This wasn’t part of the plan. The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to ride the tanks down Reno Avenue like Patton rolling into Paris. “Draft positioning” and “The Lottery” slid into the space formerly held by “Western Conference Finals” or “Please Russell, play team basketball this time.”
The Thunder are 11-12 and currently sit at seventh in the Western Conference. They have laid waste to the teams worse than them. They have beaten teams with what most would agree have more talent. Don’t forget they hustle, compete and put themselves in positions to beat the LA’s of the world to keep the fanbase engaged.
Either Sam Presti and OKC have stumbled upon one of the best situations for a true-rebuild in recent memory or they’ve become the victims of poor fortune once again.
The franchise that was potentially a torn meniscus away from a Finals run in 2013. The team that fell prey to a once-in-a-generation cap spike to lose their star player to a rival. Whether it has been injuries, fork-in-the-road decisions that aged like milk or finances, the Thunder have always been led astray from the true path.
But now they keep winning! That’s bad!
This season was supposed to be easy. You trade away foundational superstars for a young player, draft picks and veterans who’d rather be in the pursuit of championships than knowing the fun of 23rd street on a Friday night, you have the recipe to lose. A lot.
The Thunder have lost their fair share. They’ve also won their fair share. What gives?
Well for one, Chris Paul is a professional. He takes his job seriously. As he told the media in the locker room following a November 10th loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, “I hate losing.”
That should have been the leading evidence in the case for the current 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Some assumed that Paul could have made the least out of his return to Oklahoma City. A veteran of his stature has no time to mentor not-yet-ready-for-primetime talent or suffer the headache-inducing stress that comes with playing with a young team.
But he has. And he has done it the right way.
There have been no Chris Paul field goal-apalooza games. He took a season-high 20 shots in the miraculous overtime win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s had nine games with less than 10 attempts. He is getting others involved. He has helped cultivate a positive environment for development.
You also have the fact that the Thunder are talented.
Danilo Gallinari is a walking bucket. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s physical gifts and natural ability make him a threat on both ends. Steven Adams is a winner. Dennis Schroder can score. Mix that in with a platoon of role players and promising young talent and you have the ingredients for.. a team in the middle.
But they’re supposed to be below the middle. “Draft positioning” and “The Lottery” are supposed the be the Thunder’s masters now.
Or this could be the best case for a true-rebuild.
When you think bad, rebuilding teams, you think of the Process Sixers, or the pre-Trae Young Atlanta Hawks. Here’s the thing — those teams are the fortunate ones. Outside of Philadelphia — which has its own problems this season — a lot of these tanking teams had to endure a lot of losing. Not just losing, but confidence-shattering losing.
The thing about laissez faire competition is that it doesn’t shine as bright a light on the cracks. If you don’t care to win, why improve? Where do you even begin?
The Thunder are not in that position. They will continue to win their fair share of games — good for the future. They will continue to win their fair share of games — also good for the future?
You don’t want Gilgeous-Alexander to go the way of a Devin Booker or John Wall and only know losing and low ceilings. You don’t want Bazley to be a good stats/bad team player. This current squad is good for opportunity, development and understanding just how hard winning is in the NBA.
With OKC’s current culture, the light shines bright on cracks and flaws. Hello Hamidou Diallo’s spot-up shooting or SGA’s inconsistency on offense. Do those become as glaring if the Thunder just tank with this squad?
Everything occurs naturally. The reality of the situation is that yes, while OKC could theoretically run with this team into the postseason, that more than likely won’t be the case. December 15th is a few days away. What does that mean for Paul, Gallinari, Schroder or even Adams?
In recent days there have been conflicting reports as to what the Thunder’s ultimate goal is in the short term. In the meantime, it is best to enjoy the ride while it lasts.
If you love watching this team play, you’re not wrong. If you’re unhappy that this team is winning too much for your R.J. Hampton dreams, you’re not wrong.
Presti told us in the offseason this would be a year-by-year process. It is going to take a while. The Thunder’s quest for championships won’t begin and end on December 15th, the trade deadline or next June’s draft.
This is a long game Presti is playing. If OKC wants to relive their decade of winning they will need to accrue talent — opportunities will come naturally — and also make sure their young pups don’t grow up as NBA losers.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook only knew losing at a high-clip for about a season. James Harden joined the gang when OKC started playoff runs. It helped play a part in developing those players into what they became.
The Thunder are right where they need to be. Things will happen naturally.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a featured co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12. For Sooner fans, you can also listen to the “Inside OU” podcast with John Hoover, Rufus Alexander and Brady. Brady is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma class of 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports