By Dan Runcie / @RuncieDan
In back-to-back years, the franchise drafted two core players to build a team around. In the first year, it drafted an athletic, high-flying forward, pushing the traditional position boundaries. The following year the team drafted an exciting, hard-nosed point guard, born and raised in California — a guy who plays with aggression and could care less what anyone thinks.
These young talents developed their game, and their team became a perennial title contender. The team became a younger, sexier alternative to the elder statesmen of the Western Conference, and a favorite among the street ballers and young fans. Critics chastised the players’ youthful exuberance as misguided inexperience. Fans ignored it, because DAMN they were fun to watch.
They peaked during an epic playoff run. They defeated those Western Conference elder statesmen in the playoffs en route to facing the best regular-season team ever. The franchise was a heavy underdog and did better than most expected, but still lost the series. It was a tough loss, but we were convinced, “They’re still young; they’ll be back. Don’t worry.”
They never got back. The athletic forward went to play for a different team. The hard-nosed point guard was left with makeshift replacements.
No, I’m not talking about the present-day Oklahoma City Thunder — at least not yet. I’m talking about the franchise’s original incarnation, the Seattle SuperSonics of the 1990s. Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were the high-flying duo destined for glory. The team was groomed to wrestle the keys away from Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone. Their alley-oops and dunks were SportsCenter favorites. The Sonics were the lens into the league’s perceived future.
In the 1996 NBA Finals, the Sonics tied the series 2–2 against the 72–10 record-setting regular-season Chicago Bulls. The Sonics played well but did not prove that they could win the series. That series, and all others they played in, were exhibits rich with promising trends and missed targets.
We missed an opportunity to replicate those instances among friends. The original NBA Jam did not have Gary Payton. We pretended that Benoit Benjamin was GP. By the time NBA Live replaced NBA Jam as the the must-own basketball game, Kemp was on his way to Cleveland. In 1997, one year after the Finals loss to Chicago, Kemp was in a three-team trade involving Terrell Brandon and Vin Baker. The Sonics got Baker, who helped fill the void, but he could not deliver the way Kemp once did. In NBA Live, we tried Payton and Baker alley-oops, but it just wasn’t the same.
We lost an opportunity to see that Sonics team in the post-Jordan era, when the best player ever was out of the league. We’ll never get that back.
Of course, the same could be said of the present-day Sonics franchise, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The same narrative has repeated, only more vividly and forcefully. This team now, for all intents and purposes, are the ThunderSonics — a modern-day example of history repeating itself before our very eyes.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were an even better version of Kemp and Payton. Where Reign Man and the Glove were still a tier below the Michael Jordan/Malone/Scottie Pippen/Olajuwon/Shaquille O’Neal pinnacle. Durant and Westbrook are in that top tier — two of the top five or 10 players in the league.
The Thunder was similarly groomed to wrestle the keys to the Western Conference away from Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki. Slowly but surely, OKC did. Like the Sonics, young fans and street ballers cheered Durant and Westbrook on. In NBA 2K you gladly picked the Thunder, especially when your buddy played it safe by only picking the Warriors, Spurs or Cavs.
Not only were the Thunder stars better than the Sonics, but whole team was better. This very season, OKC had the 73–9 Warriors on the brink of elimination. Durant, Westbrook and company convinced everyone that they could beat the Warriors but came up short.
Now, in the blink of an eye, the window has been slammed shut by the very man selected as the Soncis’ final first-round draft pick.
Durant’s departure stings more than Kemp’s did. Shawn Kemp stayed in Seattle for another season after the Finals loss, hoping for a title. Durant left a month after the loss to the Warriors. Kemp was traded, and the Sonics received assets in return. The Thunder got nothing in return — Durant was a free agent. To top it off, Kemp was traded to a non-contender in the Eastern Conference. Durant signed with the Warriors, the record-breaking team that beat him in seven games.
In 1997, Gary Payton was the Sonics’ sole leader. Seattle was still a playoff team but no longer a serious title contender. Payton hung on for a few more seasons but eventually left too. After GP left, the Sonics played poorly, and the team lost its consistent attendance and support. The NBA watched as the country’s 14th largest metro area lost its basketball team. The Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, the 45th largest metro area. OKC showed potential during the New Orleans Hornets’ temporary relocation. The team has been well-received since the move, but will it still be years from now?
Twenty years after the loss to the Bulls, the ThunderSonics have gone full circle. Westbrook is the sole leader of the Thunder. Serge Ibaka and Durant are gone. The Thunder is still considered a “playoff team” but closer in caliber to the Grizzlies than the Spurs.
Does Westbrook need to average a triple-double for the team to make the playoffs? Will he, like GP before him, jump ship in a few years? Can the franchise attract a free agent to play with Westbrook? Will the crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena still be a raucous a home crowd? Can the 45th largest metro market (only Memphis, New Orleans and Salt Lake City are smaller) keep a team through thick and thin?
History does not need to repeat itself again. The ThunderSonics franchise needs a break. It doesn’t want to see Westbrook go to the Mavericks in three years. The fans don’t want to see the team move to Las Vegas. The front office doesn’t want to draft LeBron James’ son in seven years, only to see him leave the franchise.
The ThunderSonics deserve more than that. Time will tell if it happens.
Sports and pop culture writer. Defender of hip-hop and overhyped athletes.