Fan’s message to Thunder: Let’s play to win

thunder
The Thunder’s season-opening tipoff in 2015.

We’re about to welcome the launch of the OKC Thunder’s ’21-’22 season, and the debate over tanking continues for a second straight year.

Do the Thunder continue to “explore the roster” and chase the league’s worst record in hopes of drafting the next unicorn?

Or do they take this young roster and try to be competitive in a very good Western Conference?

Sam Presti said recently that the team will take no shortcuts. You can read into that whatever meaning you choose.

“What we want to do is be playing meaningful basketball at the end of the year,” Presti said. “We want to try to do everything we can to put ourselves in position to optimize the group that we have, and there’s just no shortcuts to that. It comes back to the commitment to the process that’s in place and being willing to be patient with that as we go through, especially with this much change as we’ve experienced.”

Here’s the takeaway from that: “commitment to the process.”   Translation: “lose for the lottery.”

In today’s column in The Oklahoman,  Berry Tramel laid it out. “Losing is the path to winning.”

Ouch.

But put me down for trying to be competitive.

I know that puts me at odds with my fellow Thunder fans who celebrate tanking and see a championship caliber team in the future as a result.

There seems to be a couple schools of thought within NBA fandom.

One school says that if you don’t win the NBA championship, your entire season is a bust.

So tank until you can build the roster up.

The other school says that competing at a high level against the best players in the world and making a playoff run is great entertainment.  Yes, we may come up short in the end, but we’ve got something to cheer for through the long, cold winter months.

Remember the fun we had in the early 2010s when the Thunder went deep into the playoffs, even if they came up short?

We were living high as Oklahoma City Thunder fans.  Those are cherished memories of mine almost a decade later.

But you know what?  Those Thunder teams didn’t win the championship.

That doesn’t diminish the memory for me in the least.

My friend Steve Buck argues that the Thunder team of that era was a championship caliber team even if it didn’t win it all.

“Here’s the deal…for many of those years we were capable of winning the title,” he says. “That’s the goal here…get a club rebuilt that is capable to contend. Playing for a one and out is not the goal.  You want to position yourself to win it all.”

My point is that we didn’t win it all, but, gee, we had fun.

And now we’re losing for the lottery.  It makes for long, bleak seasons.  And there’s no promise of a unicorn at the end. Or even of a top three pick (see this year’s lottery fiasco).

Here’s to the new season and hoping the Thunder will be over-achievers.

Let’s not chase the luck of the lottery once again.  Let’s play to win now.

BONUS: Here is how Berry Tramel has the bottom of the West ranked going into the season:

Tramel Predict

Guest blog post from Steve Buck: Thunder up!

Buck Blog2
Guest blogger Steve Buck, with his wife Lisa, explains why he’s enthusiastic about the Thunder’s tanking strategy and its future.

Editor’s note: My friend Steve Buck and I have gone back and forth for months over the Oklahoma City Thunder. We’ve debated their tanking strategy to maneuver for better draft lottery position, as well as Sam Presti’s flipping of players for future draft choices. Steve is all in on the Thunder’s strategy, while I’ve mourned the loss of so many fan-favorite players. So, I asked Steve to write this guest post to provide perspective on why he’s so enthusiastic about the Thunder’s strategy and their future. Thank you, Steve. Here is his take:

By Steve Buck

For a decade, I enjoyed watching the Thunder find success. It was cool to see national networks regularly featuring our city and state as the team regularly showed up in the post-season. And the players who stepped on the court wearing our Thunder uni’s … Durant, Westbrook, Harden, CP3, George, Melo and so many others … extraordinary talents calling OKC home. It was fun to watch and celebrate victories and lament losses and injuries. But, candidly, as enjoyable as those teams were, I wasn’t really a fan, just a bystander enjoying the ride.

That changed in 20-21 though. I have entered fan mode.

