had already been approved for by the beginning of 1994, the bombing acted as a catalyst to make MAPS a rousing success. One of the things that MAPS brought with it was a state of the art arena called the Ford Center that could host concerts and sporting events, especially hockey and basketball. Opening in 2002, the Ford Center served its purpose hosting top notch concerts, preseason basketball games, and minor league hockey. Continue reading 5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings

New Orleans Hornets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 57 of 82)

Austin Rivers, Robin Lopez, Kendrick Perkins, Russell Westbrook

  • When: Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Home, sweet home. After suffering their first 3-game losing streak since last season’s Finals, the Thunder were looking to rebound with three straight home games. And rebound they have, winning the first two games of the home stand by an average of 23 points. While Kevin Durant continues to be mired in a slight slump, Russell Westbrook has stepped his game up to the tune of 25.1 points, 6.4 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals per game in the month of February, while shooting 50.6% from the field and 45.8% from the 3-point line. Serge Ibaka has also been much more impactful in his play during the home stand which has provided the Thunder with some semblance of a post presence.

Reggie Jackson, Xavier Henry

The Thunder and New Orleans Hornets have met 3 times this season, with OKC coming out on top in the first two games by an average of 18 points. In the third meeting, the Thunder needed a late second half spark from then seldom used point guard Reggie Jackson to come back and win a close game, 92-88. Since that game, Jackson has solidified himself as the back-up point guard for the team, supplanting Eric Maynor.

The Opponent

hornets

The New Orleans Hornets come into the game 20-38 record, good for 13th in the conference. The Hornets are in the midst of a rebuilding project following the Chris Paul/David West years. Statistically, they rank in the bottom half of the league in nearly every category. Offensively, they only score 94.5 points per game (22nd in the league), and defensively, they allow a respectable 97.3 points per game (13th in the league). They are paced by point guard Greivis Vasquez, who is averaging 13.7 points, 9.4 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game. Shooting guard Eric Gordon, oft injured since being acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers last season, has come back in the past 20 games, and is averaging 16.7 points while working his way back from knee surgery. Although Al-Farouq Aminu is given a bad rap as having a low basketball IQ, he is the glue of the team, providing anything from points to boards to defense. Up front, the team depends on rookie Anthony Davis and center Robin Lopez who supply respectable post defense and rebounding. Off the bench, the Hornets are led by stretch power forward Ryan Anderson, one of the premier 3-point shooters in the league. The rest of the bench is inconsistent with rookies Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts being one of the focuses of the rebuilding project.

Probable Starter

New Orleans Hornets

  • PG – Greivis Vasquez
  • SG – Eric Gordon
  • SF – Al-Farouq Aminu
  • PF – Anthony Davis
  • C – Robin Lopez

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Tempo – With this being the 2nd game of a back to back for the Hornets, the Thunder need to push the pace, and get out in transition whenever possible. It’s very surprising that the Hornets, while being a very young team, do not push the tempo. They are very similar to the Memphis Grizzlies in that respect. Also, the 2nd team for the Thunder will be chopping at the bit with new additions Ronnie Brewer and Derek Fisher ready to play in their first game of the season for the Thunder.

brewer fisher

2. Perimeter defense – With Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson on the floor, the Hornets have guys that can catch fire quickly from the perimeter. While Lopez and Davis are of some threat to score down low, the Thunder defense does not need to sink in on most possessions to help out.

martin hornets

3. Kevin Martin – For some reason, Martin loves playing against the Hornets. He averages 21 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2 assists per game against the Hornets, by far, his best statistical team split of the season.

The Thunder and their tradeable assets

After the pomp and circumstances that was the NBA All-Star Weekend, it is now time to get to the meat of the NBA season. But before we even reach that point, there’s a little something called the trade deadline that can change the fates of aspiring championship teams. For the next 4 days, you will hear every sort of rumor, from the asinine to the very believable. And that is what makes this time of year one of my favorites.

nba_trade_machine_288

In the last two seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder have made some sort of move at the trade deadline. In Feb. 2010, they traded Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Last season, they eschewed a trade, instead choosing to sign veteran guard Derek Fisher for their playoff run that went all the way to the Finals. This season, the Thunder made their big splash before the season started, trading reigning 6th man of the year James Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and 3 draft picks. The Thunder went from a team with hardly any assets to one brimming with them. Any one of those assets or combinations of assets could be used to make a bigger move to help the Thunder either in the short term or in the long term.

