While the circumstances of how ownership hijacked the Seattle SuperSonics and made them the Oklahoma City Thunder have always been unpalatable for NBA fans, the electric enthusiasm of the OKC crowd has always been held up as a silver lining in the sense that it’s genuinely cool to see a small market throw themselves full throttle behind their team. Now that the Thunder have stripmined their team for a bevy of future draft assets, we’ll see just how unconditional that love really is.
After a Year 1 honeymoon phase where the Thunder went 23-59 in 2008-09, they’ve won at least 45 games every season and missed the playoffs in just one of them. They have had marquee players the whole time with some combination of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Paul George. They made one NBA Finals and three other Western Conference Finals. That’s an easy team to get behind.
The Process 2.0 is going to require a lot more patience.
Here’s the obligatory part of this story where we show you just how many future assets Sam Presti has acquired for the Thunder:
Presti has proven to be more than capable at identifying talent in the NBA Draft and it’s relatively reasonable to assume he will continue to do a good job with that such that the Thunder will, eventually, come out on the other side of this in pretty good shape.
But it’s also reasonable to assume that the Thunder will be a pretty dreadful team for at least the next three seasons, and quite conceivably won’t be anywhere in the vicinity of championship contention for at least five years. Unless the lottery system gets overhauled, ping pong balls will still have to go their way. If the Thunder average under 30 wins a season for the next three years, will their fans still show up in droves?
The Thunder ownership willfully moved the franchise from the country’s 13th-biggest TV market to the 45th. The NBA is structured such that the national TV revenue gets split amongst the teams but they are on their own for local TV deals. Thus, for the Thunder, the gate is going to be a bigger factor in their incremental revenue than bigger market teams who have more lucrative TV contracts.
My inclination is that this season Thunder fans will have a chip on their collective shoulders to prove that they can still support a bad team. After all, they do have a lot of future hope with all the picks. 2020-21 and 2021-22 are going to be more interesting to me, and beyond that if the team has not started a considerable upswing it will be fascinating to observe. This will all comprise the litmus test for whether the NBA is truly sustainable in this market.