When the franchise formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, they brought with them a terrible basketball team. The Sonics were 20-62 in their final season, in the basement of the Western Conference, and a combined 66-98 in the two seasons prior. But what they did have was promise. At least that was the pitch to the new, unassuming fan base. Hang in there, bear with us and maybe by 2013 or 2014, this team could be kind of not terrible.
But the Thunder's first four seasons were much more than that: a combined winning percentage of .679, four playoff berths, three division titles, two trips to the Western Conference finals and one NBA Finals appearance.
With that immediate, almost overwhelming success, the team established a unique brand power and fostered an incredible culture in Oklahoma. After taking the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers to six games in their first playoff series in 2010, the state was in love. No longer merely a novelty or a seasonal distraction from college football, the Thunder were something you could really embrace.
But with success comes expectation. And with expectation its ugly cousin, entitlement. Pretty soon, "We're just happy to be here" becomes, "We want to win now." And it isn’t just the fans -- the national media has started asking pointed questions, too. And when real-life results have fallen short of expectations, the Thunder love has cooled.
After a freak injury to Russell Westbrook derailed their once-promising 2012-13 season, the Thunder’s perception has drastically changed. General manager Sam Presti is no longer the boy genius. The "Thunder Model" no longer looks like such a sure thing. The Thunder once seemed infallible, the team all other teams should try to emulate. But that’s clearly no longer the case.
On Sunday night, from Haralabos Voulgaris: "Really hope KD bolts OKC when he can, OKC ownership definitely doesn’t deserve him." ESPN.com's Marc Stein retweeted Voulgaris, tacking on, "Flammable one, but getting harder to argue." Recently on “NBA Countdown,” Bill Simmons called the Thunder a "mom-and-pop organization." For Oklahomans, who obsess over the national perspective of the team, these kinds of statements cut deep.
Identifying the origin of this new perspective on the Thunder really isn't hard -- Oct. 28, 2012, the night they traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder offered Harden, then a year away from restricted free agency, a significant extension, one that would've made him the highest paid sixth man in NBA history, but he rightfully wanted a bigger role and more money. It’s a decision that hasn’t worked out too badly for him, either.
When Harden departed for Houston, Oklahoma City lost more than his significant production. He also took the team’s innocence. After four years of riding the good times to the top of the standings, the trade was the official "welcome to professional sports" moment for a new fan base, and its fallout is still rippling down the Oklahoma prairie. People still aren't over it, and they may never be. Something was taken from them -- not necessarily Harden, but the chance to really see what that Thunder team could do.
Outside the arena before Sunday’s game against the Suns, a fan approached me -- we do casual encounters with strangers in Oklahoma City. After exchanging introductions, the first thing he said was, "I think I'm ready to hit the panic button."
The Thunder were 1-1.
But let’s take a broader perspective. Here's the current state of the Thunder: With Westbrook back -- and not just back, but back -- they have a roster that won 60 games last season, finished atop the Western Conference, logged a near-historic margin of victory, finished in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency and features the best player in the NBA not named LeBron James. The only significant subtraction was Kevin Martin, who was quietly effective in his lone season with the team after coming over in the Harden deal. And if losing the reigning sixth man of the year didn’t slow the Thunder down, will losing this sixth man really do it?
The clock on when they will reach such lofty expectations appears to be ticking, though. After bowing out in the second round of the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder, fearing the repeater tax, chose to invest in the development of their young talent rather than spend in free agency. The approach was an affront to those hoping for a splashy move that signaled they were really taking advantage of their championship window, and for some, it officially began the countdown to Kevin Durant’s free agency in 2016.
The Thunder are guaranteed three more seasons with Durant, and four with Westbrook. The fear of either leaving for another city is unspoken, but real. Oklahomans don't want to admit it, but the whole state suffers from a "little man's complex." For one of their cherished stars to leave on his own choosing would be the most traumatizing event since Garth Brooks became Chris Gaines. That anxiety brought on by the future unknown has taken Presti's process and placed a spotlight squarely on the present.
The Thunder have avoided the luxury tax, but that has less to do with the current finances and more about the future bottom line. They aren't philosophically opposed to paying the tax -- OKC was willing to dip about $9 million into it with its final offer to Harden -- but they are fearful of the repeater tax. And with three seasons guaranteed left with Durant, having the house in order for the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016 was more important than breaking over the tax threshold this season for a player like Dorell Wright or J.J. Redick.
Still, fans are fickle, especially once they get a taste of winning. Four years ago, everyone in OKC could recite Presti's talking points -- process, sustainability, development, patience. Now, those same fans have dropped the message and are now saying things like "title or bust."
The process Presti preached has been accelerated, but the goal remains -- a championship-level team in a small market. That's the overlooked part of Presti's sustainability propaganda. The idea with that isn't to just be a decent team for the next 10 years. It's to win 10 straight championships. And if you're going to do that, you have to have 10 outstanding teams. It's simple probabilities: The more bullets you have in your gun, the more opportunities there are to hit your target. The Westbrook injury resuscitated the anxiety over the Harden trade, but it should've reshaped things the other way. Certain events aren’t predictable. And if your plan is to "go for it" for one season or two, you're a torn meniscus away from it all falling apart, and more devastatingly, you might have to spend the next six or seven seasons trying to dig out of that short-term decision.
So as expectations in Oklahoma City grow larger, the collective patience is stretching thin. The taste of winning and visions of raising a banner have clouded everyone’s vision and acceptance of the original plan. But their ascendancy was always probably a little misleading, or at least misunderstood. This has always been a process and one that really, still remains right on track.