Over the years, the Thunder have had many rivals. The Lakers would pat us on our head and say, “that’s cute, but it’s time for the adults to play now.” The Grizzlies used to slow the game down with physical play to wear down the speed, and athleticism of our young squad. The Spurs would put us in a blender. The Rockets would throw their hands up and whip their heads back about as often they would hit a three-pointer or free throw. The Warriors… well, the Warriors would always find someway to rip your heart out of your chest. Like not figuratively, more Mortal Kombat style. Then, they would Gronk spike it, and throw it in a trash compactor.
Yes, the Thunder have had many rivals, all producing great storylines and iconic moments. But now, as they Thunder focus less about wins, playoff berths, and recognition and more on development, culture, and asset accumulation the Thunder have an entirely new enemy.
See, in order to win a championship in the NBA you typically need to have good basketball players. Yes, everyone in the NBA is objective good at basketball. They’re the top 450 basketball players in the world. But in order to give yourself the best chance every year you need more than the goods, you need the greats.
You might be asking, “How does one acquire such a delicacy?” and to that I say, “Excellent question, there are realistically 3 ways to obtain a superstar basketball player in this league.”
First, it free agency. It’s no secret that a small market team is at a disadvantage in this league. When a superstar player becomes a free agent, it’s not often that they choose to go to a place like Memphis, Minnesota, Orlando, or Oklahoma City. They tend to head to the coasts. Los Angeles A team, Los Angeles B team, Golden State, Brooklyn, New York, Boston, Miami, etc. Therefore, if you aren’t one of these teams, or have a generational superstar (Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, in theory Zion Williamson, etc.) then you aren’t going to be able to attract the best basketball players to your team.
Next, you can take a chance and trade for them. Just like Sam Presti did when he traded Victor Oladipo, and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George. Paul George gave OKC a chance, and he loved it here. He has an annual fishing tournament in Oklahoma. He signed a max contract on a 3 year deal with a player option. And alongside Russell Westbrook, brought the Thunder 3 consecutive titles!
No, that didn’t happen. Because as a small market, that contract had contingencies with it. Presti had promised PG that if things didn’t work out they would trade him to a situation that he wanted to go to. He did just that.
You see, as hard as it is to actually succeed in trading for a superstar in a small market; it’s entirely more difficult to get them to stay long term.
So, that brings us back to the final way; the NBA Draft.
Yes, if you are not in a large market, you likely have to build your team through the draft.
So, we made a plan. We are barely a full calendar year into that plan.
Yet, people don’t like it. They cannot stand it. They’re making things up. They’re making inaccurate comparisons. They’re holding us to a different standard. They’re ignoring facts. They’re projecting their feelings to our players. Did I mention projecting? And they’re just saying things that objectively are not true.
Most recently, they’re patronizing us.
As I said, this is essentially the best way for a small market team to achieve the “sustained success” that Presti keeps preaching. To quote a Dothraki handmaiden, “It is known.” It’s so known (grammar?) that we aren’t even the only team that’s done it!
Last year; the Pistons, Rockets, Raptors, and Magic actively tanked the second half of their season. Guess what? That’s ok.
This season, guess the bottom 5 in the NBA? Pelicans (there’s a lot to unpack there), but then the Rockets, Magic, Pistons, and our Thunder.
Yet, you don’t see tweets about Christian Wood deserving better. No one is questioning if Cade Cunningham is actually injured or if they are trying to get an early jump in the tank race. Haven’t seen a soul say John Hammond is preaching “rebuild” to preserve his job in Orlando. There hasn’t been a single national podcast segment on any of these teams “not being fun to watch” or a “black eye for the league”.
Every single scenario I just listed has been a legit accusation to OKC. The league is holding us to this standard that they just don’t for the other teams. They expect us with putting together a completely competent basketball team, and competing for the play-in or the 8 seed year after year. Not only that, they expect us to be ok with that.
And when we call out these double standards, these hypocrisies, and full fledged lies we get looked down on as a whining fanbase that has an excuse for everything.
A rapper by the name Andy Mineo once had a legendary line in his song “You Can’t Stop Me” in which he says “I’ve got two choices when I do this: make moves or make excuses.” The league would like for us the make moves, but moves towards mediocrity. Presti isn’t making any excuses, but he’s made a lot of moves.
Moves with vision though, vision for the future. Not to be mediocre now, but to be dominant for the next decade.
The vision is clear as is the plan. Now all we have to do is execute. Don’t take short cuts, and do it right.
Until then, we keep our guard up. Keep our head on a swivel. Because despite the product on the court, we love this team. We’re invested in the players, we believe in the coaching staff, and we trust the front office.
Until then, it’s OKC vs. everybody.