The NBA playoffs get under way this weekend. Unfortunately, your Oklahoma City Thunder will have officially packed up its gear and headed their separate ways for the offseason by then.
The Thunder's 2008-09 season actually ends tonight with a meaningless Western Conference road game against the Los Angeles Clippers. OK, maybe not completely meaningless, depending on how Memphis and OKC stand heading into their respective season finales.
An extra ping-pong ball or two could be at stake in the NBA lottery selection process, and that could potentially mean the difference between getting projected No. 1 Blake Griffin and possibly the next Sam Bowie (Google the biggest NBA draft busts). So OKC fans might secretly be hoping for a Thunder loss and a Memphis win on the closing evening of regular-season play.
Any way you slice it, it's been a difficult season of transition for the franchise, which had spent the previous 40-plus seasons in Seattle and ended up moving halfway across to a city that was yet unproven in terms of supporting a big-league team on a long-term basis. But the team's overall struggles were not unexpected, and 60 losses were always a real possibility.
Handling major growing pains figured to be part of the team's daily routine.
With a young lineup that featured the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Kyle Weaver, Oklahoma City's future looked incredibly bright " as long as the Thunder could withstand the scrutiny and cynicism that go hand-in-hand with losing.
And lose OKC did. A lot.
A 1-12 start helped kill some early fan enthusiasm and led to the firing of head coach P.J. Carlesimo. And while interim head coach Scott Brooks seemed to bring a renewed energy to the team, the Thunder lost 12 of its first 13 games with him at the helm.
Panic was setting in. Doom and gloom pitched a tent at the Ford Center, and the local and national media began to wonder out loud about how many games the team might actually win.
The tourniquet Brooks seemed to provide initially was leaking profusely, and as the Thunder limped into the holiday season with a 2-24 mark in tow, finding positives was quite a challenge, at least for everyone except general manager Sam Presti.
At 31, Presti is the chief architect for the Thunder, having pieced together a roster built for future success. And while impatient fans are always looking for instant gratification, Presti's shrewd dealings have helped calm even the most anxious non-believers.
The proof is not necessarily found in wins and losses " although the Thunder has added 19 wins to its ledger since Dec. 31 " but in the positives of a talented roster, a strong coach and good overall chemistry.
Once the fans came the realization that time and patience were needed to properly mold a winning franchise, they embraced Presti's philosophy and helped give the Thunder one of the best overall attendance marks in the league. OKC ranked 11th overall in home attendance, averaging 18,693 fans per contest, almost 5,400 more than the team averaged in Seattle last season.
That type of fan loyalty is sure to be rewarded in the not-too-distant future with something special. A playoff appearance next season would be a nice beginning.
Beyond that, the sky's the limit.
As for the 2008-09 season, the Thunder committed plenty of good moments to memory, especially during a 32-game, midseason stretch when the team played closed to .500 ball (15-17). And while the playoffs are not part of the equation, the team established some solid roots in its new hometown. The energy level surrounding the franchise is high and Brooks has more than earned a shot at taking over head coaching duties on a full-time basis.
Thunder hoops is going to be fun to follow for years to come. With Presti set to add more viable talent to the roster this offseason, the 2009-10 season can't get here fast enough. "Jay C. Upchurch