Bryan Woodward remembers relocating from Amarillo, Texas, to Oklahoma City at the same time the Thunder came to town.
He looks back on those first few years fondly, even though the Thunder was far from the conference power it has since become.
Fans showed up to games early and stayed late. They were loud and proud.
The excitement and enthusiasm in and around town helped to immediately convert Woodward from a San Antonio Spurs fan into a Thunder die-hard.
But Woodward has noticed a change. Now when he attends games he doesn't witness the same level of passion. He sees fans sitting more than ever before. They're not cheering as hard and don't seem as excited.
“I don't know if I'd say they've become spoiled, but kind of sort of,” Woodward, 28, said. “I think they've become a little bit spoiled from the fact that we've been consistently at the top of the West for several years.”
When the Thunder embarks on Year 6 two weeks from Wednesday, the team will do so in front of a fan base that seems to be growing increasingly restless.
The definition of success has changed. The bar has been raised.
Three straight division titles, two conference finals appearances and a trip to the NBA Finals haven't created an appreciation but a craving for more.
“It's turning into a greed for more victories. Well, actually, it's not even victories anymore. Now it's just Finals,” said Christian Dixon, an OU student and regular at Thunder games. “We either get to the conference championship or we're disappointed. You can definitely tell we are getting spoiled as far as contention goes.”
Mounting regular season victories and deep playoff runs were fine when the Thunder, in its first four years, seemed to avoid the harsh realities of professional sports. But when Year 5 started with the blockbuster James Harden trade, attitudes began to change. The window of opportunity to win an NBA championship no longer looked as wide open as most once thought. Russell Westbrook's season-ending knee injury in last year's postseason only confirmed that growing conviction.
For some, cynicism has crept in and clouded the current mindset.
Every move is now questioned, every decision now scrutinized. The benefit of the doubt is on the verge of extinction.
It started with the Harden trade, gained steam with Westbrook's injury and only snowballed throughout the summer. Kevin Martin moved on to Minnesota. The Thunder couldn't close the deal with a replacement. Western Conference rivals closed the gap. And Westbrook needed a second surgery.
“At the beginning, it was excitement. We were just happy to have a team,” said Thunder fan Cody Little. “So even if we lose in the playoffs, our fans were just happy to have a team that was competing in the playoffs.
“Then, after the run when we go to the Finals and then come back the next year, have the best seed and then Westbrook gets hurt, it just kind of deflated us. We started struggling in the second round, faced a little bit of adversity and we don't have the same fan base as that first (playoff) year against the Lakers.
“That shows on Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff. When things are good, everyone's positive, but as soon as there's a little adversity … everything changes.”
In each of the Thunder's first five seasons at least one member of the team has drawn the ire of the fans. Hey, you've got to blame someone when things don't go well, right? In Oklahoma City case, the chatter has gotten progressively louder with the passing of each year. Here are the biggest scapegoats in the Thunder's brief history.
Reason: It all boiled down to one question. Is he a point guard? Most might claim to have amnesia now, but there was a time when Westbrook was as polarizing in Oklahoma as he was throughout the rest of the country. As a rookie, he was wild, erratic and turnover-prone. The noise quieted down in Westbrook's second season but didn't truly subside until he strung together a stellar playoff series against the Lakers in 2010, when he averaged 20.5 points, six rebounds, six assists and 1.7 steals.
Devil's advocate: Who else was the Thunder going to turn to? Earl Watson was limited, and every other point guard the Thunder had at the time — Shaun Livingston, Chucky Atkins, Mike Wilks and Kevin Ollie — were either trying to get back in the NBA or past their prime.
Reason: Defense and rebounding. Green was horrendous in both areas, and his inability to guard his man or rebound consistently handicapped the Thunder. In 209 games in OKC, Green pulled down at least 10 rebounds just 28 times. He never averaged more than 6.7 rebounds. Making matters worse, Green's playing time was disproportionate to his production. He never averaged less than 36.8 minutes during his 2 1/2 seasons in town, which only highlighted his flaws and made him a bigger target for critics.