Here are the top 5 tradable assets for the Thunder in terms of their desirability from other teams.

5. Eric Maynor

Two seasons ago, when the Thunder made a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals, Maynor was viewed as one of the top back-up point guards in the league. The fervor that is currently surrounding Los Angeles Clipper’s back-up point guard Eric Bledsoe was akin to what was being said about Maynor two seasons ago. A young floor general that was good enough to start for many other teams, and maybe even good enough to start ahead of Russell Westbrook. 

emaynor_648218153

The Thunder, sensing that Maynor’s rising stock may make him difficult to keep, drafted guard Reggie Jackson in the 2011 NBA draft. At the beginning of last season, it became increasingly evident that Maynor’s game had stagnated and hadn’t really improved that much during the offseason. Then, before the season was even 10 games old, Maynor tore his ACL and was lost for the season. While Maynor was rehabbing, Jackson was receiving his baptism by fire and earning precious playing time on a championship contending team. When this season started, Maynor was given the opportunity to earn his spot back as back-up point guard. He played as the primary back-up point guard for the first 23 games of the season. What became evident was that the injury had sapped Maynor of what little athleticism he had, and the Harden trade had robbed Maynor of his greatest asset off the bench. Thunder coach Scott Brooks chose to go with the more athletic Reggie Jackson off the bench to anchor the 2nd team from there on out.

reggie jax

Maynor is in the final year of his rookie contract that owes him $2.34 million. He has value as a cheap rental for a team looking to scout point guards for next season. Maynor has recently shed his bulky knee brace and is moving around a lot better than he did at the beginning of the season. He is just 14 months removed from major knee surgery and may be getting back to being healthy again.

Percentage the Thunder move Maynor: 65% (The Thunder aren’t going to move Maynor just to move him. If they are able to acquire any value, such as a high 2nd rounder or a young player, they’ll make the move. If not, they’ll roll with Maynor for the rest of the season as the insurance point guard.)

4. Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick

Second round picks are usually tossed back and forth between teams in almost comedic fashion. Most players selected in the 2nd round usually never make it onto an NBA roster, instead spending most of their careers in the D-League or overseas. The beauty of 2nd round picks, though, is that their contracts aren’t guaranteed and don’t fall into the pay scale system of the 1st round picks.

The valuable 2nd round picks are those that fall in the 31-35 range. In those picks, you can get a good player that has slipped into the 2nd round for a variety of reasons. A good example would be Dejuan Blair of the San Antonio Spurs, who slipped into the 2nd round because of injury concerns with his knees. Being that this pick belongs to Charlotte, who currently owns the worst record in the league, it could be a good asset as the first pick of the 2nd round.

dejuan_blair_2012_01_17

Percentage the Thunder moves this pick: 0.000001% (The Thunder fought long and hard to get this pick back. They initially obtained this pick in the trade that sent Byron Mullens to the Bobcats. The pick was later given to the Boston Celtics by the NBA as punishment for the deal involving Jeff Green, who had a heart condition that the Thunder may or may not have known about. Boston then sent the pick to the Houston Rockets in an off-season deal that sent Courtney Lee to the Celtics. And then the Thunder re-obtained the pick in the James Harden deal. I honestly think Thunder GM Sam Presti would have dealt Kevin Durant to get this pick back.)

