The Oklahoma City Thunder spent the past few seasons firmly off of the national radar while the team underwent a rebuild. Once labeled a “black eye of the league” by some critics, the Thunder squad is now a media darling.
Coming off a surprising 40-42 season, the Thunder is no longer the league’s best kept secret. The national media have found time to talk and write about Bricktown’s Finest again. They have graced the cover of SLAM magazine. Even our own level-headed and even-keeled Mr. Monday can’t contain himself.
Attention brings expectations. And while the Thunder may go about its business tuned to the words of Bruce Lee — “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine” — fans are having a hard time keeping the hype train in the station.
To get a local temperature check, I reached out to a few Thunder fans on X (formerly known as Twitter, a disclaimer that will probably never go away) to ask them how they felt.
Stephen Dolan is a member of the Topic: Thunder Podcast and, ironically, lives in Seattle. I asked if he’s able to keep his expectations in check.
“That implies that I’m trying, and I was! I so was,” Dolan said. “But night after night, highlight after highlight, practice quote after practice quote, this team has beaten my cynicism into submission.
“They’ve surpassed expectations at every step,” Dolan added. “Even the national media can see it, which, in the before times when I was still a cynic, would’ve worried me. But now? Well now it’s just a mark of how obvious their quality is. Undeniable.”
Dolan is not alone. Jason Potter is a former international tax attorney in the Houston, Texas area and is trying to remain grounded.
“It’s honestly difficult,” Potter said. “It’s clear to me in consuming a lot of Thunder podcasts and media that people are really trying to temper expectations in light of the national hype in order to not look like homers or look silly in retrospect.”
That hype is shared by Zach Zobrovnik, director of maintenance and operations at Frontier City.
“I’ve watched this team since their inception, and watched basketball since 1984. I haven’t been this excited for a team since I realized that James Harden and Serge Ibaka would be incredible 3rd and 4th players to combine with Russ and KD,” he said.
A Thunder fan who shall be known only as Sublime50, a local creative artistic genius in the same air as the aforementioned Mr. Monday, sees the attention as a double-edged sword.
“Although it’s fun to see national media finally take notice of us, with this extra attention comes additional expectations,” Sublime50 said. “I’ve always seen this as a long term project, and it is sometimes hard to remember that when we see these guys flash signs of their potential fairly consistently.”
“At the end of the day, I’m just enjoying watching this team grow into something special.“
On the other side of the planet, project manager Andrew Cash keeps tabs on the Oklahoma City Thunder from Queensland, Australia.
“I approach each OKC Thunder season rationally which helps to keep my expectations in check,” Cash said. “I like to understand the organization’s intent from as many different angles: financial and contract decision making, community and outreach, organizational fit and personality, as well as the on court product.”
So what, exactly, are those expectations?
“I believe their floor is winning 45 games if there are no major injuries,” Potter said. “If I had to predict a number, I’d go with 49 wins but think they could get as high as 54-55 if everything goes right.”
The hype train has momentum and not much can slow it down. It’s now playing out like a scene from the 2010 action movie “Unstoppable”.
“Injuries can obviously derail any predictions, but I really think this team is special,” Zobrovnik said. “The only team in the West I think is clearly better than them is Denver. I believe the Thunder will be a top 4 team in the West and will make a hard push at the conference finals.”
“I expect them to do better than I expect,” Dolan said. “My head says that maintaining last year’s record while improving as a team is the prudent hope. But there’s another, smarter part of my head which has been recruited into an alliance with my heart that knows last year’s team was a 44-win team by expected wins metrics, which would’ve been one game away from home-court advantage”
“Can the dumb part of my brain look the smart part of my brain in the eye and say Chet, Vasa (Vasilije Micic), etc., and a year of growth aren’t worth one measly win? It cannot.”
Cash is in agreement. “On court, my expectation is to achieve a better season than last season,” he said. “Healthier, with more space for our guards, with amazing talent 1 through 10. Hopefully this lends itself to more than 41 games won and at least home court in the play-in games.”
Of course, fans are prone to having high expectations. Unrealistic, even. But each person had reasons for their beliefs.
“I think people are overlooking just how much more complete the roster is compared to last season,” Potter said. “There were so many minutes taken up last season by fringe NBA players, and that simply won’t be the case this season. You might have 13 or 14 guys you really trust on this roster, whereas by the end of last season with Kenrich out, they were down to like 6 or 7.”
“For example,” Potter added, “per Cleaning The Glass lineups with none of Darius Bazley, Poku (Aleksej Pokusevski), and JRE (Jeremiah Robinson-Earl) on the floor were +5.0 per 100 possessions. That mark would’ve made them the third best team in the NBA over the full season.”
“I feel like our second unit is going to put some teams away this season,” Sublime50 said. “And offensively, I don’t know how you can stop it when we’re playing unselfish, positionless basketball.”
Zobrovnik points toward Jalen Williams. “As soon as his eye healed and he could see — he claimed he was seeing double for the first two months of the season — he excelled in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wing rookie perform before.”
“He was great on defense, unbelievably efficient, a great passer, terrific handles, played positions 1, 2, 3, and 4 with tremendous effectiveness, cut well, found cutters well, and so much more.”
There was also a feeling that neither Chet Holmgren nor Mark Daignealt were getting the proper amount of attention.
“I think the addition of Chet simply cannot be overstated,” Potter said. “I just strongly reject the idea that he won’t be an impactful winning player in year 1.”
“We saw the defensive impact guys like Evan Mobley and Walker Kessler were able to have in their rookie seasons, and I expect something very similar from Chet,” Potter added. “On the offensive end, he’s going to be vastly superior to those guys. “
“If Daigneault’s name were easier to spell and pronounce, maybe he’d get the recognition he deserves,” Zobrovnik said. “I really believe he’s a top 5 coach in the NBA right now, and his trajectory is straight up.”
“Daigz may be one of the best coaches I’ve seen come into the league in a long time,” Sublime50 added in agreement.
If you’re looking for a comparison, Sublime50 offered this glance to the past.
“2009-2010 was a special season for Thunder basketball. By far my favorite season ever. This year has the same kind of vibes to me. So excited. “
Throughout the season, I’ll ask fans to share their thoughts and Join the Crowd. In the meantime, send your thoughts and feelings to [email protected] or message me @JonMHamm on X (you know… Twitter).