There are a lot of ways to feel about the Oklahoma City Thunder. For many, the primary feeling for the franchise is an unbreakable dislike spawned from their origin story as an organization. Imported from Seattle and re-named in seemingly random, grab-an-old-softball-hat-at-the-thrift-store style, the Thunder left behind a massive and rabid fanbase that has evolved into a diaspora of Portland Trail Blazers supporters, teamless fans of the league, and those who have given up on the sport altogether. Some others have stuck around and adopted NBA squads beyond their region. Whatever shape they take, though, former SuperSonic fans have one thing in common, which is that they absolutely do not pull for the Thunder. Images of Kevin Durant in a green and gold jersey haunt their sports dreams, as do those of Russell Westbrook wearing the old team’s insignia on a baseball cap in one unfulfilled, fantastical moment of hope on draft night 2008—one week after Westbrook was selected at No. 4, a lawsuit over arena funding was settled between team ownership and the city of Seattle, and the settlement resulted in the Sonics’ relocation.
Westbrook and Durant were joined by James Harden, and the trio went on to become the most infectious young talent core the league had seen since the mid-90’s, when Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway pulled the Orlando Magic out of anonymity with dynastic promise. Like those Magic, these Thunder overachieved early and then fell apart through a sequence of increasingly upsetting episodes.
After making the 2012 Finals, they traded Harden to the Houston Rockets because he wanted both more money and and more on-court agency than they could offer; Harden is now weeks away from being given his first MVP award.
Durant left the team after a near-miss against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. That he joined the Warriors who had so narrowly beat the Thunder stung in a way that will stay forever. OKC’s 3-1 lead over Golden State in the series felt like perdition, but less than two months later Durant’s defection made fans imagine themselves sunken into the neglected regions of a technocratic dystopia that the Warriors’ dominance presages for many.
The allure of that Thunder team, the magical happenstance with which three MVP candidates played together before they were of legal drinking age, was not so large and catchy that it swayed Pacific Northwesterners into allegiance, but for those several years it did transition fans of the league at large away from the stank the franchise's betrayal of Seattle. Harden’s cartoonish beard and wizard-like style, Durant’s nascent prodigy and his sincerity, his child-like wearing of a backpack to press conferences; Westbrook’s wild styles and relentless drive on the court, his vacillations between brilliant and maddening—all of this, when the team arrived to face LeBron James’ Miami Heat for a championship way ahead of schedule, made for a tantalizing national product. The perception of Oklahoma City as an undesirable location was part of this delightful narrative; how had the unglorious, underpopulated desert become the home of such celebrity? It felt like a real feast of fate watching these Thunder grow in such a remote and unshining place. But the Harden trade created a gash in the romance that caused OKC fans, regional and otherwise, to lose something of the feel-good aura and become more cynical.
When Durant left, that cynicism upgraded immediately into anger and dread. Within several years of their establishment, a fanbase had experienced the anguish, ecstasy, confusion, adrenaline, hatred, and love that it takes most franchises decades to expose their followers to. The sheer amount of how much has happened in the Thunder’s brief existence has been downright cosmic. And the quantity of schadenfreude that spurned Seattle fans have to feast on now that the team is through the other end of their blessed phase with just the worst of their three darlings still in tow, and no championship to show for it, might be growing. The 2018 iteration of the Thunder is a delicate thing, straddling a fence somewhere between the fading torch of their original trio’s glory and something new and relatively effective, but also very tenuous, and perhaps temporary and about to die.
The current team has been built around Westbrook. They live and die with his ability to stay cool enough to make the right strategic calculations, which is to say that they live a lot and very quickly and very richly, until they suddenly die. Supplemented by Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, stars who were traded for during the offseason in the attempt to microwave a new superteam, their current campaign smells a bit like front office desperation. General Manager Sam Presti bet the direction of the franchise on try-out years from Anthony and George as they head into free agency, and their try-out year has been a fuzzy, underachieving affair that has never seen the roster land on much of an identity or reliable strategy. Sometimes, for the second season in a row, the whole program seems to kowtow to the primary motive of Westbrook’s statistical glory, producing lopsided box scores that look more concerned with his accumulation of triple-doubles than with the team’s wins and losses.
The fractures of the culture surrounding the team have, to boot, begun to widen since the blow dealt by Durant’s departure. Many fans burned Durant’s jersey when he left, and have disparaged and booed him every time he’s returned since—in his first game as a visiting player in Oklahoma City, Durant saw his face on toilet paper squares and was called a “cupcake” in chants that boomed through Chesapeake Energy Arena; Durant high-fived a fan conspicuously wearing a Sonics t-shirt as he left the court after a resounding Warriors victory. The tension between the team and the society immediately surrounding them has taken much more troubling form, if not also much lower-visibility form, in the instance of team TV announcer Brian Davis recently saying Westbrook was “out of his cotton-picking mind,” a phrasing he earned a one-game suspension for. The penalty hardly feels like a sufficient cure for the fraught relationship between this team and who supports it, between this team and who its spurned and who in turn hates it, and between this team and what it once was. Dreams deferred become dreams dashed, which then often become nightmares or—at the very least—persistent bummers.
At the moment, the Thunder and their followers have ample aspiration to hold to. They beat the Utah Jazz 116-108 in their first game of the 2018 playoffs. George performed his now annual transformation into a postseason superhero with a dominating 36-point performance. OKC looked better than they did through most of the regular season, providing ammo for the “sleeping giant” interpretations of a team that has often seemed to be sleepwalking. Even so, when the Jazz cut the lead from 18 points to just six in the fourth quarter, an outsized anxiety coursed through Thunderdom. Rarely do we see a franchise’s playoff run come with quite this much on the line.
The miraculous nature of OKC’s disproportionate mythos and impact on the league since their inception is at risk of becoming a time capsule, spoken of with incredulity from rocking chairs, if George leaves this offseason. Westbrook is on a massive contract that will keep him around for the long haul, but he needs much more than Steven Adams and Andre Roberson to keep his team threatening past March. Presti’s gamble on George—and, much less so, on Anthony, whose scientifically determined career status is “washed up”—was a last-ditch effort to extend the gigantic dream that improbably welcomed his organization into the league. If the gamble works out, Oklahoma City will continue to be an extraordinary anomaly amidst the NBA eco-system, which, seen through most angles, appears to be pulling the ground out from beneath their relevance. The Thunder are playing to stay within history.