3. Kevin Martin

This was the player the Thunder got back in the James Harden trade that could be labeled as “of equal or comparable value”. Martin is one of those fringe All-Star players that can average 20 points per game in the NBA, but bring little else to the table. Martin has done a good job this season of reproducing the offensive production that Harden gave the Thunder last season. Martin’s trade value, though, comes in the fact that he has a $12 million expiring contract.

kevin-martin-thunder

Martin is still a really good player that could still average 20 points per game if he were on a bad team. He’s one of the top players in free throw percentage and 3-point FG percentage and averages 15 points per game off the bench. He had done a good job of assimilating himself to his role on the Thunder and assimilating himself to the culture of the city. He has made it known that he would like to stay in Oklahoma City and sounds like he would be willing to take a pay cut to stay. (Annnd, cue Thunder fans saying “We’ve heard that before”).  

Percentage the Thunder move Martin: 12.5% (Having already made a major trade to start the season, I doubt the Thunder make another major trade in the middle of the season. They have the 2nd best record in the league and Martin has been a willing participant in his bench role. Unless the Thunder are able to acquire 2 players for the price of one, I think the Thunder head into the playoffs with Martin as their 6th man.

2. Jeremy Lamb/Perry Jones III

When you are a rookie on a championship contending team, playing time can be at a premium. This is where the Thunder and their rookies currently find themselves. Besides end of blowout situations, Lamb and Jones III have gotten most of their playing time with the Thunder’s D-League affiliates, the Tulsa 66ers. Their lack of playing time is not indicative of their potential, though. On a bad to mediocre team, these two would be logging major minutes. But on this team, their major function this season is in developing their game.  

lamb-jones

The league still views them as rookies dripping with potential. And that is where their value lies. I’m pretty sure many trade proposals have started with Eric Maynor and ended with one or both of these rookies. Young players on rookie deals are like gold in the NBA, and the Thunder have 2 bars in their safe.

Percentage the Thunder move either of these players: 10% (With their future salary cap situation (2 max players in Westbrook and Durant, Ibaka’s upcoming extension, Perkins’ contract, and Martin possibly resigning), the Thunder place optimum value on young players on rookie scale contracts. Both of these players emulate the Thunder model (athletic, long, and able to play multiple positions) and have performed well in their time in Tulsa.  

1. Toronto’s protected 1st round pick (2013 – Top 3 and 15-30 protected, 2014,2015 – Top 2 and 15-30 protected, 2016,2017 – Top 1 and 15-30 protected, 2018 – unprotected)

Before Toronto acquired Rudy Gay, this pick looked like it was going to be in the 6-8 range. Since the Gay trade, Toronto seems to be a much tougher out for opponents and reeled off 4 straight wins before the All-Star break. The Raptors currently sit 6 games out of the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference, so while it is not an impossibility for them to make a run at the playoffs, the hole they dug themselves before the trade may be too much to overcome this season.

Rudy-Gay-Raptors

For a team looking to rebuild, a pick in the lottery is a steal. Any draft pick is a gamble, but those in the lottery have a higher percentage of panning out than those outside of the lottery. The Raptors picks is now looking to be in the 10-14 range.

Percentage the Thunder deal this pick: 10% (The same logic that applies to the Thunder and why they probably won’t deal Lamb or Jones III, applies to this draft pick. Earlier this season, this pick looked like it was going to be in the 4-6 range. But even where it stands today, this pick probably has more value for the Thunder than for another rebuilding team, especially in a draft that is perceived to be weak.).

One thing to look out for is the empty roster spot the Thunder have. If they don’t fill this spot with someone in a trade, look for the Thunder to sign veteran forward Rasual Butler. Oklahoma City fans may remember Butler from his days with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. He is currently playing for the Tulsa 66ers and may be what the Thunder need in a 3-point shooter and perimeter defender.

butler 66ers

The fact is that the Thunder have the 2nd best record in the league and are coming off of a Finals appearance. Sam Presti is not known to deal in haste or for a quick fix. He believes in sustainability and cap-flexibility, so any deal will have to work for the Thunder’s present and for their future. Needless to say, I don’t really see the Thunder making a move this trading deadline….but I’ll be watching.

