NOTE: I know that this post bites on Bill Simmons’s style a bit, but I’ve spent as much time as anybody watching and reading about Lost. I demand the right to use the show for a sports metaphor! Don’t you judge me!
Life is hard for a Sonics fan right now. You never really understand or accept that they’re not your team any more. The problem is that the Sonics didn’t die, they merely re-spawned in some bizarro, corn-filled reality. If you’ve never had a team depart from your hometown, it feels like being Desmond in season six of Lost. A cataclysmic explosion (the Sonics leaving) has divided your life into two realities. In one blissful life there is no nuclear explosion and you still have your soul mate, “Pinny” (the Sonics). In fact, you never lost her, you’ve can’t even imagine life on the island.
Then there is reality in the aftermath of the bomb. Hollowed out by regret and heartbreak, you are thrown down a well by a force of evil incomprehensible to mere mortals (Locke/David Stern).
The difference is that Desmond seems to have some agency over how these two realities are resolved. For Sonics fans, there’s no leaving the island.
I have no beef with the OKC players. In fact, I LOVE them. It kills me to write it, but it’s the truth and I would have turn away from great young talent and really enjoyable team basketball to think otherwise. I can’t do it. As much as I love the Sonics, I love the Game more.
This is how it is: the Thunder are in the playoffs and have a 21 year old top-four player surrounded by athletic and lovable young teammates. It’s hard enough to watch the team that should be the subject of a Sir Mix-a-Lot anthem test the Lakers in the playoffs, but it’s another thing to watch the NBA, and by extension the people at TNT, attempt to push the memory of the Seattle Super Sonics from professional basketball fandom’s collective consciousness (or conscience?).
To combat this insidious storyline, I want to address my two least favorite Thunder-related myths:
1) The great crowds at Thunder games shows allowing the team to move what the right decision, at least from a business perspective.
2) The Thunder’s success is proof that Sam Presti is the equivalent of a basketball alchemist.
Moving to Oklahoma City was bad business
Here’s the problem, many people in the national media and I fear, national fandom, are being brainwashed by OKC’s “Loud City” branding (do you really think a fan came up with that?), and the presentation of the Thunder as a “feel good young team” to think that it’s just peachy the Sonics were heartlessly torn from its city and fans.
But keep this in mind, oh drinkers of the Kool-Aid. Today, if you stand on the highest Sierra Nevadas, you can still hear the echoes of the Sacramento King’s “die hard” fans pumping the Arco Arena full of noise and causing TV cameras to quiver. Guess what, that fan-friendly team from the early 2000s has been reduced to rubble, and Arco is empty. In 2010 Sacramento enjoyed the fourth lowest attendance rate in the league. This happened in the 20th largest TV market in America.
Oklahoma City, on the other hand, ranked 7th in the league in attendance by percentage. That’s admirable! But here’s the deal, the majority of Okie City doesn’t really care. You know why? Because it just isn’t a basketball town. There is no getting around it. The ceiling for revenue in that market is depressingly low. Here are two facts that will prove my point:
1) The unveiling of the Heisman trophy (which no player from an Oklahoma school could win this year) generated 27 times the viewership of an average Thunder game.
2) When the Thunder won their historic first playoff game at home, the front page story in the local newspaper focused on the bumper crop of NFL draftees from Oklahoma schools.
This, above all things, may be the most significant proof that David Stern chose to bone over Seattle fans so that his friend with benefits, Clay Bennett, could get what he wanted: moving the franchise to Oklahoma makes no business sense.
Oklahoma City is the 46th largest TV market in the country, the largest close city is over 100 miles away and doesn’t give a toasted cow turd about the NBA. Seattle-Tacoma is the 13th largest market and the country. Why does this matter, if attendance was low at Sonics games? Well, NBA teams make their money in a few ways (I say “their” to exclude league-wide revenue from TV deals, merchandising etc.). One way is gate receipts, and OKC is doing very well here, but that’s only a part of it. The other two major revenue streams for NBA teams are gear sold in team stores and lucrative local TV deals. This is how the Lakers make more money than any other NBA team. And herein lies the problem for Oklahoma City.
Unlike San Antonio, Salt Lake City and Portland, which are all one horse towns (with the exception of the many horses that come to San Antonio for the rodeo), Oklahoma City’s passion is college football. Aside from that of NASCAAR, there probably aren’t two more different fan bases than that of Big 12/SEC Football and NBA basketball, just ask the Hawks’ Joe Johnson.
Why is this a problem? Listen, the Thunder isn’t owned by the uber-wealthy Maloofs. In fact, one of their largest owners lost millions in the stock market crash. It’s hard to imagine they’ll be willing to lose money on a team that nobody watches on TV. Simply put, OKC is by far the smallest basketball market in the NBA.
Short term, sure the team is going to kick butt at the gate and take advantage of the shiny new team and awesome arena. But when you watch the fans cheer on Friday night, try to gauge their basketball acumen. For me, it seems like the fans are more excited about being super loud on national TV than the basketball in front of them. Some people talk as though by the Thunder supporters’ decibel level, they can gain legitimacy as a fan base. Well I don’t know about you, but I’m not buying it.
Sure, things are great now: the Thunder fans have been blessed with a great, great player who, for some reason, wants to stay in a small town instead of playing under the bright lights (perhaps the ever lovable but potentially terrifying presence of Wanda Pratt plays a role here).
What about in 15 years, when Durant is out of the league? What about if the team becomes a middling group of overpaid veterans? Will top flight free agents be attracted to OKC? The Spurs have had a fantastic run of excellence, but much of that depended on improbably getting Duncan in the 1997 draft. What’s going to happen in San Antonio after Duncan retires? Multiply these concerns 10 fold if OKC loses its top talent.
