By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jan 27 2009 11:17AM
They are sticking to the plan, no matter how painful the present.
Given the realities of the economy and the realities of the limits that owner Clay Bennett has put on spending, the Oklahoma City Thunder have one chance to build the team into a contender. They cannot mess up the chance, or the franchise's future stability will be at risk, even just one year after moving from Seattle, where the former Sonics enjoyed four decades of enthusiastic support. So the Thunder take their lumps now, doesn't overreach for free agents, hoards draft picks, develops its very young core of talent and is content to live off the largesse of what Forbes Magazine called the most "recession-proof" city in the United States in 2008.
For the first two months of this season, Oklahoma City -- the second bottom-feeding team in our series on the NBA's also-rans -- threatened the 76ers' all-time worst single-season mark of 9-73. A month ago, the Thunder were 3-29. Coach P.J. Carlesimo had been fired.
But of late, Oklahoma City has improved, competing almost every night under interim coach Scott Brooks and staying in most games deep into the fourth quarter. There is the skeleton of a future, with a team built around second-year forward Kevin Durant, jack-of-all-trades swingman Jeff Green and a potential elite-level guard in rookie Russell Westbrook.
That doesn't make the present any easier. But for now, patience is winning over frustration. "Just (to) know that the better days are ahead of us," Durant said recently when asked how he deals with all the losing. "That's what keeps us all motivated, just to get to the playoffs. That's the goal we're trying to set. If we continue to work hard every day in practice and work on our individual games, we'll get there."
It is a message that the city, so far, has bought into. The Thunder are playing at 97 percent of capacity in the 19,000-seat Ford Center, with 56 corporate suites, 3,500 club seats and 13,000 season tickets bought up (the season tickets went in five days last September), much like the Hornets did through most of two seasons that they played in OKC after Hurricane Katrina forced a temporary relocation.
"We're fortunate in that our corporate base puts the city before themselves, over and over again," Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said by telephone. "They realize how much the city has riding on the success of this team. We are determined to make this thing successful. We're a small market. We can't afford to allow ourselves to get diverted. We have to be somewhat protective of this team."
That kind of support is going to be critical while the Thunder improve on the court.
The Thunder's mid-season signee Nenad Krstic was added at a low cost and is already paying dividends.
Larry W. Smith/NBAE via Getty Images
Big-market, high-revenue teams can dream about the quick fix of a LeBron James or Dwyane Wade in free agency. Oklahoma City will never get one of those players. They wouldn't go there and even if they did, Bennett wouldn't spring for the nine-figure salary it would take to sign them. For the Thunder, the draft is paramount. It's the pipeline through which the team will get most of its players -- players that won't hit free agency for four or five years (the earliest any of the team's core is free is 2011), keeping the team's payroll low for the foreseeable future.
"I'm not sure that there's any one way that tells you how to build your team or your franchise," general manager Sam Presti says. "I think you have to make consistent decisions and that's something we've focused on. We're trying to put a team together that has an opportunity to grow and sustain itself. We'll be methodical and deliberate as we make our decision, because we just don't feel like we can make one decision that's going to build the franchise. It's going to be an accumulation of decisions that put us in position."
One of the first came before the team's last season in Seattle, when Bennett opted not to re-sign forward Rashard Lewis and OK'd the trade of Ray Allen to Boston for the Celtics' first-round pick (which became Green). The message was clear: no payroll anywhere near the luxury tax for a team that wasn't likely to get out of the first round.
The move nearly 2,000 miles south-southeast didn't just mean building a new fan base; it's meant building an entire infrastructure, from a new medical staff to a new practice facility.
When the team has added players, it's done so economically, as when it signed free agent center Nenad Krstic to a three-year, $15.8 million offer sheet last month while he had a window to return to the NBA from Triumph of the Russian Superleague, where he'd signed last summer. At 25, and recovered from a knee injury suffered while with the Nets, Krstic figures to have a few good years left in him.
"He stretches the floor, which we really thought would help Westbrook," Presti said. "Nenad is someone we looked at as someone who could help us in the immediate but also in the future. Given his age and the ability to shoot the ball, we thought he would be someone who could grow with the organization."
KEEP LOOKING AHEAD
Brooks has tweaked things on the court, moving Durant from shooting guard, where he played for Carlesimo, to both forward positions. Either way, Durant is closer to the basket and is better able to help out with rebounding (he's almost two boards per game better this year than his rookie season) and defense. A new assistant coach, former Bulls assistant Ron Adams, also has helped with new defensive concepts. And Brooks has impressed with his energy and positive reinforcement of the players.
I saw the Thunder last month in Atlanta, where they did what they've been doing all along for Brooks, playing hard against a superior opponent. The game was close, but Oklahoma City faded in the last five minutes. Afterward, Brooks was clear-eyed and focused, not beaten down by the losing like a lot of other good coaches you see.
Coach Scott Brooks (left) has stayed positive this season, something that's helped young stars like Jeff Green.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
"We're 3 and 26," Brooks said of the team's record at the time. "We have a chance to be 4 and 26 on Friday."