 

The Eric Maynor Sweepstake

bench maynor

With Eric Maynor’s DNP-CD on Wednesday night, in a blowout of the Denver Nuggets, it was quite apparent that his run with the Oklahoma City Thunder is over. Ten months after suffering a torn right ACL, Maynor’s athleticism and confidence seemed to be wavering to the point that 2nd year guard Reggie Jackson took over sole possession of the back-up point guard duties on the team 25 games into the season. While Maynor’s numbers were never that impressive, his command of the 2nd unit (and sometimes, the 1st unit) showed he had the potential to run his own team.

Back about two years ago, Maynor was being hailed at the best back-up point guard in the league. He led one of the best benches in the league, along with James Harden and Nick Collison. In hindsight, though, it seems that a lot of Maynor’s success was due in large part to James Harden. The former Thunder guard is now the 4th leading scorer in the NBA, with a 26.3 points per game average. The skills that he is currently exhibiting now as a Houston Rocket, were on full display during his first 3 seasons in the league, the last of which culminated with the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year award.

dal_g_thunder_bench_b1_600

Maynor’s game was never dependent on athleticism. He was a prober that constantly tried to find the open man or an open lane, and rarely turned the ball over. After the knee injury, though, what little athleticism Maynor did have was sapped, as was his confidence. Maynor began to drive less and shoot more, leading to career lows in FG% (30%) and assists per game (2.1). Though he was never touted for his defense, that part of Maynor’s game suffered greatly after the injury. He was constantly getting beat off the dribble, which led to either leads dwindling or deficits increasing. After 24 games, the Thunder decided to try Reggie Jackson as their primary back-up point guard. Though not the floor general that Maynor is, Jackson’s athleticism and physical tools lend him to be a better defender and more of a driving threat on offense.

Reggie Jackson, Markeiff Morris

Being that Maynor is a free agent after this season, the Thunder would still like to get some value for him before the trading deadline. Maynor can still play the game, and maybe a change of scenery will help get his confidence back. Maynor’s value may not be that high, but the Thunder can package him with any number of assets to get a necessary piece to their championship puzzle. The Thunder are loaded with picks (Toronto’s top 3 protected, Dallas’s top 20 protected, and Charlotte’s 2013 2nd rounder) and young talent (Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, DeAndre Liggins, and Daniel Orton) that would be very attractive in a deal. I, for one, am not in favor of dealing Lamb, Jones, or Liggins. With the current cost of the top half of the roster, the Thunder will need good, cheap talent to stay in championship contention.

That would leave Maynor and Orton, plus the picks, as the only tradable assets I see on the roster. Being that the only feasible need I see for the Thunder is another bench scorer, hopefully a 3/4 tweener, I’ve decided to become armchair GM for the day, and see what moves I can come up with. Move over Sam Presti, my shine is too bright for the both of us.

Disclaimer: All moves have been approved on ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine. Any move involving Daniel Orton would need to get done after January 31st.

Deal 1

  •  Houston get Eric Maynor and the Thunder’s 2014 2nd rounder.
  • Oklahoma City gets Royce White and the rights to either Sergio Llull or Furkan Aldemir.

furkan

Why Houston makes the deal – Houston is loaded with PnR-reliant guards in Jeremy Lin, James Harden, and Toney Douglas. If a defense knows how to defend the PnR effectively, it cuts off the Rocket’s first plan of attack. Having a traditional point guard would be a change of pace for the Rockets and will allow them to exploit other facets of their offense, such as Omer Asik’s post game and Chandler Parson’s 3 point shooting. Also, Houston gets rid of a headache in White. The verbal/social media sparring that has gone on between White and the Rockets is well documented concerning his mental health.

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – While this eschews the notion of obtaining a bench scorer now, having the rights to either Llull or Aldemir would be a steal. Llull is the premier combo guard in Euroleague and would fit immediately into the Thunder’s rotation. Aldemir is great on the boards and would really help the Thunder in the post. Presti would probably tell White to stay at home and would negotiate a buy-out with his agent.