For some reason, Stern, who has always been a long-term thinker and an innovative commissioner, didn’t think this risk was a problem. Clearly he was blinded by either his fury over the smug Seattle/Washington government that vetoed a new stadium, or his mutual man-crush with Clay Bennett.
How good is Sam Presti?
I don’t mean to condescend to Oklahoma City (I said I don’t mean to, not that I’m unaware I do it anyways). It’s not really their fault they aren’t pro basketball people, so let’s turn our attention to the hallowed Thunder front office.
From 2006-8, GM Sam Presti did a good job of getting rid of every decent player on the former Sonics in order to get four top-five draft picks over 2007-9. Unlike other GMs, who have a one time shot at getting a supreme talent, Presti knew he was going to get these top picks, and decided to draft for roles instead of pure talent. He was able to compose the exact team he wanted through the draft, so he took role players he thought would fit well with Durant in the lottery.
How else do you explain picking James Harden over ROY Tyreke Evans in this most recent draft? ‘Reke is an effective scorer and adequate passer who would have made OKC the best defensive backcourt in the league by 2012. Westbrook, Evans, and Durant would cause a Jay Bilas to have multiple lengthgasms.
Two years earlier, Presti took Durant by default then chose Jeff Green with the 5th pick. Green was selected over Joakim Noah. Presti also snagged Carl Landry in the second round but immediately dealt him to Houston for a future second round pick.
So, if we look at his 4 top five picks, Durant was a gimme, the Harden pick probably should have been Tyreke Evans or Stephen Curry, and Jeff Green could have been one of two better players, one of which, Landry, they actually drafted but immediately traded. Only Westbrook is a player that anyone should be describing as a “strong pick.” Durant is really really really really good, but Presti didn’t make that happen, he lucked into it.
I know that almost no team actually takes the best talent available; it’s near impossible to project NBA greatness (especially in the case of a player like Landry). But Jeff Green wasn’t going to grow taller in the NBA, and he lacks physicality as a rebounder (6 rebounds in 37 minutes/game in 2010). The Thunder need a low post threat, and the three players I listed above all qualify, plus they all can rebound and guard their position. Mark my words, Green will be the first Thunder player to get axed when these kids grow up and start wanting more money than the tiny OKC market can afford.
So he had 4 top 5 picks that could have yielded a starting line up of Westbrook, Evans, Durant, Collison/Ibaka, and Noah this season. YEESH!
That’s a team that is going to get to the hoop, would be even better defensively than the current Thunder, and gains heart and talent (Noah’s hustle and leadership advantage over Jeff Green cancels out any argument that Tyreke is a significant dip in the character department).
Weirdly, Presti being overrated is a product of Durant being underrated. Durant is so good that Jeff Green, who rebounds like he desperately needs a Snickers and can’t guard threes (too slow) or fours (too small) actually got invited to train with the US National Team.
I’m not completely stupid; I know Presti is clearly an above average GM. He is following the San Antonio model of drafting for character over pure talent while putting his trust in a transcendent superstar and a very competent coach. Of all Presti’s moves, hiring Scotty Brooks is perhaps the best, other than snagging Congolese heartthrob Serge “I eat floaters for lunch and poop out dunks” Ibaka.
The real referendum on Presti’s abilities will be how he figures out paying all these guys. If I were him I would hold on to Ibaka, Durant and Westbrook at all costs and use Green and Harden to get a banger center and a couple of knockdown three-point shooters. Follow the Spurs model and get affordable veterans to bolster the big three.
But if, when payday comes, the Thunder players lose the “underdog-young-feel good” tag and start trying to get paid, are the OKC fans going to understand? Are they going to support a bunch of young athletes jockeying for playing time and shots?
The players’ relationships will change with the knowledge that they can’t all stay in OKC, and that anyone who leaves will need good stats to increase their value. Will the now “dedicated” fans be turned off by the turnover in personnel, especially if Presti can’t keep KD because Velvet Hoop wants to play in the big time?
It’s clearly way too early to tell.
So let’s all just take it easy and keep in mind that this team has a loooong way to go.
Please don’t forget that Stern still sucks and moved the team for non-business reasons, and that the talented Mr. Presti still hasn’t passed the major test of a GM: deciding who to pay and who to deal.
Let’s chill on the Thunder love fest, because there are a few million people still out there who wince every time they see Russell Westbrook posterize some hapless rotating defender, or Serge Ibaka block seven shots in one possession. It’s just a constant reminder that we Sonic fans are trapped on the island, indefinitely.
Maybe I’ll come back to this rant in five years and think, “wow, I’m a jackass! Stern knew exactly what he was doing when he moved a franchise with an entrenched fan base in the 13th largest TV market to the 46th largest market in an area that loves college football. He obviously didn’t just want to hook his boy Clay “my face scares babies” Bennett up with a team. Those OKC fans sure are loyal, too! After Durant went to New York to play with Wade, they stuck with James Harden and really appreciate his 17 points 5 rebounds and 5 assists per night!”
I’m willing to wager this won’t happen.
I see a time when Stern, heading into another CBA negotiation, trots out numbers about how his owners are losing money in cities like Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Oklahoma City. When TNT-3D analysts Jason Kidd and Baron Davis lament the dwindling OKC fan base. And when Clay Bennett gets attacked by a crazed, salmon-wielding fan before Seattle’s new franchise, The Pilots, plays against the now gawdawful Dorklahoma City Blunder.
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