As a fan of a small market NBA team, the decision on who to root for in the NBA finals should be painfully easy. The Oklahoma City Thunder, with their homegrown roster led by likable star Kevin Durant, stand for Truth, Justice and the American Way, while the store-bought, arrogant Miami Heat inspire enough vitriol to supply an entire cable news network. As a native Ohioan and long suffering Cavs fan, I find that hatred not without merit. Like with the rest of real life though, the good guys and bad guys aren’t always so clear cut, and a closer inspection of the Thunder may complicate our boilerplate rooting interest storylines.
Any list of “scumbug NBA owners” would likely be topped by Clippers owner Donald Sterling, but Thunder owner Clay Bennett would usually be pretty close to the top. The full story on how the Seattle Sonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder has not been given the proper publicity, (if you missed it, check here, or watch this) but all accounts give credence to the idea that Bennett played the people of Seattle like a fiddle; buying the team under false pretenses, then demanding more taxpayer money to fund an arena (even though Bennett was already filthy rich, and the investment was highly likely to be profitable), and when the cash-strapped community refused to budge, he whisked the team away.
Other small market fans should take note of this story. If David Stern was unwilling to protect a franchise with the fan support and history of Seattle (they even won an NBA title in 1979), he’s certainly not going to step in and protect the Sacramentos, the Indianas or the Charlottes. Your small market team could be held up by gunpoint by a millionaire owner at any time. Us Ohioans know all about what that’s like…ask Art Model if he’d like to join you for dinner in Cleveland… he knows we haven’t forgotten about the Browns.
GM Sam Presti has successfully built a powerful team almost exclusively through the NBA draft, and now scores of rebuilding teams, from Charlotte to Cleveland to New Orleans, are rushing to follow his blueprint. NBA journalists and talking heads have done little to mention that while Presti has done an admirable job running the draft, and has refrained from handing out any stupid contracts, he’s also had an EXCEPTIONAL amount of luck. The “OKC Model” isn’t something that another smaller market team can necessarily expect to emulate.
OKC managed to tank during particularly strong drafts, AND have their ping pong balls bounce exactly the right way AND had nobody important get hurt. While drafting horribly obviously can cripple your team (Charlotte Bobcats on line one), even having a strong GM that is lauded by the rest of the NBA press can lead to a whole lot of nothing (such as Portland and Houston). The twin small market darlings, OKC and San Antonio, had the fortune to get high enough draft picks to pick up super-duper stars. For all of the craftiness of Pops and the Spurs, if the team doesn’t grab Duncan at the top of the draft, we’re looking at a run of 4-5 seeds, not a dynasty. If your GM is banking on exceptional ping pong luck to bring your team back to relevance, you could be in for a whole lot of hurt.
Does that mean we should put away our Westbrook jerseys and pull for the Heat? Let’s not go that far. Miami is still led by the single most polarizing player in the NBA, and their only legitimate forward is a petulant crybaby who looks like an ostrich. By choosing to fill out their roster with older vets, Miami is somehow a fairly athletic team, even with starting Wade, James and Bosh. The Thunder are sharing the basketball, and have the depth of big men to slow Bosh, and prevent James from perpetually plunging headlong into the paint.
Looking at this series with my brain, given how Lebron singlehandedly crushed a talented Boston team and is playing his best basketball in years, it makes sense how one could think Miami will pull out a series win here. Thankfully, being a sports fan means willingly turning off your brain for extended periods of time. The brain gets us into trouble. Even though their story isn’t comic-book crystal clear, my heart says the Thunder win in 7.
Let’s just hope that championship success for OKC doesn’t give any more greedy or dumb small market leaders any ideas.
Follow Matt Brown on Twitter at @windycitymatt