Back in April, the Oklahoma City Thunder hit a significant milestone: 14 straight losses, matching the franchise’s previous worst streak. The streak wouldn’t go further: the next day, Oklahoma City snapped the streak on Boston’s hallowed parquet court, making sure the 2008 streak maintains at least a share of the suck crown. However, the run didn’t end there: the Thunder would go on to lose nine of their final ten, with the lone win coming in last night’s tankfest with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Despite the similar runs of failure, not all losing seasons are created equal. In fact, the 2008-09 Thunder could not be any more different than the team that took the floor this Spring. Let’s take a look back in time.
The year is 2008. Some guy named Kevin Rudolf was on the pop charts, NBA All-Star votes were done on paper and Oklahoma City finally got its own basketball team.
While the permanent arrival of a professional in Oklahoma City was a massive deal, the Thunder were actually not initially universally loved. Plenty of fans were still mourning the departure of the New Orleans Hornets, a team that grew up in OKC before becoming Playoff darlings the year after departure.
In comparison, this new team was remarkably young, didn’t win a lot of games the previous year, had a universally mocked name and color scheme, and was led by a Texas Longhorn. Seriously, Kevin Durant actually got booed in year one.
Needless to say, the Thunder had big shoes to fill and a tough crowd to please. Despite a loss on opening night, the Thunder rebounded at home in game #3, taking out Minnesota Timberwolves in a thrilling win. Maybe these new guys could live up to the Hornets after all?
That optimism didn’t last long. The next game, Oklahoma City got walloped by the defending champion, Boston Celtics. A few games later, Dwight Howard decimated the Thunder, dropping a 30 point, 19 rebound, 10 block triple-double, capping off a fifth straight OKC loss.
In the ninth straight loss, the Thunder were on the wrong end of a 42-12 run at the hands of the Clippers. They were booed off the court.
As if it could get any worse, the very next game was a nationally televised match against the beloved Hornets, who received a pregame tribute, before promptly smashing the new kids into smithereens, 105-80. It was the end of the line for P.J. Carlesimo, who was promptly sacked that evening.
Scott Brooks, the then interim coach, had the team playing slightly better from the get-go, making changes such as starting Russell Westbrook over Earl Watson, but didn’t break the streak until four games later.
Hilariously enough, the win took place during the annual Bedlam football game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, meaning that hardly anyone noticed the game. OKC promptly went on an eight-game losing streak, hitting the infamous 3-28 mark referenced as the lowest point in Year 1 of the Thunder.
After that third win in late December, things finally clicked a bit for the Thunder. OKC finished the rest of the season 20-31, for an overall record of 23-59. Over the year, the roster improved: pieces like Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Kristic were added, replacing the likes of Johan Petro and Kyle Weaver. Kevin Durant started to show flashes of the all-world player he became, as did Russell Westbrook.
The season ended in a blowout, with the Thunder shellacking the Los Angeles Clippers, an inverse of that bleak meeting back way back in November.
Compare that to what we just witnessed the past few months. It’s a full 180!
2008 was a time before Sam Hinkie and the advent of “The Process”. Teams just didn’t really lose on purpose back then. Otherwise, this city would be in a fervor, with #Break4Blake being a mainstay on Twitter, if that was more of a thing then.
Plus, this isn’t really the Thunder. Not yet, anyway. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Al Horford, and Lu Dort (mostly) sitting, the nightly lineups don’t exactly reflect the true quality of the roster. It’s easier to accept losing if you aren’t trying to win, which the 2008 Thunder absolutely were trying to do. This year, you can point to that tangible potential and know the potential of what can come.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has made a legitimate leap in his first year running the show. He has become more decisive as a lead playmaker while expanding his already strong offensive skillset. Lu Dort developed an offense, becoming a legitimate two-way player that is not only no longer a liability, but an actual option at times. Aside from the two most notable pieces, players like Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokesevski showed tremendous potential in their rookie season, despite their remarkably young age.
Weirdly enough, the 2020-21 campaign also ended with a win over the Clippers, but with a significantly different reaction. Thunder Twitter exploded in a rage, with the win leading to the Thunder slipping a spot in the NBA Draft Lottery odds. The rage was understandable: you want higher odds, especially after the mess we all had to witness the past few months. However, did the outrage go too far?
Maybe it did. The Thunder’s fate was not decided Sunday night; you can thank the months of moderate success with SGA, Dort, and Horford for most of OKC’s 22 wins. Besides, the herculean effort involved in getting to this point is remarkable anyways. In March, attaining these odds was infathomable.
When 2008-09 ended, nobody cared that the Thunder hurt their draft odds with their improbable run. All we cared about was the tremendous growth that young team showed. I think we can take something from that.
My memories of 2021-22 aren’t going to be about the tank. I’ll remember the moments of growth the most: SGA growing into his role as the leader of the squad. Lu Dort continuing his improbable and meteoric rise. Poku transforming from a lanky meme into a lanky meme that can play like Magic Johnson possessing the body of a baby giraffe.
I’m not going to act like the lottery isn’t important – it absolutely is. However, the whole point of the lottery is optimism, the idea that a better future is out there for your team. No matter where the ping pong balls fall, much like 2008, I’m thrilled with the growth of the Thunder and cannot wait for the next golden generation to arrive, Presti willing.