Oh, Oklahoma City Thunder. The eclectic band of basket-ballers so drenched in the descriptors you would find littered throughout a Clint Eastwood film. Whether it be through savvy veteran play or the frenetic chaos of the youngins’, OKC has impressed in their first 14 games.
But they have been the loser heading into the locker room more than the alternative. Despite this, they have won the loyalty of their rabid fanbase.
Look to Chris Paul — a player once beloved by Oklahoma City during its primordial basketball history, only to be detested during the Thunder era.
For a decade, the fanbase marched under the banner of Russell Westbrook’s scowl and faux-spectacles. Where Westbrook received enough outside negative-Force energy to become the next Sith lord Disney would kill off too quickly, Paul basked in the limelight as the “point god.” You could not like both. You had to pick sides. OKC was Team Westbrook and at times, Team Anti-Chris Paul.
Now? The 34-year old is being applauded for his professionalism and leadership. Paul could have easily tanked this opportunity in Oklahoma City. Instead, his attitude and mentoring of the next wave of Thunder players has helped build a connection between the fans and the team.
Speaking of the next wave, it’s easy to fall prey to the aura of hope.
Twenty-two characters make up Shai Gigleous-Alexander’s name — hyphen included. In the time it takes to spell it, another Thunder fan has invested in his future superstar stock.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s athletic exploits have been lauded by former teammates turned opponents. Basketball nerds have praised him from the comfy confines of their WiFi-enhanced caves. The 21-year old has the ingredients to become the face of a franchise that has had little trouble finding one.
Fortunately for Oklahoma City, one of the perks of being forced into trading away foundational All-Stars in one offseason is gaining the luxury of time. Gilgeous-Alexander’s development can operate smoothly with that luxury. Throw in Darius Bazley, Hamidou Diallo and even Terrance Ferguson if you fancy yourself the ever-optimist. The future is indeed… hopeful.
But hope can be a dangerous thing — gee, thanks Red. Remember, the Thunder are in fact losing a lot of their games. They will more than likely lose more as the calendar turns to 2020 and beyond. The loyalty of the fanbase is there, but can that loyalty withstand the test of constantly coming up short in the meantime?
The important thing to remember is that franchises rarely make personnel decisions based on fan fervor. The Thunder are a well-run organization. They are not immune to silly decisions and wrong turns, but the benefit of multiple doubts should be afforded to Sam Presti as he navigates this potential maelstrom.
What does that mean for Billy Donovan? The draft picks? Trade assets? Short-term players and short-term futures? Right now, those should concern you little, but let’s divulge for fun:
- Donovan is extended — good for continuity and familiarity with young players.
- Donovan is not extended — Thunder assistant coach Mark Daigneault is promoted. He understands the organization, players through his developmental phase and Blue head coaching experience. Also helps that he understands the company line well.
- Draft picks are impossible to predict, just get as many as possible to give Presti the ability to actually try and fail at hitting this — he won’t.
- Trade assets are difficult to discern. How does the Thunder view Ferguson, Diallo, Abdel Nader, Steven Adams for the next era? One, maybe two of the names mentioned should be in the plans for the next phase.
- Paul and Danilo Gallinari’s Thunder futures are going in opposite directions. Early favorite landing spot for Paul, the Miami Heat are 10-3. They have little need to break up chemistry and ship off impressive young assets. Other potential landing spots have impressed out of the gate. Gallinari’s connected spot signed Carmelo Anthony so that avenue is closed — pretend that was written in comic sans.
What about the development of the young players already on the roster?
SGA’s development will bear fruit with more competitive crunch time opportunities. Depending on what side of the “Tank!/Win” fence you’re on, with more games OKC finds themselves in a position to win, you can see Gilgeous-Alexander’s game grow.
- Donovan has talked about how this is almost an extended rookie season for SGA because he is playing a more prominent role in the offense — defenses are gearing to stop him more so than while he was a Clipper.
- Paul has pointed towards his defense in crunch time when prodded about the second-year guard’s development. Perhaps due to the insistence of Paul to go iso-heavy late in some games — “Get outta my way and defend!” — but he is right. SGA’s length and athleticism make him a nightmare for any match-up on either side of the floor. He doesn’t have to score a bunch to be a crunch time hero.
After seeing Darius Bazley in person during Summer League, the thought of him playing heavily with the Oklahoma City Blue left my mind. He has since impressed in his rookie campaign.
- The tools are all there. Physicality will take care of itself as he grows and matures.
- His mistakes are often due to making the right play but by not being as polished against NBA-level defenders/scorers.
- Point. Forward. By. 2021
Hamidou Diallo’s defensive jump from last season to Summer League to 2019-20 has been substantial.
- It will afford him time on the floor while he continues to work on his offensive game — the jump shot may always be an adventure for Diallo, sadly.
- His defensive IQ is there. Once he gets more experience, the Thunder will have an interesting option outside of Ferguson to throw at opposing offenses.
- But is Diallo a part of the future? His game is so reliant on the fact that he can run faster and jump higher than most on the floor.
- If he can’t diversify his offensive game, his future seems to be stuck in the Twilight Zone between an Andre Roberson and Ferguson.
Speaking of Ferguson.
- Year three — year two as a starter — has seen little improvement in Ferguson’s offensive game.
- His game trickles down. If he isn’t in foul trouble, he will be more aggressive on offense. If his shot goes in early, he continues that aggression. If he misses a few early, he rarely, if ever, sees the ball again.
- It is unfair to come away with a, “This is what Ferguson is” take. Especially in the event of a fire sale where Paul and Gallinari are dealt — Ferguson would get more opportunities to develop offensively.
- At the same time, he needs an off the dribble game. Bad.
You can waste time going down rabbit holes. Or you can just enjoy the stress-free basketball before you. Oklahoma has a legacy of building itself back up from nothing. The next phase Thunder can be just another example of that legacy.
Oh, Oklahoma City Thunder. The tiny body with a mighty heart. That heart will be tested, no doubt, but don’t lose sight of the big picture. There is value in learning the pains of constantly coming up short as long as it doesn’t bleed into the future. The Thunder are standing at the door of unknown potential with built-in assets that will be battle-tested within a year.
It will get better.
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