For starters, the architect of this Thunder team, general manager Sam Presti, was hired by Bennett and the current ownership, after they’d already planned to move the team to OKC. Had ownership went into the hiring process with a different mindset, maybe they would have hired a different guy.
Second, the Thunder were under no pressure to win before they moved – considering the high likelihood that Bennett did everything he could to tank fan interest in the franchise in Seattle – and under even less pressure to win after they moved.
The last incarnation of the Sonics was a bad team that played in front of a lot of empty seats in an arena that needed a total renovation. They would have gone into the ’08-09 season needing to win. In Oklahoma City, the brand-new Thunder could sell out games to an infatuated fan base for 3-4 years in a shiny building before the euphoria of simply having their own NBA team might morph into expectations for a winning product.
So given that room to take chances, OKC could use a No. 4 draft pick on an undersized two-guard named Russell Westbrook and let him experiment at point guard.
They could use a first-round pick on a raw, run-and-jump prospect out of Africa named Serge Ibaka, then take the time to develop him into one of the NBA’s most impactful defenders.
They could stick a No. 3 overall pick named James Harden on the bench and let him discover his niche without feeling forced to appease media and fans that believe the No. 3 overall pick should be starting.
They could trade an offensively versatile locker-room leader, a former top-five draft pick named Jeff Green, for an offensively-challenged sourpuss like Kendrick Perkins. And they’ll have enough slack to preach patience.
The real Sonics probably would’ve passed on drafting Westbrook in ’08 in favor of Kevin Love or Brook Lopez. Would that pick have gone on to become a star playing next to Durant? Maybe. Would that Durent-led tandem create the recipe that leads to an NBA Finals berth in their fourth season together? Maybe not. (Knowing our management pre-Presti, however, we would’ve taken the top “true” point guard on the board, D.J. Augustin.)
The real Sonics, having been burned by a bad run of seven-foot draft projects like Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Saer Sene, probably would’ve passed on Ibaka for a more proven commodity like Darrell Arthur.
Coaches, trainers, scouts … all vital cogs to the Thunder’s potential championship machine that may not have been hired had the franchise stayed in Seattle. You just never know.
On one hand, I’d like to think any NBA front office could put a championship-caliber team around Durant by his fifth year in the league. On the other hand, once upon a time I thought the same thing about Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony and Yao Ming.
No, this isn’t the same team that left Seattle. And there’s not much reason to believe that had the Sonics never left, they’d look like the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder. For myself and a lot of people in this city, there is no connection.
Which makes the team so much easier to hate.
But a few things happened on my way to allowing this NBA Finals to become a miserable experience should OKC take the whole thing.
The first happened last Friday night, at Safeco Field in Seattle. I was there as six Mariners’ pitchers tossed the 10th combined no-hitter in baseball history. For a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 11 years, it might as well have been our World Series.
Then there were two instances this week – Game 1 and Game 2 of the Finals – when I watched the Thunder split a pair with the Heat.
More than the sinking feeling I got from watching Durant erase Miami’s second-half lead in Game 1 and pour in buckets throughout the fourth quarter (and again during Game 2’s late comeback that ran out of time) … more than the smell emanating from the TV whenever Bennett and McClendon were shown wearing their shit-eating grins on top of their blue Thunder t-shirts … more than the dread I felt knowing that LeBron could’ve scored 41 points per game instead of 31 and it still wouldn’t be enough to satisfy his critics …
What I remembered most was the Oklahoma City crowd. I heard their joy and passion, and how much it reminded me of the crowd I had just been a part of during that baseball game at Safeco.
They were celebrating their team, their Thunder, the team that Clay Bennett took from Seattle and brought to his hometown because he wanted to have a team in his city.
Just like we celebrate our teams – our Mariners and our Seahawks and our Sounders and our Storm. Just like we’ll celebrate our Sonics again whenever homegrown billionaire Chris Hansen and his investment group takes some other city’s NBA team to bring back to Seattle.
Don’t feel too bad for Seattle.
I feel bad for Las Vegas. I feel bad for Louisville, for Albuquerque, for Omaha and Wichita, for Honolulu. Cities that don’t have major pro sports, that may never experience what Seattle experienced with the Mariners last week, or what Oklahoma City has experienced with its Thunder this week.
Do I want an NBA team to come back to Seattle? Of course.
Do I need the Sonics to come back? Not really.
And I know I don’t need the Thunder.
I don’t need the Thunder to win a championship, either.
Should Seattle fans be rooting for the Thunder?
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