Why the first 15 seasons of the Thunder are worth celebrating

Why the first 15 seasons of the Thunder are worth celebrating

Jenni Carlson: No other relocated or expansion team in the NBA’s modern area has had a better start.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Oct 24, 2023, 7:30am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Oct 24, 2023, 7:30am CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — Fifteen Septembers ago, Clay Bennett introduced his basketball franchise to Oklahoma City.

It would be called the Thunder.

The name along with a logo and a color scheme was unveiled to a packed atrium at Leadership Square. A few months early, Bennett and Co. had announced they were moving the Sonics, relocating them to Oklahoma City. But that September day made it real.

The Thunder was coming to Oklahoma City.

All these years later, it’s hard to imagine, much less remember, Oklahoma City without the Thunder. The team has become part of the rhythm of life, starting in the fall, building through the winter, crescendoing in the spring.

So starts another cycle Wednesday when the Thunder opens its season in Chicago. 

But before the season tips and the rhythm begins again, this feels like a good time to pause here in Thunderland. This is the start of season No. 16, something Thunder general manager Sam Presti was quick to point out a few weeks ago.

“We’re super excited about that,” he said about 30 seconds into his preseason press conference. “We don’t take that for granted.”

Oklahoma City shouldn’t either. As the franchise starts its 16th year, it now has 15 years of history in Oklahoma City. Somehow, it doesn’t seem that long ago that Bennett was announcing his franchise’s new name, and yet, it feels like even more than 15 seasons.

Maybe it’s because of all the enjoyment we’ve drawn from this team. The Thunder has packed about 30 seasons worth of fun into 15 years. Even though there have been some lean years since the post-pandemic teardown began, if you take a long view, you’ll see this franchise had the best first 15 years of any relocation or expansion team in the NBA’s modern era. 

Since the NBA and ABA agreed to merge in 1976, there have been 17 franchises in the NBA that have either relocated or been added via expansion.

The new franchises: Mavericks in 1980; Hornets and Heat in 1988;  Magic and Timberwolves in 1989; Raptors and Grizzlies in 1995; and Bobcats in 2004.

The relocated franchises: Nets from New York to New Jersey in 1977; Clippers from Buffalo to San Diego in 1978; Jazz from New Orleans to Utah in 1979; Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984; Kings from Kansas City to Sacramento in 1985; Grizzlies from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001; Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2001; Thunder from Seattle to OKC in 2008; and Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012.

The specifics and the details of each scenario are different. Some of the franchises had good existing rosters, for example, while others did not. Some had leadership in place while others did not. 

Still, there was a starting-anew aspect to each of those franchises.

Think back to when the Thunder arrived. One of the big early events was the revealing of the franchise’s name and logo. The team held a big public event at Leadership Square one September afternoon back in 2003. 

And a bunch of team staffers involved with those early days were living in hotels, navigating a city many of them had probably never even visited before moving here.

Those early days (months? years?) were just a bit chaotic.

All that to say, whether a team relocates or is created via expansion, there’s a ton of stuff early on that takes up time and bandwidth that has nothing to do with actual basketball. It can take time for such franchises to find their footing.

The Thunder did it better than any.

Compared to the first 15 years of all the other franchises that relocated or were created via expansion in the modern era, the Thunder ranks first in a ton of categories. Wins per season. Winning percentage. Winning seasons. Playoff series won. Conference finals appearances. NBA Finals appearances.

Here’s a look at the top three in some of those categories:

Wins per season: 1. Thunder 45.9; 2. Jazz 42.7; 3. Grizzlies 39.5.  

(By the way, almost half — eight —  of the relocated/expansion franchises averaged less than 35 wins a year over their first 15 seasons. Yikes.)

Winning seasons:  1. Thunder 11; 2. Jazz 10;  3. Charlotte Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies 9. (Again, almost half — eight — of these franchises had five or less winning seasons in their first 15 years. Three had two or or less.)

Playoff series wins: 1. Thunder 10; 2. Jazz 8; 3. Magic 5.

Of course, the Thunder’s success over its first 15 seasons was powered by a slew of outstanding players, Hall of Fame caliber players really. Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Paul George. Chris Paul. And now, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has joined the conversation.

The Thunder has had 18 All-NBA selections and nine first-team All-NBA selections, numbers that are again tops among relocated or expansion franchises in the modern era.

“When you think about all that’s happened in those 15 years, so many great players that have come, have gone, followed by other great players, all the different experiences that we’ve had as a team, as an organization, as a community,” Presti said, “it’s really great thinking about all the different people that have been a part of that.”

Right now, everything about the Thunder is focused on the future. How quickly will this rebuild be complete? How soon will the team return to being a contender? How will this core of SGA, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren grow together?

I get it. I want answers to those questions as much as anyone.

But before the season starts and everything points towards what’s next, looking back at what’s been is good. It’s a reminder of how good the Thunder has been. How good Oklahoma City has had it, too.

Oklahoma City had no way of knowing what was coming the day we found out the Thunder was moving to town. Even the most optimistic among us would’ve struggled to foresee such spectacular teams, generational talent and grand fun. 

It’s difficult to imagine lightning striking again like it did these first 15 seasons.

Then again, Thunder always comes with lightning.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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