Deal 2

  • Milwaukee gets Eric Maynor, Daniel Orton, and the Mavericks top 20 protected pick.
  • Oklahoma City gets Mike Dunleavy

Why Milwaukee makes the deal – Milwaukee will be in a state of flux after the season. Their top two point guards, Brandon Jennings and Beno Udrih, are both free agents, though Jennings is restricted. The Bucks have been on record as saying they will retain Brandon Jennings, no matter what. A large enough extension would make retaining Udrih, currently making $7.8 million, nearly impossible. A cheap replacement like Maynor, who would sign for far less, would be more feasible. They could test drive Orton for half a season as all of their true centers are also free agents at the end of the season. The draft pick is just a sweetner.

mike-dunleavy-jr

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – Mike Dunleavy would immediately have an impact on the 2nd team as a scorer and shooter. The dribble and drive ability of Jackson would open up even more with Dunleavy and Kevin Martin on the floor together.

Deal 3

  • New Orleans gets Eric Maynor and the Thunder 2013 draft pick
  • Oklahoma City gets Al-Farouq Aminu

Why New Orleans makes the deal – With Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis, and Robin Lopez on the front line, Aminu becomes the odd man out. His inconsistent play has been a source of ire from the Hornet’s fan base. A veteran point guard would help this young roster out and an extra first rounder will help in the Hornet’s rebuilding process.

aminu

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – Aminu is exactly the type of player that the Thunder covet. A 3/4 tweener with possible upside and a long wingspan (7’3!!). In the right system, he could be a valuable contributor off the bench.

Deal 4

  • Phoenix gets Eric Maynor, Daniel Orton, the right to swap either of their lottery picks (theirs or the Lakers’) lottery picks if it benefits the Suns, and the Thunder’s 2013 pick.
  • Oklahoma City gets Jared Dudley

Why Phoenix makes the deal – Let’s face it. Phoenix is rebuilding and is not interested in long-term role player contracts. Dudley still has 2 years at $4.25 million guaranteed after this season, plus a player option for the same amount. Phoenix could flip Dudley for a young center, a possible better lottery pick, and a late first rounder.

dudley

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – The Thunder get a great role player with a good contract for the next 2-3 seasons. Plus, a player like Dudley has value and can possibly be flipped for other assets.

Deal 5

  • Cleveland gets Eric Maynor and Dallas top 20 protected pick.
  • Oklahoma City gets CJ Miles

cj miles

Why Cleveland makes the deal – It isn’t the Anderson Varejao deal, but Cleveland still gets a future first rounder for a role player that’s a free agent after this season. Plus, Maynor could dispense some veteran wisdom onto Kyrie Irving.

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – The Thunder get a good role player that can shoot and stretch the floor. Plus, they don’t give up much.

kevin-durant-eric-maynor-2011-2-6-0-1-11

As a fan, I would hate to see Maynor go. He’s grown with this team and was a big part of its development. But, as we’ve seen with the Jeff Green and Harden trades, it is also a business in which every team is trying their hardest to get better. If a move can be made, and it is advantageous to the team, then it’s a deal that must be made. When the inevitable happens, I wish Maynor nothing but the best. He’s been a consummate professional and has a long career ahead of him.

The Thunder and their D-League usage

Rio Grande Vipers v Tulsa 66ers

The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement brought changes to how teams could use their D-League affiliates. As NBADL president Dan Reed said, “The new CBA will deepen the level of integration between NBA D-League and NBA teams, and marks the next stage of our league’s evolution as the official minor league for the NBA. By encouraging more robust use of our league to accelerate the development of NBA players and prospects, over time we believe this agreement will lead to more NBA teams operating their own NBA D-League affiliate, an increased number of NBA players that develop in our league, and an even better in-arena experience for our fans.” In other words, the NBA felt the restrictions placed on player movement from the D-League to the NBA were hindering the D-League’s ability to reach its full potential as a true developmental/minor league for the NBA. 

In the previous CBA, a team could only assign a player to the D-League up to three times per season. This lack of flexibility made it difficult for teams to assign players because the assigned player still counted on their 15 man roster. Normally, a team would assign a player to the D-League and leave them there for a three to five game stints, if not longer. While this allowed for some consistency with the player, it became an issue for the team if they had to recall said player due to injuries on the NBA roster. It didn’t matter whether it was a 1 game stint or a 10 game stint, it still counted as a D-League assignment. In the new CBA, a team has no limit as to how many times it can assign a player with 3 years or less experience in the league.

