Some things never change: The new Thunder era
The NBA Finals are a huge machine of everything that’s descending upon Oklahoma City this week. Drama, the NBA’s brightest stars, important people and people who think they are important, perhaps the brightest media spotlight ever to shine on Oklahoma that doesn’t involve tragedy, disaster or scandal: It’s all coming, and it’s coming all at once.
Thus dawns a new era in Oklahoma City and for the precocious Thunder. Now that the NBA Finals are here, and an NBA title is four wins away, some things are going to change that won’t be changing back for this hopefully-a-decade-or-longer current Thunder era and beyond.
From the team’s perspective, the first permanent change is the obvious.
1. No matter the result of Thunder-Heat, it’s title-or-bust next season and every subsequent season in Oklahoma City.
Let me explain it to you this way. Most of you probably heard about and/or participated in the madness at Academy Sports and Outdoors stores in the hours after the Thunder won the Western Conference, and then the next morning. Thousands of people packed the parking lots at the Academy stores around the Oklahoma City metro late at night for conference championship T-shirts.
That’s not going to happen again here. You only lust for the conference title shirt once.
The team definitely does not seem to have the “just happy to be here” vibe. And to be sure, losing the Finals would be a huge disappointment to the fans and players alike. (Also, an underrated storyline in my opinion, is that NO fan base wants to be the first to lose to LeBron James in the NBA Finals, I’m pretty sure. That would make a bitter loss even more bitter, for example.) But still, this was a step the Thunder were able to take, one last season where there could be incremental improvement that doesn’t include winning it all. Progress has been made, a threshold crossed.
It’s not unthinkable that some future seasons, the Thunder will be playing for more than a title. There could come a point, if there are enough banners hanging from the rafters in downtown Oklahoma City, when the team is playing against ghosts and history books and legends, not just the current opponent. But for awhile, there’s really no more steps the Thunder can take. It’s either win a title, or have a disappointing season — even if it’s a season that the team can be proud of, title-less seasons from here on out will be a bummer.
2. If you have something you think is yours in June in downtown Oklahoma City when the Thunder make it to the Finals, it’s not really yours unless the NBA and its partners say it isn’t theirs.
From real estate in Loud City to public streets outside of Chesapeake Energy Arena to hotels around downtown and Bricktown, if the NBA wants it, the NBA gets it for the Finals. The team, city and local businesses are put in a bad spot in some ways in individual customer relations cases because of NBA contracts and rules, and if you’re one of the people that has something the NBA has a claim to, you just have to accept what is offered to you instead and hope it’s something good.
Some of you probably noticed part of a section in Loud City was converted into overflow media space for the Western Conference finals this season and last. That’s part of the deal the NBA has with the teams and arenas — every arena has to make that space available, even if it isn’t used by the media or league, though the team can make it available to fans at the last minute if it isn’t. Well, that space is even bigger for the Finals, with more Loud City real estate going to the league, displacing some season ticket members. The team offered roughly equivalent seats in other parts of the arena to those ticket holders, and for free. Under the circumstances, that’s about as good of a response to a tricky customer relations issue imposed by a league requirement as you can manage. Just part of the deal if your team advances to the NBA’s grandest stage.
Try telling that to people who aren’t planning their lives around the NBA and had space in downtown Oklahoma City hotel rooms during the Finals, though. Because of contracts the hotels have with the league, some people were straight-up kicked out of their hotel rooms. And, as you know, it’s wedding season. I mentioned this in front of my wife and some of her cohorts, and they were aghast. They all agreed, if they had hotel rooms and/or ballroom space in downtown Oklahoma City for a wedding (or another important reason) and were offered space anywhere else, there’s no equivalent. When pondering the changes to their own weddings that they would have had to make so late in the game (“Invitations would have been sent out weeks ago!”), had the situation happened to them, they quickly devised revenge schemes involving multiple violent felonies.
Even public streets are essentially NBA property, it seems. It’s practically small-scale, temporary eminent NBA domain. The NBA and media quickly got a permit allowing them to shut down some streets by the arena all the way through the end of the Finals — including when the series shifts to Miami for up to a full week. They got the same kind of permit the Thunder uses for Thunder Alley, and got it rubber stamped even without Oklahoma City Council approval, which we’ve learned is not normally the case for such permits, but has been upon occasion for Thunder events.