To the reader who has enjoyed the decade of outstanding play from the club, you likely find it odd that I’d buy into the team in a year when, in terms of on the court success, they were simply awful. But in that poor record, I truly gained insight into the massive job in front of Sam Presti to sustain a small market club for the long-haul.

Thunder playoff
Thunder at home during 2016 playoffs

As I tried to learn from observing, I caught glimpses in his approach that I have strived for in my own professional path … steadfast pursuit of a long-term outcome, commitment to principles, patience where necessary, preparedness to seize opportunity when presented and commitment to building a culture of respect and camaraderie for club players and employees. I’ve also watched roster development and seen the focus on fit as much as flash. I find that approach appealing.

I know my friends in the Thunder Fan World have struggled saying goodbye to the historic names that have played on our roster. The host of this blog post, for example, laments roster churn every time we discuss Thunder hoops. The churn has been painful. I get it. My daughters, for example, consider wherever Westbrook plays their favorite team.

But I have taken a more pragmatic view of the roster rollover… 1) it is necessary to meet the long-term objective of sustained excellence, and 2) professionally, we accept employer changes as expected so why do we not expect Thunder players to change employers with regularity too.

Why Jim Stafford can’t embrace the Thunder changes.

And now the current players. SGA, Dort, Poku, Kenrich, Baze and the rest of the ’20 – ’21 crew. They may not have won many games, but they sure played hard. Some knew it might be their only shot…and they gave every ounce of energy they had against elite competition.

I get it that there was some roster gamesmanship and the club needed losses, but it was still fun. And encouraging. And tantalizing.

Poku, for example. Geez, there sure were some duds. But there were also moments where you could see a unique talent that might just be a fit that pays huge dividends down the road. Dort. How can you not love a guy’s work ethic who could’ve gone south after being passed over in the draft but instead throws everything at self-improvement. And finally, SGA. I believe he can win a slew of games for us in the future. Yes, I know that each is an asset and might have to be moved, but I also know that Presti wants sustained excellence, so the churn must stop soon.

In financial markets, we are encouraged to buy low and sell high. We’ve run at a peak in the Loud City for many years. Last year was a temporary market set-back in terms of our NBA club. Seems like a great time to buy because I see historic gains for the club in the future. That’s why this bystander became a fan in ’20-21. During the empty arena season that was a debacle in the win-loss column I bought a ticket package for the 21-22 campaign – my first package purchase since the club has been in OKC.

I am very bullish on this club, our players and team leadership.

THUNDER UP!!!

Steve Buck is the President and CEO of a trade association in Oklahoma City and co-owner of Mentalitea and Coffee, a new shop opening soon in Bethany, OK.

A playlist to take you back in time

Album covers

On my way to the dentist one day a few years ago, the song “American Woman” came on the radio. It was followed by Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” and then “A Horse With No Name,” by America.

A wave of nostalgia hit me so hard I almost had to pull over.

I was no longer in my car in the 2010s.  I was a teenager in 1971 sitting in a 1965 Pontiac Catalina (look it up) in Fort Smith, Ark.

This was almost a song-for-song playlist of the music I was listening to in the early ’70s just as I was completing high school. If there were such things as playlists back in 1971.

We had a new FM radio station in Fort Smith with the call letters KISR, which played Top 40 hits and was immensely popular among high school students. Its play list rotation was really small, so you heard the popular songs again and again.

Pontiac CatalinaI wouldn’t have had FM radio in my Pontiac — a hand-me-down from my dad — but that’s the memory that washed over me when I heard the music from a distant time.

Isn’t it amazing that hearing the opening riff to a single song — Neil Young’s “Ohio,” for instance — can instantly transport you back in time to exactly where you were at when you first heard the music?

Sitting in a car. Dragging Main Street. At the lake. Hanging out at someone’s house.

It puts you right there again. It’s almost like Deja Vu (all over again!).

Turns out, that there are studies on the subject of how music can take you back and rekindle vivid memories from decades ago. And how music creates waves of nostalgia that make you emotional for a time long gone.