 This new rule becomes very advantageous to teams that have their own D-League affiliate. Currently, there are 11 teams in the league that have their own D-League team. The rest of the 19 teams have to divide their assigned players amongst the remaining 5 D-League teams. The teams that have their own D-League affiliates are able to run the same system throughout their NBA and minor league teams. This leads to a level of consistency in all facets of the organization. Even though the players may not be the same on either level, the defensive and offensive systems can be consistent throughout. On these 11 teams, players that are shuffled back and forth between the “farm” team and the NBA team don’t have to learn new terminology or new schematics between the different teams. The schema remains the same and the confidence that usually accompanies consistency starts to show through.

darko

 This has been very evident with the Thunder’s young players. Oklahoma City is in strange position of being a contending team with young players to develop. Most contending teams have veteran-laden rosters and don’t have the time to develop young talent. Though the Thunder’s roster is young throughout, the main core is veteran enough, having gone through 3 successive playoff runs that culminated with a loss in the Finals last season. With great players comes the cost of paying these superstar players. The Thunder currently have $54.2 million allotted to its top 5 players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin, and Kendrick Perkins). That number jumps up to $54.3 million with Ibaka’s extension kicking in, but that is without Martin, as he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Assuming that the Thunder re-sign Martin, the Thunder are looking at $60+ million in salary for 5 players next season. The need for cheap labor (rookies and young players) becomes very necessary as a team tries to balance being a contender with balancing the proverbial NBA checkbook.

kd rw

 When you are battling for playoff positioning throughout the season, there aren’t many opportunities to develop young talent. Every game counts when a team is looking to secure home court advantage. A slip up here or there can be the difference between a team playing a deciding game at home or on the road. Non-playoff teams have all the time and patience in the world to develop young talent at an NBA level. The Thunder experienced a little bit of this last season when they were forced to play then rookie guard Reggie Jackson heavy minutes as the back-up point guard after Eric Maynor went down 9 games into the season with a torn ACL. Jackson struggled throughout the season in this role and was relegated to the end of the bench by the end of February after the Thunder signed Derek Fisher. With Maynor back this season, the Thunder have been able to send Jackson back and forth between the D-League and the Thunder.

 One of the advantages of this system is that it allows young players to build their muscle memory and confidence. Athletes, especially basketball players, live off of muscle memory. Muscle memory is defined as a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. An example of muscle memory would be typing. Once you learn where the letters are on the keyboard, you can begin typing at your heart’s content without looking at the keyboard. Basketball involves a lot of fast-twitch muscularity due to the read and react nature of the sport. You see a defender leaning in one direction and you react by driving in the opposite direction in a split second. This type of muscle memory can only be duplicated in in-game settings. During the season, teams cannot scrimmage during every practice to replicate in-game situations. The only way to develop this type of muscle memory is to actually play in the games. If a team is not willing to let its young players develop on the NBA floor, the next best option is in the D-League.

lamb

 That muscle memory is extremely important when a player a called upon to give you 5-6 good minutes in a game. When Jeremy Lamb was put into a game against the Detroit Pistons at the beginning of the season, he played 3 minutes, committed 1 turnover and 2 fouls. He played and looked like every bit of the rookie that he was. But after a couple of games in the D-League in which he averaged 23 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 3.3 apg, Lamb’s number was called again against the Atlanta Hawks. This time, he performed beautifully in his 5 minutes, scoring 5 points, grabbing 1 rebound, and getting 1 steal, all while effectively guarding Josh Smith, who had 5 inches and 40 pounds on him. I can’t definitively state that there is a direct correlation between Lamb’s time in the D-League and his performance in that one game, but the confidence he played with definitely had something do with his time in Tulsa.

jackson

 Reggie Jackson is another one of those players that has benefitted from his time in Tulsa. After providing a spark off the bench in a game versus the New Orleans Hornets as an energy player, Jackson was sent to the D-League for a 2 game stint in which he averaged 32 ppg, 8 rpg, and 7 apg. Jackson logged significant minutes in the game prior to his 2 game stint and then logged 13 minutes in the prime time game against the Miami Heat on Christmas day. While he didn’t come anywhere close to averaging the number he put up in Tulsa in those two games, the confidence he played with shows a maturation to his game. Even more significant in the Miami game is that he played the back-up point guard role, while Maynor received a DNP-CD.

