The 2007-08 New Orleans Hornets won 56 games, beat Dallas in a first-round playoff series and took San Antonio to seven games in a spirited Western Conference semifinal series.
Those Hornets had a 22-year-old Chris Paul, a 27-year-old David West and a 25-year-old Tyson Chandler.
Paul was signed through summer 2012, West and Chandler through summer 2011.
The Hornets' future looked bright. By last season, the Hornets were 21-45. Paul was a Clipper, West a Pacer and Chandler a Knickerbocker after having won an NBA title as a Maverick.
The bottom can fall out quickly. In a league where most of the best players seem to migrate to a select few franchises, why will the Thunder be different?
Thunder fan and Oklahoman reader Tom McLain asked a great question right after the NBA Finals, in response to a column I wrote about the new luxury tax: Doesn't the new collective bargaining agreement encourage disparity more than parity? And isn't the Thunder, the heady present notwithstanding, eventually a classic candidate to give up the chase like so many other NBA franchises have done?
The latest evidence came last week, when Dwight Howard became a Laker and the Orlando Magic, like the Hornets before them, officially entered full rebuilding mode, with no reason to believe it ever would reach such lofty heights again.
The Thunder looks good for now, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook signed well into this decade. But when their contracts are up, can the Thunder avoid the fate of the Hornets and Magic?
Or even if Durant and Westbrook stick around the way Karl Malone and John Stockton stuck around Salt Lake City, what of OKC basketball when they are gone?
Is Thundermania sustainable for five years? For 10? Can OKC remain a viable NBA market in this era of superstar aggregation (LA, Boston, Miami)?
There is reason for hope. And it's in that word from the previous paragraph. Sustainability.
It's a word Sam Presti has trotted out as much as he's used “process” and “culture.” Those are his triple crown of terms.
Presti has preached sustainability since this franchise first docked in OKC. Sustainability was in short supply in the decision-making of the Hornets and Magic in recent years. Just check out the contracts given to Peja Stojakovic (Hornets) and Hedo Turkoglu (Magic). Those all-in decisions meant the future was now.
But sustainability means being competitive virtually every year. Maybe not championship-level, but competitive.
That's the San Antonio model and, to a certain extent, the Utah model. Those franchises are the answer to the boom-and-bust histories of the Hornets and Magic and the like.
Sustained competitiveness is not a pipe dream in small markets. We've seen it accomplished in places with smart management and fiscal responsibility.
That's why the Thunder won't overspend for Serge Ibaka and/or James Harden. Presti would love to have both building blocks signed on for the long haul, but you can't play with just four players. The four stars and a roster of cut-rate journeymen would not win a title or even come close.
Presti will not risk the fiscal stability of the franchise.
And frankly, it's too early to tell if some of the NBA bluebloods will, either. The Nets apparently will belly-flop into the luxury tax, because of Russian Monopoly money. The Knicks will, because they can and don't have better sense.
But we don't even know for sure if big spenders like the Lakers and Mavs will bust the bank and pay the potential huge luxury tax.
Howard, remember, is signed for just this coming season.
Meanwhile, the Thunder is doing all it can to make connections with the fans and community. Trying to build up all kinds of goodwill, in case of tougher times on the court. Granted, continued defeats, year after year of losing seasons, can't be fixed by any goodwill.
But fans who feel a connection to the team and franchise will keep buying tickets if they feel a connection. And it's clear that the Thunder and not just the city, but the entire state, has made a strong connection.
A sense of civic pride revolves around the Thunder franchise, and not just because of the crazy-quick success. Having a successful NBA franchise – at the box office as well as on the court – seems to matter to the populace. Unlike, say, in Philadelphia or Atlanta, where a quality product often goes unappreciated.
McLain, the reader, wondered if a decade from now, Clay Bennett and his partners sell out in the face of a dubious competitive and financial landscape.
I don't think so. Bennett knows what the NBA has brought to OKC and what an iconic hero he is to his hometown.
I'd say the economic factors of the energy industry are a bigger worry to the future of the Thunder than are the economic factors of the NBA. Another oil bust like we had 30 years ago, and no kind of collective bargaining agreement could save OKC.
But for now, the roster makes the Thunder an elite franchise. And for the future, management shows signs of doing the same.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.