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RIVALRY WEEK: The Thunder are bad and that’s good

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They deserve it.

NBA: Preseason-Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

[EIC’s note: This is the first piece in a series we’re calling “Rivalry Week” — running up until the start of the season talking about Mavericks’ rivals, whether historic, current, imagined, or something else. The pieces will be sometimes serious, sometimes funny, and sometimes both. Hope you enjoy!]

The rivalry between the Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder began in earnest on May 17th, 2011. Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder were in just their third year of existence, but nothing can kick start a rivalry faster than a playoff series. And nothing cements a rivalry faster than all your friends bein’ real jerks about how good their team is.

The Mavericks, after nearly a decade of contention, were barely picked as the favorites to win their first round match-up against Portland and were going to be dependent on nightly other-worldly efforts by an end-of-his-prime, 32-year old Dirk Nowitzki. The Thunder, if you were to listen to their fans at the time, represented the future of not only the Western Conference but all of basketball.

Annoyingly, they were pretty much right on that assertion. No one knew it yet, but OKC was a team that would go on to produce 3 future league MVPs. As it stood in 2011 they were led by back-to-back scoring champ Kevin Durant. Having a young, nationally relevant professional sports team was the biggest thing to happen in Oklahoma since they legalized getting tattoos in the year 2006. Excitement and permanent body modification: a confluence of two new and unique things in Oklahoma that likely led to more than one Oklahoma City denizen to get a regrettable K.D. centered tattoo, no doubt.

It was this framing — the old and tired Mavericks going up against the NBA’s latest and greatest — combined with the obvious and deeply-seeded geographic regionalism that had otherwise unified OU football fans at each other’s throats come postseason time in the NBA.

But then there was 2011

But history is written by the victors, and as history would have it — let me just check my notes here — ah yes, Mavericks rule, Thunder drool, we won the series and then the Championship, rooted on by a league of bandwagon faithful, eager to see Dallas deny a title to the Evil “Heatles” empire and make LeBron wait one more year to get his title.

That Mavericks/Thunder series was the first in what seemed at the time to be just the beginning of what would be many spirited showdowns between Dallas and their I-35 neighbors. But, as unkind to the Thunder fan base as the Mavericks were that postseason, the realities of the modern NBA would be even more vicious.

The eight years following the Mavericks’ title have seen the two franchises diverge in meaningful ways. On the one hand, Dallas tried, stumbled, misjudged and were finally sent kicking and screaming into a rebuild. The Thunder, seemingly mirroring the Dallas team’s of old, reached soaring highs: playoff runs, finals appearances, a couple MVPs, and perennial title contention, but were never able to completely scale the NBA mountain. It can’t have been easy to run head-long into a LeBron and Friends super team and a Golden State Dynasty back to back.

During that time, the Thunder experienced some crushing lows. They watched Harden leave to grow in to an MVP in Houston. They watched the dynamic duo of Durant and Westbrook fall apart when K.D. took the hardest road to a couple of Championships by joining the Warriors. They watched a number of eventually futile seasons where the only thing to celebrate were gaudy stats Westbrook rode to his MVP, followed by prompt removal from the postseason.

Finally and most brutally, they watched Paul George seemingly commit to a long term deal that was aimed at extending their contender status, only to execute a masterful heel turn the very next year and depart to join Kawhi with the Clippers. Oh, and then the heart and soul of their franchise, the last MVP standing in Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook got to re-join his once-and-future teammate Jame Harden in Houston, where they’re now among the favorites to win it all.

Yeesh, let me catch my breath.

Who’s got it worse though, really?

Astute readers may conclude that the laundry list of suffered by the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise might tilt the scale just slightly when weighed against what they were able to accomplish in their heyday as Western Conference contenders.

Considering this, and taking into account their current state — i.e. being on the hook for Chris Paul’s horrible contract, hoping against hope he plays well enough that some desperate, win-now contender will trade for him — why would a Mavericks fan be interested in pouring in the necessary fan energy needed to fuel a proper rivalry? Have they not suffered enough? Let me tell you... no. No they have not.

Upon landing in Oklahoma City, the Thunder, as a franchise, offered up on a silver platter to fans what amounted to an NBA Championship caliber starter pack. Never mind that Presti et. al found a way to squander an all-time stretch of nailing draft picks (3 MVPs in 3 seasons) and ended up with not a single one of those players left on his roster.

Even after considering the franchise’s more recent, less successful seasons, the city and its fans have never known what it means to want in this NBA. Not really. To look stone-faced down the dark tunnel of rebuilding and squint, looking for any sign of light. It’s a right of passage as much as any other thing in sports fandom.

So, nine years on from that playoff series, the Mavericks and the Thunder find themselves again as two franchises passing in the night. Dallas, reincarnated as the “Gen-Z Mavericks” stepping in to the light of a post-Dirk world anchored by two of the best under-25 players in the NBA. And the Thunder, closing the book on what may well be one of the greatest “what-if” teams of all time, and all they got for it was this stupid t-shirt*. (*The t-shirt is a boatload of draft picks, courtesy of the Paul George and Russell Westbrook trades.)

Even still, it’s worth rooting against the Thunder. Wishing them ill-fortune. As we’ve seen, they’re just three consecutive MVP draft picks away from once again becoming a thorn in the Mavericks’ side, trying to be the team that stops the Luka/Porzingis three-peat in 2024.

We should be nice anyway though, yeah?

There’s an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t “punch down.” That is, when you find yourself on top, it’s uncouth to reach back, and start swinging away at those that are still stuck behind you. So, with the Mavericks’ fanbase more excited about their team than they’ve been in years would we be in the wrong to take this opportunity in the young Dallas/Oklahoma City rivalry to ruthlessly mock the circumstances the Thunder find themselves in? Which, just to reiterate, is paying Chris Paul’s old ass $138 million dollars over the next 3 seasons (or parting with enough assets to get out from under that monstrosity). No. This is sports. And in sports fandoms, there can be no commiseration. No pity. No “you’ll get ‘em next year.” There is only one trophy, and it goes home with one team.

If you’ll let me take the exact wrong message away from Return of the Jedi, Emperor Palpatine’s advice aligns perfectly with how rival fan bases should deal with one another’s struggles, and that is to say… Good. Let the hate flow through you.

For every cocky Thunder fan I had to listen to mouth off in a sports bar in the acquisition of my undergrad degree at The University of Oklahoma during the peak of the Thunder’s power, this season will be the payment, with interest.

Don’t punch down. It’s a good rule, generally. But here’s another rule. Don’t steal other people’s stuff. Send the Thunder back to Seattle! Boo, Chris Paul! Go Mavericks!