Royce Young is a lifelong Oklahoman and a Sooners football fan, so when he speaks these words he knows their weight.
“Given a choice between OU winning a national title or the Thunder winning an NBA title, I’d rather the Thunder win the title,” he said. “I almost feel sick to my stomach saying that, but it’s the truth.”
Oklahoma — a state dominated by college athletics since college athletics appeared.
Kansas — same story, different sport.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
If true Kansas college basketball fans find themselves giving the NBA a closer look, maybe with Wednesday’s Dallas-Oklahoma City exhibition game at Intrust Bank Arena — this story is for you. There is no reason you can’t love the Rock Chalk Chant, the student section at Koch Arena and the “Wabash Cannonball” while appreciating the NBA.
If the success of Oklahoma City’s Thunder intrigues you enough to buy in, even a little, then open your mind to the possibility that the NBA, while different, can engage a fan as much as the college game.
The success of the NBA’s Thunder is changing things in Oklahoma, where Chesapeake Energy Arena is packed, the Thunder drew 18,223 fans to an exhibition game in Tulsa last week and Kevin Durant is the state’s highest-profile athlete. Young, owner and editor of the Daily Thunder blog, wrote a column in 2005 for the University of Oklahoma student newspaper revealing he didn’t understand the NBA. Now he is in fifth year of blogging about the Thunder and a loyal subscriber to NBA League Pass, the pay channel that shows almost every game.
“I love it,” he said. “Ten years ago, anybody would have laughed in this state at the notion of NBA basketball.”
Jump on board
The Thunder is handing you the chance to root for a championship-quality team with a young group of stars and smart management. Chesapeake Energy Arena is 161 miles from downtown Wichita, roughly 40 miles closer than Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums.
Don’t blow this chance to root for a big winner. The Thunder played in the NBA Finals last season. With Durant and Russell Westbrook on board, it is positioned to be a contender for years.
“Everybody likes a story where you put in the hard work and all of a sudden good things happen,” Thunder TV analyst Grant Long said. “It is easy to get behind them.”
Thunder general manager Sam Presti gets much of the credit for assembling a team that wins and is easy to root for because of its youth and personalities.
“That team has a bond and chemistry and a chance in front of them to do some great things,” said Brent Barry, TNT analyst.
Different can be good
Recognize that there are no Allen Fieldhouses in the NBA and the feel of the fan bases is different.
NBA fans sit in chairbacks expecting to be entertained by millionaires and Paula Abdul wannabes, not to reminisce about college days in the bleachers. One-team towns such as Portland, Oklahoma City and San Antonio come to the closest to duplicating collegiate enthusiasm, while falling short. Accept that fact and see the NBA for what it is.
“If you can’t appreciate the size, speed and ability of these elite athletes, maybe you don’t like the game as much as you think,” Barry said.
One knock on the NBA is that nobody plays defense. While NBA defenses are more sophisticated than most fans realize, it is true that offense drives the game. It is also true that defense improves in April, when the playoffs start. If you’re looking for a 2004-era Southern Illinois effort on defense, look elsewhere.
The NBA wants a fluid, smooth game and regularly tweaks rules to give fans scoring. Zone defenses are allowed, while rarely used, and a defensive three-second rule keeps defenders from clogging the lane. Rules limit hand-checking and encourage drives to the basket.
The college game copied one NBA rule when it adopted the no-charge arc under the basket to stop helping defenders from clogging the lane. Players sometime shoot quickly, because there is no guarantee the 24-second clock will allow time to find a better shot.
Barry played for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a defensive expert. His goal, Barry said, is to slow down NBA scorers, realizing fans don’t pay to see 65-60 scores. The best players are too talented to stop on most nights.
“The NBA is predicated on being a league that entertains and invites the best athletes to be great scorers,” Barry said.
Long played 15 NBA seasons and practiced a lot of defense.
“It’s Job 1 on any team that takes the floor in the NBA,” he said. “But these are very, very good basketball players. Nobody plays good defense on Michael Jordan.”
The plays to watch
The pick and roll (and the pick and pop) dominates the NBA. Teams that can’t stop the play can’t win. The rise of scoring point guards — think Westbrook and Chicago’s Derrick Rose — makes the play almost impossible to defend.
“How do teams guard the pick and roll? That’s all the NBA is,” said Kirk Crawford, an assistant women’s coach at Wichita State who has scouted for NBA teams and trained NBA players. “NBA players coming off that ball screen create separation — that person with the ball is either going to make a play for himself or make a play for someone else because the defense has to rotate.”
The two-man game with Westbrook and Durant is a killer for defenses. Durant can pop out for a jumper and his height (6-foot-9) makes him tough to defend. He can slash to the basket and take a pass from Westbrook. If Westbrook sees an opening, he can power to the basket or shoot a jumper. James Harden, or another shooter, will camp at the three-point line to spread the floor and wait for a pass if his defender helps on a driver.
The defenses try to counter the pick and roll by forcing the dribbler away from the screen. Or they can trap the dribbler. Or switch defenders to keep a scorer from coming open.
Crawford’s advice is for fans to watch away from the ball, hard as that may be.
“Watch Durant,” he said. “He does a lot of work to get his shots before he gets the basketball. (Fans) will be amazed what’s going on to get a Ray Allen open. They’ll see screens being set up for a shooter. They’ll see a lot of action away from the ball to set up ball reversal. Scorers get open and do their work away from the ball.”
It’s a long season
NBA games start in October and the playoffs stretch into late June. Sure, it’s too long. Nobody can play 82 games at full speed, something Popovich admits each season when he rests his stars. College basketball, at some schools, is a two-time-a-week event. NBA basketball is a four-day-a-week test of endurance and versatility.
The long season also means some aspects of the game are more important in the NBA than college. How a coach establishes his bench and rotation is critical in the NBA, where teams may play 17 games in a month with three sets of games on back-to-back nights. College teams don’t face that grind, so a coach can get away with a thin bench.
NBA coaches must develop a second unit and that unit must play significant minutes. Harden and San Antonio’s Manu Ginobli are talented enough to start. They come off the bench for the good of the team.
“You’ve got to be able to manage your rotations,” Young said. “You’ve got to be able to figure out how to put a unit on the floor six minutes into the second quarter that can take advantage of the other second unit.”
Over 82 games, all sorts of personalities emerge. NBA players talk to the media frequently — before almost every game for starters. They are well-paid and free to speak, unlike many college athletes, so fans get comments that are cringe-worthy, funny and illuminating.
Over 82 games, stat geeks can feast on plus-minus ratings, true shooting percentage and player efficiency rating. Those stats mean something, because of the large sample size and schedules that are comparable.
Over 82 games, a fan can get a sense for how a coach handles egos, which rookie is figuring out the life after 40 games and which rookie is fading. A fan can see which players can handle the second night of a back-to-back and which ones stay out too late in Miami or New York.
“Coaches at the pro level have to massage those different personalities,” Long said. “Every guy feels they should start. It’s more about the player. College coaches get to make the big-time money.”
The Thunder ends its preseason schedule Wednesday in Wichita. It starts the regular season on Nov. 1 at San Antonio. If 30 college games doesn’t satisfy your hunger for hoops, the NBA offers 82 chances to try a different level of basketball.