It even occurs with more recent music and memories. Whenever I hear Phillip Phillips’ “Home,” I’m right back in Chesapeake Energy Arena waiting for KD, Russ, Serge and the rest of the Thunder to hit the court.

“Home’ was the pregame warmup music for an entire season back in the good ol’ days of the Thunder. How I miss it.

The music carries me back.

Unwelcome Ch-ch-changes

The Thunder tipoff in an early November 2015 game at Chesapeake Arena.

The 2020-21 Oklahoma City roster proves a point that I’ve heard many times over the years.

We’re only cheering for laundry.

Like many Oklahomans, I’ve been a Thunder fan since the team relocated here in 2008. I’ve been to many games over the years.

Along the way, I adopted many Thunder players as my own. Russell Westbrook. Nick Collison. Serge Ibaka. Steven Adams. Andre Roberson. Jerami Grant. Enes Kanter. James Harden. Even Kevin Durant. Especially KD.

The list goes on.

For several years, we had a core of players that we knew and could count on leading the Thunder lineup every season. We got to the NBA Finals with that lineup one year and should have made it to another if Patrick Beverly had not assaulted Westbrook.

But that’s another story. My point is that I became comfortable with our players and our team, although the roster was slowly turning over as we lost Harden, Ibaka, Kanter, et al over time.

Then KD left abruptly. But Russell stayed, and while we added and subtracted new players, our core stayed relatively stable.

Then 2019-2020 happened and the Thunder as I’ve known them disappeared. Westbrook long gone. Grant gone. Adams gone. Dennis Schroder gone. Chris Paul came and went from OKC a second time.

By the time the 2020-21 season started, we had four — four! — players from our previous roster, none of them long-time beloved stars.

So, I’m still watching the Thunder nightly, but with much less passion. I know Sam Presti’s plan is to lose now to chase potential later. But I don’t have to like it.

A friend I’ll call “Steve” accused me of being a fan of mediocrity.

“Winning by losing,” he said. “What a great concept.”

But we weren’t mediocre. The Thunder that I knew were great and went where small market teams almost never go, to the NBA Finals. And with players we knew and loved.

Now, we’ve turned the roster over and acquired dozens of first round draft choices, because the grass is always greener in the future.

I’m not sure if mass roster changes will ever end as Presti chases the elusive future player who will bring us championship glory.

It’s a bittersweet relationship, but now I know. We’re only cheering for laundry.

Paul McCartney knows just how OKC feels

When Kevin Durant told OKC two weeks ago “It’s not you, it’s me” and moved in with the Golden State Warriors, there was something familiar about the scenario. It was the type of relationship-gone-bad about which movies are made and songs are written. One person left stunned and hurt as their lover announces out of the blue that he or she is moving on to a new partner.

kd pixThen I was driving down the road Saturday when the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You” came on the radio. It hit me. Paul McCartney’s bitter lyrics about the partner who jilted him was a perfect description of how thousands of OKC fans felt watching @KDTrey35 being introduced as a Warrior. Well, it hit me that way, anyway.

Here is a sampling of the lyrics written 50 years ago. They perfectly describe the KD-OKC breakup:

I’m looking through you,
Where did you go?
I thought I knew you,
What did I know?
You don’t look different, but you have changed.
I’m looking through you, you’re not the same.

Your lips are moving,
I cannot hear.
Your voice is soothing,
But the words aren’t clear.
You don’t sound different,
I’ve learned the game.
I’m looking through you,
You’re not the same.

Why, tell me why, did you not treat me right?
Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.

You’re thinking of me,
The same old way.
You were above me,
But not today.
The only difference is you’re down there.
I’m looking through you,
And you’re nowhere.

Why, tell me why did you not treat me right?
Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.

I’m looking through you, 
Where did you go?
I thought I knew you,
What did I know?
You don’t look different,
But you have changed.
I’m looking through you,
You’re not the same!

Yep, KD. You don’t look different. But you have changed.