Posted Dec 3 2009 12:08PM
The running joke around the NBA is that the worst trade in league history was Vancouver for Memphis, for scenic beauty if nothing else. And if you ask some folks in Seattle who aren't getting their basketball fix these days, they can think of another lopsided deal.
Let's make this clear: Basketball was still popular in Seattle when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. Getting fans inside the arena was never the issue. Getting politicians to devise a plan to spruce up the arena was the issue. Without a new arena, complete with all of the revenue-generating goodies, the Sonics were gone, especially with a new owner who hailed from Oklahoma.
Relocation wasn't the most ideal solution, but two years later, the transition from Seattle, it turns out, has been smoother than Slick Watts' scalp. Any fears of pro basketball getting blindsided in a football state subsided rather quickly. The Thunder may be working in one of the NBA's smallest markets and are largely invisible to the average sports fan (can you name their starting five?), but they've established themselves as a big attraction in a city that doesn't have many.
Certainly, part of the team's draw is due to a honeymoon period, where fans are just happy to see basketball while putting aside quality for the time being. Such was the case in Miami, Orlando, Minnesota and Charlotte during the last wave of expansion. It's a bit different in OKC, though. The Thunder were established before tumbleweeding into OKC. They had a few assets. They bought along Kevin Durant, who at 21 will become the second-youngest player (after LeBron) to reach 4,000 points. They've drafted wisely, adding Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook. And they're seemingly set at three positions for the foreseeable future. Finally, they're refreshingly competitive in the early season, raising the possibility that come spring, their games may actually mean something.
It's hard to say which is the bigger surprise: that the Thunder, after winning only 23 games all last season, are winning on the road. Or that defense, always a challenge for young teams, isn't an issue. The players have bought into coach Scott Brooks' philosophy about team defense, and considering the Thunder lack a proven shot-blocker or designated stopper, their improvement is clearly due to a collective effort. Oklahoma City is allowing nine points fewer than last season and taking a large measure of pride in that. It's a defense that would make Barry Switzer proud.
"That's why we've improved as a team," Brooks said. "Everybody is on the same page. The effort has to be there. We've improved because we're thinking like a defensive team."
And they have quality wins, especially on the road, with victories in San Antonio, Miami and Utah. This doesn't necessarily mean OKC is ready to do something big, but a team that won only 43 games the last two years could match that total this season. At the very least, the Thunder are on schedule to make a generous leap in their development.
"Going into the year, we felt confident we'd be better, but we really didn't know how much better," said Nick Collison, the player with the longest tenure in Seattle. "We're seeing some encouraging signs. Our level of play has really been good."
Relocation hasn't always been this ideal in the NBA . The Grizzlies had no future in Vancouver, where players (Steve Francis) thought they were on the edge of the Earth, but the Memphis years haven't been too popular. Following a brief period of mania, basketball is on a slow simmer in Memphis, which lost its only box-office player when Allen Iverson bolted after three games. The Hornets' move to New Orleans has had a degree of popularity, thanks to Chris Paul. But there are suspicions that attendance will suffer if the Hornets become losers, which could happen this season. In Charlotte, the Bobcats are proving to be a tough sell, even in a region that adores basketball (college basketball, at least). They rank near the bottom of the NBA in attendance.
Oklahoma City wanted to step up to the big time and shed an image of being a cow town. That's what a professional team can do, provide an identity. The improvements to the Ford Center were taxpayer-funded, and last year, the building was filled to 98 percent capacity. This year, it's at 99. The Thunder will never replace the Oklahoma Sooners in the hearts and wallets of the locals, but they've carved out a generous spot for themselves.
The trick from here is continued growth. The Thunder will likely have another lottery pick or two in the immediate future, which is needed for the building process, because OKC doesn't strike anyone as a destination for A-list free agents. Having said that, if Durant and Green keep this up, OKC could turn into the place to be.
Apparently, the locals already agree.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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