Welcome back to Basketball Insiders” “Grading the Offseason” series. So far, we have looked at a number of teams, including the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and others, breaking down and grading what they’ve done since the end of their respective seasons.
Today, we continue that series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a franchise that, in recent seasons, has found themselves stuck on a roller coaster.
And, thus far, 2019 has proven no different.
The Thunder just weren’t able to put it together – their early postseason ouster was a massive disappointment for a team that hoped to contend for the Larry O’Brien trophy – and, right now, they certainly aren’t feeling better about where they are as a team.
But Oklahoma City isn’t in a terrible position going forward; the path their offseason took certainly wasn’t the best, but it’s far from their worst.
So, how did the Thunder get here? Let’s take a look.
Oklahoma City came into the season with the expectation that it was among the Western Conference’s elite. And, for much of the early season, it appeared that way.
After an 0-4 start, the Thunder rattled off a 17-3 stretch that launched them to the top of the West. While they inevitably cooled, the team held a firm grip on the third spot in the conference well into 2019.
That was when everything started to come undone.
Bitten by the injury bug and saddled with a struggling Russell Westbrook, the Thunder began to wane as the calendar turned from February to March. By the end of the season, it seemed as if they were in a basketball coma. In the span of a month (March 7 to April 7) Oklahoma City dropped from the third seed all the way down to the seventh before they finished sixth in the conference.
From there, the team plodded its way into a first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. With everything on the line, the Thunder put up little resistance, as they were promptly met with a gentleman’s sweep via the series’ iconic moment – a shot courtesy of Damian Lillard to send them on vacation.
Despite being clubbed by the Blazers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, there was optimism that – health permitting – the Thunder would be back in the thick of contention next season.
That optimism quickly soured into further disappointment as Paul George requested a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was a big win for general manager Sam Presti and the Thunder when they managed to sign George to a long-term deal; it proved that their gamble the year prior was worth it. Rumors had swirled around George and his desire to play in Los Angeles, so much so that it scared other teams away, but the star forward seemingly put those rumors to bed when he chose to remain in Oklahoma City.
But, it’s hard to imagine that even George himself expected Kawhi Leonard to come calling.
Leonard had just led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship ever, but the superstar planned to sign with the Clippers. He wanted George to come with him so they could win a title together.
That was all it took to sway him. Presti acquiesced George’s request and received quite the haul from Los Angeles in the process, but the dream was over. Without George, the Thunder wouldn’t be a title contender and Presti knew it.
With that in mind, he proceeded to deconstruct the rest of the roster in short order. Jerami Grant was sent to the Denver Nuggets, while Patrick Patterson was bought out of the remainder of his deal. Much of the bench was let go. Even free agents that had committed to Oklahoma City, Alec Burks and Mike Muscala, were given the option to back out of their respective agreements due to the change in circumstance.
And, in what was almost certainly the biggest gut punch of the offseason, Westbrook was traded to the Houston Rockets. With him out of the picture, the Thunder are set to face their first major rebuild since the team moved to Oklahoma City back in 2008.
PLAYERS IN: Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort (two-way), Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mike Muscala, Justin Patton, Chris Paul
PLAYERS OUT: Alex Abrines, Jawun Evans, Raymond Felton, Jerami Grant, Paul George, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Markieff Morris, Patrick Patterson, Russell Westbrook
For the Thunder, their primary objective for next season should be establishing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who proved last season to be one of the NBA’s best up-and-coming point guards, as their lead man.
With Paul, the “Point God,” set to serve as his mentor, it’s hard not to feel giddy about Gilgeous-Alexander’s potential. But the Thunder can’t be satisfied with what they saw from him last season. Gilgeous-Alexander was good, but he was his best when Doc Rivers pushed him to be great. Likewise, Billy Donovan must challenge the 21-year-old to be the best version of himself on a regular basis.
Beyond that, the Thunder should continue to accumulate assets. Presti has built an impressive war chest – 15 first-round picks between 2020 and 2026 – but he shouldn’t stop there. With a number of veteran trade candidates on the roster – Gallinari, Muscala, Paul – it would be easy for Presti to further improve on what is already one of the best stockpiles in the NBA.
In fact, it would be in Oklahoma City’s best interest to continue to build up its draft capital. The draft is an inexact science; there is only so much anyone can predict, and maximizing their opportunities may be the best way for the Thunder to move forward. Should they hit on some of those picks, the others are just as valuable – with the potential to prove even more valuable – as trade chips.
It’s the end of an era in Oklahoma City, an abrupt and unexpected one. But with the number of assets they have accumulate -, both players and draft picks – it isn’t all dark and stormy.
Presti and the Thunder made the best of a bad situation and did so, arguably, better than any other team in the league would have.
And while may not find much of it next season, Oklahoma City is set up for success for the considerable future.
OFFSEASON GRADE: B+
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