They love their Thunder in Oklahoma, where pro basketball will now give the locals something to do in that dead time between the end of the college football season in January and the annual rattlesnake hunt in April.
Then again, except for the paychecks every two weeks there’s not much about the Thunder to remind you of an NBA team. OKC’s victory over the Bulls last Saturday was just its sixth of the season, and the fifth since Nov. 22, when coach P.J. Carlesimo was whacked and replaced by Scott Brooks.
The Thunder’s poor start gives a smidgen of comfort to the hardcore basketball community in Seattle, where this franchise resided for almost four decades. Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett bought the Sonics a few years back, and when the residents refused to pony up for a new area, he bought the team out of its lease and moved the franchise to the Midwest.
Tragedy was averted when the team chose Thunder as its nickname, rejecting such suggestions as the Energy and the Wind and avoiding awkward newspaper headlines like Grizzlies Break Wind.
Any league which has the likes of Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury has its issues, but the Thunder seem to bereft of hoodlums. Besides, it’s hard to intimidate the local populace when your entourage is wearing 10-gallon hats.
The centerpiece is Kevin Durant, and forward Jeff Green and point guard Russell Westbrook are also putting up decent numbers. But as Rick Pitino pointed out a few years back as his final Celtics team was circling the toilet, numbers mean squat on losing teams. The Thunder are probably two or three drafts and several years of development away from moving into Atlanta Hawks territory. The only thing certain in the Association is that young teams lose, and the Thunder are young.
There is, however, one stat that separates the Thunder from bottom-feeding groups like last year’s Miami Heat, the 2004-05 Hawks and the 2003-04 Orlando Magic – the Thunder can cover the spread. After Monday night’s 103-99 loss at New Jersey, OKC has covered 20 of its last 26 games pushing their overall season record to 25-14 against the spread (and 14-5 on the road).
What gives here? OKC’s puzzling record ATS has drawn the attention of Covers Expert Steve Merril.
“It has been strange how many times OKC has covered without winning the game,” says Merril. (Note: 19 times, almost half of their games.) “I think it is a combination of teams overlooking them and letting up in the second half, and the fact the Thunder play hard all game and do not quit, but are still not good enough to win outright.”
The public, says Merril, has not caught on yet.
“The fact they are so poor straight-up means the oddsmakers are still not adjusting the lines down because the general betting public is still not fully supporting the Thunder.”
Ron Raymond, owner of a sports betting website, says that Oklahoma City’s poor record makes the public wary about backing the Thunder.
“The bookmaker sets a number trying to entice wagering on both ends,” says Raymond, “and if he knows that the public doesn’t like a team, that factors into it. If bettors don’t like Oklahoma City, the number then goes higher than it should be, and that makes it easier for them to cover.”
Point taken. Bettors Monday night favored the Nets by a whopping 61-39 percent, the widest wagering disparity among the six games on the board.
It’s small comfort to Brooks, himself a classic overachiever as a player, that the Thunder take so many games to the wire but come up short (Monday’s game went to overtime). He should have known something was up in late November, in one of his first games as coach. The Timberwolves, who were having their own problems, came to town and gave the Thunder 2.5. Minnesota had the number locked down with a 19-point lead entering the final period before OKC closed strong, lost 105-103 and covered by a hair.
Other times the Thunder have seen late leads fade into losses but not severe enough to lose the spread; since Jan. 2 OKC is 2-4 overall but has covered four times. OKC has been favored only twice this season, in Games 1 and 3 early on. The Thunder even covered one of those with a rare 3-point win over the Wolves in early November.
Still pinching themselves that the NBA would locate a franchise in flyover country, the crowds flock to the Ford Center, where the Thunder play to 96 percent capacity and the honeymoon remains in full bloom. Few of the thousands who scream their lungs out are aware that if standings were based on covering the spread, OKC would be in third place in the entire league and breathing down the necks of Cleveland (25-10) and Milwaukee (24-13-2).
There’s little chance that the Thunder will threaten the record of the worst-ever 76ers of 1972-73, who double-dribbled their way to a 9-73 mark that still stands. More-important questions for gambling opportunists is whether the spreads will tighten and whether OKC can continue to play well enough to cover.
“Their ability to stay close is definitely something I use when handicapping their games,” says Merril. “It will be interesting to see if they can continue to cover at 60 percent.”