 The Thunder have also been sending rookie Perry Jones III to the D-League, along with 2nd year wingman DeAndre Liggins and 3rd year center Daniel Orton. While these players have yet to have a breakout moment in the NBA this season, the ability to play in the D-League and then practice with the NBA team will only improve the skill-set and their confidence. Jones III’s development is of utmost importance to the Thunder, as his skill set as a tweener forward will give the Thunder a serious weapon in the front court as they move forward. 

jones iii

 Confidence and playing time are two of the most important things in the development of a young player. While NBA teams may not be able to provide the young players with copious amounts of playing time, they can provide them with an avenue (the D-League) to continue developing and improving, all while playing basketball in real game situations. The Thunder hope that the pipeline from Tulsa to OKC will provide them with cheap, young talent that will allow them to maintain their championship contending core.

It Was All A Dream

“It was all a dream…” The opening line to “Juicy”, one of the greatest rap songs ever written. Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace’s opening salvo into our collective consciousness was, perhaps, the greatest conveyment of a musical rags-to-riches story. Great things always have a way of starting off small. Facebook started off as a social network for only Ivy League students and had the word ‘the’ in its original title. Microsoft started off as two friends who were great computer programmers. The Oklahoma City Thunder started off as a 23 win franchise that was in the running to be the worst team in league history for much of the season. But, oh, how things have changed. 

From a fan’s perspective, this was a celebration of the Thunder’s first trip to the NBA Finals. From the outside, this just looked like the finality of a four year run that started off very slow, but has been on a uphill trek ever since. But from the inside, this wasn’t just about the last 4 years. That collective cheer that you heard from the Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 06, 2012 at about 10:30 PM was a roar of passion. Passion, not only for the team, but for the state. A roar for ourselves. Not for each collective ‘me’, but instead, for the collective ‘we’. 

 When you are from Oklahoma, you always hark back to THAT day. April 19, 1995. The day innocence was ripped from the hearts of Oklahomans of all ages. The day we learned about evil and heartbreak. But, on April 20, 1995, we got up and started using a new vernacular. We started to live by words like RESILIENCY, COMMUNITY, SACRIFICE, TOGETHER, HUMILITY, HARDWORK. We knew the trek ahead was tough, but we knew it was a trek we would take together. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, 4 years later, the city was struck by what has been called the Monster of all tornadoes. An F5 tornado with multiple vortices, ripped through the southern part of Oklahoma City, destroying the suburb of Moore, Ok and the city of Bridge Creek, Ok. Once again, probably because of the hard lessons learned from the Murrah Building Bombing, we knew how to react to this tragedy and pulled together.  

City leaders, construction workers, politicians, and citizens all stepped up to the plate to improve the namesake city of the state. What was once a warehouse district was transformed into a sprawling entertainment district in the span of 20 years. With those improvements, came a 20,000 seat indoor sports arena originally known as the Ford Center. This would become the hub of our professional sports dream. 

Of course, with any dream, there are obstacles that stand in the way of achieving the ultimate goal. First, was the fact that we were the 44th largest TV market in the United States. While that sounds great in comparing it to the other 25,000 cities in the United States, that doesn’t bode well for any professional sports league looking for an expansion city. Secondly, was that fact that the professional sports leagues weren’t necessarily looking to expand at that time. The NBA last expanded in 2004, MLB in 1998, NFL in 2002, and the NHL in 2000. 

There’s a saying that goes, “When opportunities comes a’knocking, you better open the door.” When the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina happened in September 2005, the New Orleans Hornets were left with no place to play and hardly a populance to play for. Looking to lend a helping hand AND prove our worth as a big league city, Mayor Mick Cornett and city officials lobbied the NBA’s front office for the opportunity to host the Hornets for as long as necessary. While initially down playing the idea, the NBA decided to give Oklahoma City this opportunity of a lifetime and allow the Hornets to play at the Ford Center for what would eventually become 2 seasons. 

