SMALL MARKET, BIG TIME
Why the Thunder operates in a category all its own
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.
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 email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/ JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
Workers hang a giant playoff banner featuring Paul George on the southside of the Cox Convention Center. Another banner features Russell Westbrook.
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.