The Oklahoma City Thunder have finally said goodbye to an era. An era that saw them draft future MVPs in three consecutive draft classes. An era that should have included an abundance of playoff success to match such talent. As it were, the Thunder couldn’t capitalise on having an A-list group of star-studded talent over the course of the last 10 years, including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Paul George and Victor Oladipo. None of these players remain on the team – the most recent casualty being the longest serving of the bunch – Russell Westbrook, who requested a trade, realising this team wasn’t bringing him any immediate success.
In Oklahoma, it’s rebuild time. But that’s not to say they can’t remain a competitive force in the Western Conference.
Having finished with a 49-33 record last season, the Thunder once again went into the postseason with the expectation to at least make it past the first round, despite being a lower seed to their opposition. Their opponent, the Portland Trail Blazers were missing Bosnian big-man Jusuf Nurkić for the entirety of the playoffs and looked to be one of the weaker teams competing in the postseason. But looks can be deceiving and if you’re a Thunder fan, the less said about this series the better.
Paul George shot the ball horribly (predominantly due to a shoulder injury picked up due to the heavy minutes he’d played in the regular season) and Russell Westbrook was completely outplayed by his opposite number Damian Lillard. The Thunder were swiftly bounced after five games and images of Damian Lillard waving goodbye after hitting a ridiculously deep shot over George to seal the series will live long in the memory of any NBA fan.
That iconic shot signalled the end of an era in Oklahoma, which had seen a Finals appearance, many postseason memories and two MVP awards.
Despite all their postseason flaws, for which they are deservedly ridiculed, the Thunder had hope going through the regular season. And at times, Paul George looked like a genuine Most Valuable Player candidate, putting up 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game to go along with a league high 2.2 steals per contest.
Individually, he had his best year on the defensive end, as part of a unit that was both lengthy and disruptive over the course of the regular season. With George playing alongside the likes of Steven Adams, Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel, he helped to turn the Thunder into a top-five defense, that led the league in total steals.
The Thunder come into this season with a completely different set of expectations and a completely different roster. Having lost Westbrook and George to contending teams in the West this offseason (we’ll divulge into these trades further), the Thunder could hit the reset button. But something tells me that this won’t happen as soon as some people may think. This organisation thrives off success and they’ve made the playoffs nine times in eleven seasons. The mentality of being a winning team is something that’s in their identity, despite their playoff shortcomings.
For a team to go from having a definitive winning culture, to all-out tanking in a single season would seem unlikely. Plus, they have the assets to make a run for a 7/8 seed in the West. Chris Paul coming in will likely be the first option scoring the ball (this is all assuming he stays on the team). Players like the newly added Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will prove valuable scorers of the ball in starting roles and coming off the bench.
The team doesn’t have the depth it’s had in previous years, but the starting level talent is there for the Thunder, and they have experience on their side. The teams they’d be competing against for the lower seeds in the West would likely be a combination of the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and the Dallas Mavericks. All three have young talent and bags of potential, but in terms of experience, the Thunder come up trumps every time. This will be key over the duration of a regular season, and they could well be in a similar position to the San Antonio Spurs, who have similar experienced talent that usually propel them into the postseason.
Even if this pool of current players doesn’t lead them to playoff contention, and even if trades are made (expect to see Chris Paul moved at some point before the deadline), the Thunder are completely set for the future.
They’ll likely be able to build through the draft without needing to lose games and gain a high lottery pick. This is all thanks to the way they dealt Paul George, claiming a record five future first round picks.
This blockbuster trade saw four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick and two future pick swap to go along with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. This means that between the years 2020 and 2026, the Oklahoma City Thunder will hold some 15 first-round draft picks. In reality, the Thunder really don’t need to tank in order to collect assets. But they’re in a position where they can actually build through the draft and not need to lose a whole lot of games to do so. If Sam Presti can maintain a winning culture in Oklahoma for these next few years, then they really don’t deserve him as a General Manager.
For now, there’s a complete shift of mindset in Oklahoma, so be ready for a potentially turbulent season in the Great Plains.
This isn’t a season that the Thunder should have any specific aims in terms of making the playoffs. If they make the postseason, it seems more like an added bonus to a team that’s not able to build a championship contender anytime soon, but is able to languish in mediocrity while it stockpiles assets to build towards the future. Clearly losing players like George and Westbrook leaves the Thunder in a weakened position, but I for one wouldn’t rule out another postseason appearance for them this season.
2.Point guard rotation
In dealing their star player Russell Westbrook, the Thunder lost their franchise point guard and a man who’s been with the team since its very beginnings. Now, the Thunder find themselves with not one, not two, but three starting calibre point guards at their disposal. New additions Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (both ex-Clippers but not at the same time) as well as Dennis Schroder all occupy the point guard spot. Head coach Billy Donovan will have the luxury of great depth at this position, but when trying to develop a young point guard like SGA, it doesn’t bode well for the reduction in playing time he’s likely to endure.
Alternatively, the expected departure of Chris Paul at some point in the coming season could open the door for SGA and Dennis Schroder to claim the starting spot. Either way, Donovan has an abundance of quality options at point guard, but balancing minutes between them could be tricky as the season progresses.
3.Get the most for Chris Paul
The expectation is that, at some point, Chris Paul will be traded. His contract is massive and he’s 34 years old, but he’s by far and away the Thunder’s best player. With a perceived weak free agency class coming up in 2020, Presti should be able to drive a hard bargain for Paul despite the large contract. He’s still an incredible defender and playmaker, and assuming he stays healthy, the Thunder can continue to gear towards the future if they get a good return for his services.
Chris Paul | 15.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 8.2 apg
The Thunder’s potential playoff hopes hinge on whether Chris Paul plays games for them. In the unlikely event that they do trade him, but for another star calibre player on a huge contract, then they’ll still compete. But the likelihood that they trade him with the future in mind rather than current success means they’ll probably miss the playoffs.
The past two seasons he’s played 58 games in both, so the aim for him should be to top that and stay healthy. Only time will tell how long he stays in Oklahoma City.
Steven Adams | 13.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.6 apg
The long serving Steven Adams will play his first season in the NBA on a team without Russell Westbrook. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares, especially now playing alongside a pass-first point guard in Chris Paul. His offensive production is something that could see an increase, especially with the loss of the teams two star players. Overwhelming offense has never really been Adams’ game, so part of me doubts this, but he will certainly have a bigger role to play this coming season.
Danilo Gallinari | 19.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Coming off of statistically what has been Danilo Gallinari’s best season in the NBA, expect his numbers to keep skyrocketing. A season of 20 points per game could well be on the horizon for the Italian sharpshooter, something that would be a career first for the ex-Clipper.
On a team with little spot up shooting elsewhere, the bulk of shots will be taken by Gallinari who proved pivotal last season in LA to their playoff push. More of the same should be the message if you’re a Thunder fan.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | 10.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.3 apg
While it’s unlikely SGA will start, I have really high hopes for the Canadian point guard. Coming off an All-Rookie season with the Clippers to couple up with ranking second among all rookies last season in steals per game at a very respectable 1.2 per contest, SGA could be pivotal off the bench.
He has good, raw defensive instincts and, while his shooting is still somewhat questionable, he’s able to get to the bucket often and will look to kick on this coming season. Let’s just hope he gets the minutes he deserves.