Thunder fans go to bed at night dreaming of one day being like the Spurs. But in light of recent events, I think most of us would be OK with being like the Mavericks.
Is it even physically possible to wipe the grins of the faces of Mavs fans right now? When was the last time you saw an NBA fan base revel in a title like Dallas is in this one?
The ceiling for the Thunder, and the highest hope of most fans, continues to be a Spurs-like decade with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest in uniform. The comparison is an easy one to make. The Spurs are in a smallish market, have an all-timer as the roster’s centerpiece, added a couple of stars around him and rotate in (and out) supporting cast members. San Antonio contends pretty much every season and brings home a title every few seasons (although none in the last four).
OKC obviously has Kevin Durant in the Tim Duncan role, Russell Westbrook and James Harden and/or Serge Ibaka as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and the roster flexibility to tinker with the other players. OKC doesn’t yet have Greg Popovich, but Scott Brooks, despite what his detractors say, has only gotten better and led the team to take big leaps in each season he’s been in charge.
And while I am certainly among those who hope the Thunder hoists multiple Larry O’Brien trophies, I’d probably settle for one. This is a discussion I’ve had with many friends and with DT commenters, and most agree. One title would make all of the money and time invested in the Thunder “worth it,” so to speak. But now, seeing what Mavs fans are feeling like in the aftermath of their first title, I’m convinced that’s true.
The Mavericks are certainly a less perfect comparison. Dallas is most decidedly not a small market. The Mavs have had a tendency to buy their talented players on the free-agent market, or to make splashy trades. Dallas will overpay for players it wants, while Oklahoma City cannot afford to and builds through the draft and meticulous deal-making. And unlike the Spurs or the Thunder, the Mavs languished in crappy basketball land for most of their franchise history before finding sustained success. The Spurs contended for much of the 90s before breaking through in 1999 and continuing to win titles in the last decade. The Thunder made the playoffs almost immediately after arriving in Oklahoma City. But Dallas had to wait until Dirk matured, then faced a long spell of winning without winning it all.
Until Sunday, anyway. Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Cuban and company finally got their title, and it comes as Nowitzki (most likely) finally starts on the downward path of his career. It came when almost every league observer thought they would go down in the first round. It came years after people had finally dismissed the Mavs as contenders for good. I remember smirking when I saw the “Time is Now” T-shirts Mavs fans wore during home playoff games. “Really? Your time is now? I don’t think so. Poor Mavs fans. They’ll never get their title in the Dirk era.”
Oops. Turns out Nowitzki is indeed a championship-caliber superstar. I guess it was easy to forget that he’s unstoppable when he’s on, and easier still to dismiss the Mavs supporting players. Jason Kidd is 46 years old. Jason Terry is old and annoying. Shawn Marion doesn’t do much for me. Tyson Chandler … whatever. But now those guys are all champs, now and forever. I shouldn’t have doubted them.
And what champs they looked like Sunday night. Ron Artest set the bar last season for how to look like you, uh, appreciate being a champion. And it’s not like the Spurs or veteran Lakers appeared business-like upon winning titles. But the Mavs, from Cuban on down, looked as satisfied as you could possibly be when they won the title Sunday. I felt happy for all of them, even though I don’t particularly like a lot of them. And the Mavs fans … most of us, especially in Oklahoma, know at least a few Mavs fans. They’re overjoyed. They’re so happy they can’t even put it into words. Their Facebook status updates alternated between shock and sheer jubilation. It’s not the same as the “Order has been restored!” type statements made by Lakers, Celtics and Spurs fans. I’m sure many or most longtime Spurs fans regard the ’99 title as their favorite, for example.
So, ultimately, I think I’d be cool with that. How could you not be? I’m sure fan interest waned a bit, especially after the 2006 and 2007 playoff collapses. Fifty-win seasons have been as routine as the sun rising for Dallas fans in the Dirk era. But the title proved elusive for so long that I’m sure at least some Mavs fans gave up on it, at least until the Lakers sweep this year. Who knows how bad it would have been if Dallas gakked again against the Thunder or the Heat. But they didn’t. And there’s a parade in the metroplex Thursday.
It would be a little tiresome if the Thunder merely contend without winning the last game of the season over the next eight or 10 years. There will come a time, perhaps as soon as next season, where the electric postseason atmosphere we’ve come to expect in the it-will-always-be-the-Ford Center doesn’t arrive until the later rounds as opposed to 30 minutes before the first game. Oklahoma City fans could get complacent and adopt a “wake me when we win the title” mindset, whether the franchise follows a Spurs- or Mavs-like trajectory.
Still, it’s as obvious to me as it’s ever been that a single title in the current Thunder era would forever mark it as a success. I’d take the Spurs collection of trophies or Mavs’ fans overwhelming bliss. Let’s just hope the Thunder doesn’t become the Suns, who had a Mavs-like run without the championship payoff.