Devil's advocate: Green was playing out of position. He was a small forward playing power forward. But because that guy named Kevin Durant mans the small forward position Green had to make the best of a bad situation if he wanted court time.
Reason: You name it. Good luck finding someone who appreciates Perkins these days. His offense is hard to watch. His turnovers are inexplicably high. His rebounds and blocked shots are inexplicably low. Yet no matter the opponent or matchup, the Thunder invariably trots out Perkins for the first six to eight minutes of every half.
Devil's advocate: Perkins is good at what he does. That's defense. He has the size, strength and savvy to stand toe-to-toe with post players and make their nights tough. He isn't always effective, but no one would be when the task is stopping the very best players in the world.
Reason: His rotations are rigid. He doesn't play young players. And his offensive system is overly simplistic. Those have been the knocks on Brooks for quite sometime. But the critics grew fangs in the NBA Finals before going for blood when Brooks failed to make any discernible adjustments following Russell Westbrook's season-ending injury in last year's postseason. Now, many are wondering if Brooks has taken this team as far as he can.
Devil's advocate: How many other coaches can boast of boosting a franchise's winning percentage in five straight seasons? How many other coaches have taken their teams to two conference finals and the NBA Finals in the past three years? How many other coaches have overseen the development of young players year after year, developing two All-Stars and two All-Defensive performers? How many other coaches can claim they had a top five offensive and defensive team last year? Brooks can do all of the above. He must be doing something right.
Come early, stay late: A declining trend in Thunder fandom
Cody Little was in the arena back in 2010, watching the Thunder fall in Game 6 to the Lakers, eliminating OKC from its first postseason since moving to the city.
“Everyone stood up, even after we lost,” Little remembers. “The whole place clapped for about five minutes. That was the thing that separated our fan base from other places.”
But Little, a season-ticket holder since 2008, was also there for plenty of games this past year, when the crowd, in blowout wins or losses, would commonly filter out throughout the fourth quarter.
“If they're up 30,” Little said, “the place is empty by the time the game's over.”
Never was that growing trend more evident than Game 5 of the Thunder's second-round series against the Grizzlies. Trailing 3-1 in the series and by double-digits early in the fourth quarter, many of OKC's frustrated fans dispersed toward the exits, missing a frantic and dramatic comeback that fell just short.
“Two years ago, three years ago, that wouldn't have happened,” Little said. “If we had an elimination game and we were on the verge of being eliminated, the place would have been full until the final buzzer.”
It's maybe the most tangible sign of a changing attitude among the fan base, from “happy we have a team” to “championship or bust.”
Success is great, but it has its unintended side effects.
“It's a little alarming to me,” Thunder fan Christian Dixon said. “Winning is just expected here now, so whether it's regular season or playoffs, it's something we're really taking for granted far too quickly. The mentality here has definitely changed.”
What the fans are saying
CHRISTIAN DIXON: “One of my biggest fears is that we'll develop a spoiled mentality. Like at OU, it's national championship or bust. I'm worried we're getting to a point like that with the Thunder.”
ANDY NEWMAN: “I think everybody's fired up and looking forward to the season. I just think there's a lot of apprehension about whether or not Westbrook will come back healthy and when he's going to come back.”
CODY LITTLE: “Now I think we're used to having the team, so even if we are blowing them out, we want to leave. If we are down a lot, we want to leave. I think that special thing that we had with our fan base is kind of going away.”
KYLE HARRISON: “Hopefully Reggie Jackson can step up and play pretty aggressively. He seems like he's got a lot of the same qualities and attributes that Russ had when he was young and first entering the league. So I don't see any reason why he can't step up.”
BRYAN WOODWARD: “I would have loved to have kept Harden, but, man, Serge, Russell, Kevin and then Harden? All that money, I don't think they would have been able to do it. I think they would have strapped themselves down too much. I mean, you can devote all your money to four players but you wouldn't have any role players.”