After trading away Russell Westbrook and Paul George, many expected the Thunder to tank this year. Instead, they’re looking like a playoff team.
This offseason, after the Oklahoma City Thunder traded away their two best players, few expected them to be, you know, good. Of course, not many expected the Thunder to really prioritize being good either. The immediate assumption was that the Thunder’s general manager, Sam Presti, would trade Chris Paul to a contender for even more draft picks and young players in the hopes that the team would be able to build for the future.
However, now, with the Thunder being 21-16 nearly halfway through the season, sitting comfortably as the West’s seventh seed, it looks like Oklahoma City is able to enjoy the best of both worlds: having fun with a competitive team in the present while also having the assets to imagine an even better future.
Leading the way for Oklahoma City is point guard Chris Paul, who they acquired from the Rockets in exchange for Russell Westbrook. While Paul is not the All-NBA Point God that he was while in New Orleans and Los Angeles, the talk about his ‘falling off’ over the last few seasons was greatly exaggerated (or if he did fall of he hit some sort of spite-fueled trampoline at the bottom of that cliff bounced him right back to the top).
Paul also becomes a bit more of a sympathetic figure on a team that is an underdog rather than a championship contender. With the Clippers and Rockets, his petty histrionics felt unnecessary and appeared to many like the whining of a player who was on a very good team, but still perpetually dissatisfied. However, on this Thunder team, it feels scrappier, nobler, somehow.
Apart from Paul, the Thunder have a number of other solid veteran contributors who most teams would consider themselves lucky to have. There is the ever-reliable Steven Adams who is one of the league’s best offensive rebounders, a good rim protector, and a steady hand near the basket. Danilo Gallinari has been healthy most of the year and remains a great 3-point shooter and all-around scorer who can get you an efficient 15 to 20 points almost every night. Dennis Schroder has also been a very good sixth man for the Thunder, averaging over 18 points per game while shooting better than he ever has, making a career-best percentage from both inside and outside the arc so far. These were all players, along with Paul, that it was widely expected the Thunder would try to shop, but now, with the Thunder on pace to make the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons, it looks like the league’s elite who were hoping to poach Oklahoma City’s roster at the deadline may be out of luck.
While the Thunder do have an absolute ton of draft picks from the Rockets and the Clippers coming their way throughout the first half of the new decade, they are currently quite short on young players who appear to be potential difference makers. It’s still not quite clear what they have, if anything, with players like Terrance Ferguson, Darius Bazley, and Hamidou Diallo, who have all played a lot for the team so far, but any glimpses of future greatness have been, just that: intermittent glimpses.
There is of course one notable exception to that though. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the second year player the Thunder acquired from the Clippers in the Paul George trade, has looked like a star in the making at several points throughout the season so far. Gilgeous-Alexander is a unique player, both slippery and graceful, who often appears able to create his own shot at will with his ability to evade and get around defenders. As Oklahoma City’s leading scorer, he is averaging nearly 20 points per game, and he is looking like a more complete player than he did in his already impressive rookie season. While it’s not clear what the Thunder’s long-term plans are, especially regarding more veteran players like Paul, Adams, Schroder, and Gallinari, it feels like a certainty that Presti and the Thunder see Shai as a future cornerstone of the franchise.
The Thunder have been on a hot streak lately after a mediocre start to the season. While Oklahoma City was 8-12 after their first 20 games, they are now 21-16 after going 13-4 over their last 17. They’re not particularly stellar on either side of the ball — being 15th in offense efficiency and 14th on defensively — but they’ve been consistently good enough to pull out tight games and prove themselves to be a viable playoff threat. They have benefited from several teams in the West underperforming relative to their preseason expectations, which created a bit of a vacuum the Thunder have been able to fill. Also, it’s not that no one expected the Thunder to be a decent team as presently constructed; the thing is not many expected this roster to stay together for any length of time.
Perhaps Sam Presti was planning to tank, to dump his stars and build the team anew this offseason, hoping to try to recreate the same success he had in the Draft over a decade ago when he selected Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka over a three year period. Or maybe having a competitive team in the present was important to him as well, even as many struggled to imagine a GM content to merely fight for a playoff spot in light of the championship or bust mentality that seems to be so prevalent throughout the league right now. Either he was playing both the long and short game simultaneously, or he is just as surprised by Oklahoma City’s success as the rest of the NBA community. Though it was widely assumed that the Thunder would tank and start building for the future immediately, it’s instead becoming clear that, for Oklahoma City, the present may not be so bad either.