The Oklahoma City Thunder, once perpetually rebuilding, are now one of the top teams in the West, led by young stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren
On the night of July 5th, 2019 I went with my friend Drew to a hip hop show that featured Detroit rapper Elzhi. It was one of the longer shows I’ve been to, with a large collection of rappers performing well past midnight. This show is one that I will always remember because it was the only time that I was at a live show and NBA news broke. Because the early hours of that morning was when the Los Angeles Clippers struck a deal to acquire Paul George , which led to the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and formed the current era of Clippers basketball, for better or worse.
I remember talking about the trade with Drew immediately after the show, and we were both excited at what the Clippers were able to accomplish. But what we didn’t account for in the immediate aftermath is what the Clippers were giving up in point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The young guard from Kentucky went to Oklahoma City and has developed into a true superstar in the NBA 4 years later. And the Thunder as a result, appear to be the next great team in the Western Conference. After years of stockpiling assets it seems that the time is finally now in Oklahoma City.
Being a general manager in the NBA is a job that is not defined by its security. Teams will often get rid of a general manager and a coach rather quickly when things go south during a season. A theory on how to keep your job as a GM in the NBA is to continue to acquire draft capital so that you can sell the future of what is to come as opposed to what is available today. Perhaps no general manager in the league has employed this strategy better than Sam Presti, the general manager of the Thunder.
Presti has been at the helm in Oklahoma City for 17 seasons, which is good for the longest tenure of any GM in the NBA today. His tenure has been so long in fact, that when he was hired the team still played in Seattle as the Supersonics. In that time, the Thunder have won 54% of their games, good for 9th best in the league during that span. Despite this positive success, not much of it has been recent. The team has missed the playoffs the last three seasons, and has not made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2016.
A big reason for this is that the Thunder have been in the business of collecting draft picks to build towards the future after the end of the Russell Westbrook era. The team currently owns 36 draft picks in the next 6 drafts, good for 10% of future draft picks in that span. 15 of those draft picks are first round draft picks, meaning that the Thunder could disassemble and re-assemble their roster from top to bottom in half a decade if they really wanted to. In recent years, the Thunder have been content to trade away picks for multiple future picks such as when they traded the draft rights to Brandon Clarke in 2019 for a later first round pick and future second round pick. Or when they traded the rights to Alperen Sengun in 2021 to the Rockets for two future first round picks.
At a certain point though, there comes a time when players need to be selected. For the Thunder, that time was in the 2022 draft. In that draft, Oklahoma City selected three players that have become foundational pieces to the team that they are becoming. With the second overall pick, they selected Gonzaga big man Chet Holmgren who after missing his first season appears to be the perfect complement to Gilgeous-Alexander. Later in the draft they selected Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams, a pair of players that have fortified the depth and weapons that Oklahoma City has at its disposal. Jalen Williams (also known as J-Dub to avoid confusion) has emerged as a legitimate secondary scoring option to Shai, averaging nearly 18 points per game in his second season. The result is that the Thunder sit towards the top of the Western Conference today, signaling a potential changing of the guard in the conference and the NBA.
The Balance of Power
If you are a casual fan of the NBA, looking at the standings of the Western Conference might surprise you. The top two teams in the conference are the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder. Since 2020, the Timberwolves and Thunder have only won 44% of their games, good for 22nd and 23rd best in the league during that span. And yet this year it is different, largely due to two players, Gilgeous-Alexander for the Thunder and Anthony Edwards for the Timberwolves, taking the next step into solidifying themselves as superstars in this league.
In the case of the Thunder, they now seem like a more complete team thanks to the evolution of Gilgeous-Alexander who for a second consecutive year is averaging over 30 points per game, an improved free throw shooter at 93%, and leads the league in steals currently. This is paired with Chet Holmgren who has proven to be as good as advertised, averaging 17 points per game while shooting 43% from three point range and protecting the rim on the defensive end with over 2 blocks per game. The trio of Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, and Holmgren is a core trio that can win a lot of games.
This is paired with a defensive specialist in Luguentz Dort, a three point specialist off the bench in Isaiah Joe (shooting over 50% this season on over 5 attempts per game), and an intriguing rookie in Cason Wallace who has already shown flashes this year. That is without mentioning point guard Josh Giddey, another promising talent for the Thunder who is currently under investigation by the league for an inappropriate relationship with a minor. It can be rightfully expected that the team will move on from Giddey, but despite that the team is filled with players under 25 years of age entering their primes. This is not too dissimilar to the way that the Thunder assembled a team around Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka years ago.
The time to strike for the Thunder is now. They have a promising group of young players with a war chest of future draft capital to acquire veterans that can contribute to winning today as opposed to waiting for more young players to develop. The rebuild has been patient and organic, but for this team to truly elevate in the West they need players with playoff experience that can complement their young stars. As we look further down the standings we see the teams that were in the mix for many years starting to slip like the Clippers and Warriors. The future is now for the Thunder, and it is very possible that the West will run through Oklahoma City for the next 5 years.