And Oklahoma City proved its worth, quickly growing a reputation as one of the loudest fan bases in the league for its adopted team. For those two seasons, the Hornets became synonymous with having a distinct home court advantage. It became OKC’s first foray into professional sports. Chris Paul won Rookie of the Year in his first season in OKC and David West became a burgeoning All-Star. Tyson Chandler became known as one of the best defensive big men in the league and Peja Stojakovic became known as one of the biggest free agency busts in his one season in OKC. And after two seasons, the music stopped. 

It was a bit disappointing when the Hornets left. Its like being in a 2-year relationship with someone that still had ties to their ex, and then being single again when your significant other goes back to their ex. We always knew the Hornets were going back to New Orleans, but the hope of them some how staying in OKC long-term was still in the back of most our minds. But this was no time to hold our heads down. Their was another opportunity to be had, and another team in the horizon. 

Regardless of what you think of the way OKC got the Thunder, the fact still remained that as of July 2008, the Seattle Supersonics ceased to exist and the Oklahoma City Thunder came into existence. Civic pride will make you argue the move until you are blue (Thunder blue, of course) in the face, but Oklahoma City had its team and it was time to show and prove. That first season was brutal, though. We knew we were getting a skeleton crew of a team with some young, unproven talent, but we didn’t know it was going to be this bad. 

The morning after another of our home losses, I called to the local morning sports talk radio show and just vented. I didn’t know if I could do this anymore. Living 90 miles from OKC and having to drive more than an hour each way, made driving back from the mounting losses excruciating. It’s almost like the team was stuck in a rut when it first got here and you had to wonder whether there wasn’t some karmic justice at play at how we had obtained the team. Thankfully, a coaching change and the general improvement of the young players led to a good finish and a hope for the next season. 

We all know what has happened the last two seasons. After a meteoric rise in their second season in OKC, the Thunder made the playoffs as an 8th seed and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to the brink of a 7th game in a riveting first round series. The team’s young stars (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) went on to be the main components for a Team USA squad that won gold in the 2010 World Championships. In the next season, we finished with the 4th seed and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, losing in a close 5-game series to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. Suffice to say, expectations were definitely mounting.

Finally this year, in a season that was on the brink of not happening at all due to labor strife, the team exerted its dominance on most of the league and finished with the 2nd seed in the West. Two things became apparent as we marched towards this point. Number 1: This team was mature beyond its years and eschewed the notion that youth has to wait. Number 2: The home crowd was actually beginning to affect the play of the young Thunder. 

While last season, the Thunder players were the ones being criticized in the postseason, it was our turn, as fans, to be criticized this postseason. It started when the organization began playing games on the huge jumbotron TV outside of the stadium. What became famously known as Thunder Alley started as a small gathering (1000-2000) of fans that could not get tickets to the game, but wanted to experience, first-hand, the atmosphere of being at the playoff game. Eventually that small gathering turned into an all-out block party that some reports say reached as high as 10,000 + spectators in Thunder Alley. When you get that many people in a small space, bad things are bound to happen. Violence erupted after the clinching game of the 2nd round, and the postseason form of Thunder Alley was shut down. It is pretty sad when real fans have to suffer at the expense of a couple knuckleheads. Some people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to afford playoff tickets, but still want to be in the playoff atmosphere. 

Then there were the complaints that we actually wear our free t-shirts that the team supplies to each fan during playoff games. The travesty that fans would wear those shirts and cheer together as one. Who does that? Who cheers every great play and jeers every questionable call? I thought this was the norm for fans. I thought it was par for the course. But, just like everything else, we do things just a little different. We actually feel emotionally attached to our team. I saw grown men and women crying tears of joy for our trip to the Finals. People from the outside will never understand. As we venture into the unknown world of the NBA Finals, we will move forward the only way we know how: Together as one team. #TeamIsOne