SMALL MAR­KET, BIG TIME

Why the Thun­der op­er­ates in a cat­e­gory all its own

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE -

Billy Dono­van ar­rived in Salt Lake City dur­ing the sum­mer of 1987.

He’d been se­lected by the Utah Jazz in the third round of the NBA Draft — yes, the as­so­ci­a­tion had more than two rounds once upon a time — so off went Billy the Kid.

“Ob­vi­ously,” he dead­panned, “that didn’t last too long.”

Dono­van was cut be­fore the start of the reg­u­lar sea­son, but the man who now coaches the Thun­der re­mem­bers fondly the months spent with the Jazz. John Stock­ton, then a backup point guard, took Dono­van un­der his wing. Helped him learn. Eased his tran­si­tion.

“The short pe­riod of time I was there, the people I got to know,” Dono­van said, “they were first-class.”

And in those days, the Jazz were on the verge of stak­ing a claim as one of the NBA’s premier fran­chises de­spite be­ing in one of its small­est mar­kets.

In truth, Utah re­mains a solid fran­chise, but as the Thun­der and Jazz pre­pare to open their first-round play­off se­ries, it is clear that these two small­mar­ket teams are sim­i­lar in la­bel only. They aren’t treated the same, aren’t pro­moted the same, aren’t eval­u­ated the same.

The Jazz play in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity.

The Thun­der?

There’s no ob­scu­rity for these guys.

Dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, Ok­la­homa City played 36 games on na­tional tele­vi­sion. Only 10 of those were on the less pres­ti­gious NBATV.

Utah played just 11 games on na­tional tele­vi­sion, and four of those were on NBATV.

But the truth is, the Thun­der hopes to be what the Jazz once was — a sus­tained small-mar­ket smash.

Start­ing in 1984, the Jazz made the playoffs ev­ery year for 20 con­sec­u­tive sea­sons. Only three other fran­chises in the his­tory of the league have had longer post­sea­son streaks.

The Thun­der has been to the playoffs eight times in its first decade of ex­is­tence, which is a heck of an ac­com­plish­ment. Ditto for the fact that go­ing to the playoffs eight of the past nine years is topped only by the Spurs dur­ing that span.

But 20 con­sec­u­tive playoffs?

The Thun­der would have to make it ev­ery year from now un­til 2035 to reach that mark.

“When you do some­thing con­sis­tently at a high level for a long pe­riod of time to me that al­ways stands the test of time,” Dono­van said. “There’s gonna be ebbs and flows and ups and downs and some years bet­ter than oth­ers, but when you can con­sis­tently stay at that level for a long pe­riod of time, that’s re­ally im­pres­sive.”

Those Utah teams were the Jazz of Karl Malone and John Stock­ton. Along with coach Jerry Sloan, they fu­eled the great­ness. But since Stock­ton and Malone last wore Jazz uni­forms in 2003, re­sults have been mixed in Utah. There have been seven play­off ap­pear­ances and eight sea­sons with no playoffs.

Last sea­son, Utah had one of its best years since Stock­ton and Malone. It fin­ished fifth in the West. It was 20 games over .500. Even bet­ter, the fu­ture seemed bright with a tal­ented, young core.

Then in free agency, Gor­don Hay­ward bolted for Bos­ton.

Utah has been praised for the way it re­cov­ered. It built a de­fen­sive-minded team around Rudy Gobert, found a bud­ding star in rookie Dono­van Mitchell and won 48 games in the rugged West.

Bully for them.

But isn’t it in­ter­est­ing how the nar­ra­tive around the Jazz com­pares to what we saw with the Thun­der a year ago?

When Kevin Du­rant left, the spot­light shone on OKC. And it re­mained in­tense through­out the sea­son. The Thun­der might not have been as big a deal as the War­riors or the Cava­liers, but af­ter those squads, no other team re­ceived more at­ten­tion.

Part of that was due to West­brook’s his­toric triple-dou­ble pur­suit, but that wasn’t the only rea­son — the Thun­der has be­come a na­tional fas­ci­na­tion.

Prob­a­bly not a stretch to say in­ter­na­tional, even.

That’s be­cause the Thun­der has two in­gre­di­ents in the se­cret sauce that are usu­ally only found in big mar­kets: sus­tained suc­cess and le­git­i­mate su­per­stars.

Frankly, I’m not sure any small mar­ket has ever had the star power of West­brook and Du­rant, Paul Ge­orge and Carmelo An­thony.

For as great as they were, Stock­ton and Malone weren’t world­wide stars. The NBA wasn’t a global brand. They could’ve trav­eled to In­dia or China and been largely un­known.

Any of these Thun­der su­per­stars would need a sig­nif­i­cant se­cu­rity de­tail on such a trip.

When you pair su­per­star­dom with grand suc­cess — 10 play­off se­ries wins, four trips to the Western Con­fer­ence Fi­nals, one ap­pear­ance in the NBA Fi­nals — it changes the equa­tion. The re­sult is Ok­la­homa City not be­ing treated like other small-mar­ket teams. There’s more at­ten­tion. There’s more scru­tiny.

Not that there’s any­thing wrong with that. You’d much rather be rel­e­vant and scru­ti­nized than ir­rel­e­vant and for­got­ten.

Worse, you’d hate to be rel­e­vant and for­got­ten. Plenty of good fran­chises get lost in the crush of su­per teams and su­per­stars in to­day’s NBA. You can put Utah in that group.

But the small-mar­ket team that the Jazz is fac­ing in these playoffs?

You can put the Thun­der in a class by it­self.

JENNI CARL­SON: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarl­son@oklahoman.com. Like her at face­book.com/ Jen­niCarl­sonOK, fol­low her at twit­ter.com/jen­ni­carl­son_ok or view her per­son­al­ity page at new­sok.com/jen­ni­carl­son.

[PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OKLAHOMAN]

Work­ers hang a gi­ant play­off ban­ner fea­tur­ing Paul Ge­orge on the south­side of the Cox Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. Another ban­ner fea­tures Rus­sell West­brook.

Jenni Carl­son jcarl­son@ oklahoman.com

COMMENTARY

[PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OKLAHOMAN]

Images of Rus­sell West­brook and Paul Ge­orge are up on the south side of the Cox Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Ok­la­homa City. The Thun­der will play the Utah Jazz in the first game of Western Divi­sion playoffs at 5:30 p.m. Sun­day at Ch­e­sa­peake En­ergy Arena.

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