June in Oklahoma City might be the new mini-version of weddings and other big events in college football states in the fall. Just don’t even try it downtown. For one, people might not show up because they care more about the Finals than free booze and dinner. And logistics problems might initiate a Bridezilla attack.
3. It’s never again going to be weird to see Oklahoma City ranked among the NBA’s elite.
I don’t know about you. But I think that, if most of even the biggest Thunder fans were totally honest, they’d admit to a tiny twinge of doubt and fear when Oklahoma City became the near-consensus pick to reach the Finals before the season started. Just a little bit of, “Man, I hope they aren’t wrong. There are just so many scary-good players, and that breakdown against the Mavs scares the heck out of me still.”
That train of thought didn’t form without good lessons learned from history, either. A lot has been made of the 13-season Western Conference stranglehold the Thunder ended by dispatching the teams that won the 13 previous West titles on their way to the Finals. But it’s also just flat-out rare to win an NBA title, so it makes sense if it was at least a little hard to imagine the Thunder playing for one. Remember, only eight different teams have won an NBA title in the last 28 years, and two of those eight teams (the Mavericks and Heat) only did it once. Think about the really-good-to-great teams just over the last two generations that never even played for a title, much less won one: the Rasheed Wallace-led Blazers, the Steve Nash-led Suns, the Chris Webber-led Kings.
But it won’t be weird to think about the Thunder ascending to the top of the NBA world anymore, not with OKC standing four wins away from a title. It’s clear the Thunder belong. It’s clear the Thunder can be great. With four more wins, it would be clear they already are.
4. During contract negotiations, the Thunder can, with a completely straight face, play the “We’re competing for titles” card.
It’s no fun to dwell on contract situations if your team is still playing in June, so I won’t dwell for long here. But it’s only a couple of weeks until the Thunder’s window opens to negotiate contract extensions with James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
OKC can keep both no matter what they sign for as long as someone is willing to write the check — or checks, because the league would be getting a pretty big one as well once the Thunder go into the luxury tax. And the Thunder WILL go into at least the low end of the luxury tax at some point, most likely even if only one of the Harden and Ibaka duo remains.
Harden himself made reference to the Thunder’s stature in the title picture as a factor in being willing to continue to not only accept but embrace his Sixth Man role going forward. And you have to believe that, if either player is even willing to sacrifice some money to keep the band together for any reason, that competing for championships would be pretty much the only reason. Harden and Ibaka could have said, “Yeah, sort of,” in response to Sam Presti or someone else playing the title competition card this summer if the Spurs had stopped OKC short of the Finals for a second straight year. Now, there’s no doubt: The Thunder really are competing for it all. If neither player decides to take less money than they can get elsewhere, then they never were going to in the first place. But the Thunder can keep saying the same thing to players who want extensions and potential free agent signings for as long as the Durant-Westbrook core is intact.
5. It’s not going to be nearly as easy for Thunder players to hide in plain sight when they are in Oklahoma City.
To be sure, Thunder players have been recognized most places they’ve gone in Oklahoma City for a while now. I know that every time I have seen a player in public, someone has come up to them to shake their hand or take a picture or whatever. But I sense that it’s changing a little bit, at least based on a few anecdotes.
For example, Thabo Sefolosha said that lately, fans have been more “intrusive” here in Oklahoma City. And right about the same time, I heard from a friend that Westbrook was absolutely under siege by fans during a recent trip to Twin Peaks on Memorial Road. Those stories the team used to tell about being able to go out to the mall without being bothered weren’t entirely true to begin with — sure, some people who didn’t know about the Thunder or didn’t really pay close attention just thought, “Who are those huge guys over there?” but there were still people who wanted pictures and whatnot. Now that seemingly everyone is wearing their Thunder shirt to the grocery store and the team has pull in every demographic in the city, that relative anonymity is gone.
I suppose you could make the argument that it will make OKC a little bit less attractive to the current players and prospective ones. Supposedly the anonymity is one of the things that the business-oriented Thunder players really appreciated about Oklahoma City, and it’s gone. But that hasn’t really been the case with the stars for a while. Now, in OKC, it will be true for the Thabo Sefoloshas and Nick Collisons. They’re true local celebrities here.
And for good reason, Oklahoma City. It seems like everything around here is getting cooler by the day. There’s lots of momentum here, rough seas for one of our corporate giants (with deep Thunder connections) notwithstanding. And maybe the coolest thing going on is the Thunder.
Soak it in. We’re in the first week of a new era, and it looks to be a long one. It feels good.