The most important step to future success is keeping Durant happy. After landing him with the second pick a year ago, there's no question that the Thunder are tied to Durant's future development -- and he has control over the franchise. So far, he's down with the program, expressing no discomfort about the move or the plan.
"It's different," he said. "I went to school in Texas for a year, so it's something like Oklahoma. So I got used to it a little bit. But I love it. The people are nice. The place where I live is unbelievable. So I'm excited where I live and I'm looking forward to better years down the road."
Meanwhile, Presti continues to pile up future assets.
After dealing center Johan Petro and a 2009 second-round pick to Denver last month for veteran guard Chucky Atkins and the Nuggets' '09 first-rounder, Oklahoma City has potential three first-round picks next year: its own, Denver's (if the Nuggets make the playoffs, pretty likely for the Northwest Division leaders at the moment) and San Antonio's (the pick is protected for the Spurs through 16, another bet you'd feel good about making).
In 2010, Presti has his own first-round pick and the Suns' unprotected first-rounder, which came in the Kurt Thomas trade last year. The team also has the rights to big men Serge Ibaka (the 6-foot-10 rookie forward is playing in Spain this year) and DeVon Hardin (who is recovering from a stress fracture in his left leg that kept him from playing in Turkey). And the Thunder almost certainly will add a couple more picks before the trade deadline by dealing veteran forward Joe Smith and point guard Earl Watson.
In the meantime, Presti has to continue drafting well. If the Thunder wind up with the first pick in next June's draft, and sophomore forward Blake Griffin --playing about 20 miles down the road in Norman, for the University of Oklahoma, and generally considered the top pick if he decides to come out -- is available, Oklahoma City may get the same kind of civic injection that Cleveland received by taking close-to-native son James in 2003.
The mayor -- a former sportscaster and TV anchor -- knows that Presti can't talk about underclassmen like Griffin, so he's speaking for himself here: "It would be kind of odd," Cornett said, "if he was on the board and they don't take him."
ONLY GAME IN TOWN
But fantasy drafts aren't as important to the team's future as the continued support of the local business community.
Like Seattle -- the home of Microsoft, Starbucks, Nordstrom and other business titans -- Oklahoma City is lousy with corporate presence. Not to rehash the whole ugly divorce between Bennett and Seattle, but one big difference between the cities is that the Thunder loom as Oklahoma City's premier pro sports franchise -- the town is also home to the AAA affiliate of the Texas Rangers and an Arena Football league team -- while the Sonics had to compete for corporate dollars with the then-surging Seahawks and Mariners.
That gives Oklahoma City a number of cities to emulate (San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Portland and Sacramento) that have had varying amounts of success in recent years supporting NBA franchises that were the only major game in town.
In OKC, the Thunder have Fortune 500 companies like Devon Energy and Chesapeake Energy all to itself, along with other big spenders with headquarters there like SandRidge Energy Corporation, MidFirst Bank and Fortune 1000 company OGE Energy. Hertz, Sonic Foods, AT&T and Cox Cable have significant corporate presence in town; Lopez Foods, the largest Latino-owned manufacturer of beef and pork products in the United States and the 10th-largest Latino business of any kind in the country, according to Hispanic Business magazine, is also headquartered there. Cornett says the city also has diversified in recent years, no longer as buffeted by the business cycles of oil, with a new presence of aviation and biomedical companies.
Bennett has been able to line up corporate sponsors and commitments for the Thunder quickly in OKC, just as he did when the Hornets needed to relocate after Hurricane Katrina. Larry Nichols, CEO of Devon, told the New York Times last fall that Bennett "called a few friends (when the Hornets were looking around) and said 'OK, here's what we need.' We all signed up."
Despite a 10-35 record, the Thunder play in front of a 97 percent-full arena each night in Oklahoma City.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
"The Hornets' experience in Oklahoma City really benefitted our franchise," Presti said. "It introduced the city to the NBA. Our team would not be in Oklahoma City if it wasn't for the Hornets' success here, on and off the floor. And we want to continue to build and grow. But we have to build our own identity and we've taken steps to do that."
A TEAM OF THEIR OWN
But what will Oklahoma City do when the honeymoon wears off?
Cornett points out that basketball normally doesn't get much attention in the state until the University of Oklahoma's football team is no longer in contention for a national championship. In the Hornets' first season in OKC, for example, the Sooners already had lost twice when the Hornets began play. This year, the Sooners were in the BCS title game on Jan.7, and that didn't impact the support the Thunder have received.
"We've had three NBA seasons here, including the Hornets," Cornett said. "It hasn't let up yet. There's considerable evidence that we're for real as a market. I think people who take shots at us because we're a mid-market city aren't necessarily being fair."
The acid test may come two days after the All-Star game, when the Hornets make their second and final appearance this season in their former temporary home. The first time they came, the crowd was mixed, cheering more or less for both teams. But Cornett thinks the last 30 days have made a huge difference in Oklahoma City's embrace of its new team.
"Our community has bought into this franchise," he said. "When the Hornets come back, it'll be different. They'll be the road team. You can now sense that it's going to take place, that this is our team and these are our players and this is our coach, all of the things for an NBA team to become the focal point of the community and the rallying point of the city. We've never had anything in Oklahoma City that was for everybody."
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