Among the 30 teams in the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder may be the only squad that can walk the fine line between competing for a playoff berth and jostling for a favorable position in the NBA Draft Lottery.
Normally, teams can only have one or the other in the end. However, the Thunder have placed themselves in a unique position to somehow come away with a shot at the postseason and another building block to their future.
OKC has, in recent years, been in the business of stockpiling assets with a long-term agenda. Trades with returns of a handful of draft picks and rights to swap positions are not uncommon for the Thunder. As this has been going on, OKC has tried to remain competitive or at least let their players play in the name of development, but as of late, this has come with wins, ones that could help create some distance for themselves in a tight Western Conference.
This winning at the right time was again on full display in the Thunder’s 118-112 victory over the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers. Down by double-digits in the first quarter, OKC fought back and took a 68-62 halftime lead over the Blazers. From there it was a back-and-forth affair that saw the Thunder outlast Portland.
Sure, the win came against the Blazers, but OKC would rather take the view that the quality of this victory came in how they fought back. Nothing is easy in the West regardless of who it is they will face and learning how to win will help the Thunder now and even in the succeeding seasons.
At 37-38, OKC’s win-loss record isn’t pretty, but the Thunder remain a game and half behind the sixth-place Golden State Warriors as of this writing. With seven games left on their schedule, the chances of moving up and margin of error are getting slimmer for OKC. But one can take a step back and appreciate the developments surrounding the Thunder.
OKC hasn’t been to the NBA Playoffs since 2020, but have already won the most games in a season under head coach Mark Daigneault. This comes as the Thunder have emerged as the fifth-best team in the NBA in scoring (on 117.4 points per game and 43.2 made field goals per game on a league-high 92.7 field goal attempts per game) and have the fifth-lowest turnovers per game in the league (13.2). It also can be said that Daigneault has made OKC a solid defensive team that can force turnovers (opponents commit an NBA-worst 16.9 turnovers per game) and swipe the ball away (8.3 steals per game, which is good for fourth in the league). On top of that, the Thunder have been playing this campaign without Chet Holmgren, who is out for the season after suffering a Lisfranc injury in the offseason.
Much of where OKC is at now, can also be credited to Gilgeous Alexander, who is fourth in the NBA in scoring average at 31.3 points per game and was named an NBA All-Star for the first time this season. The 24-year old has continued to refine his game offensively, becoming more adept at getting to the free throw line. It’s safe to say that the Thunder will run through him for the foreseeable future and he sure is up to the task given the strides he’s made over five seasons.
Of course, Gilgeous-Alexander has had help as Josh Giddey continues to improve with each passing game, while Jalen Williams has further proven that the Thunder have been able to maximize their boatload of assets even beyond wheeling and dealing them. The more OKC stacks the deck, the higher their ceiling will be.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have remained competitive in both the lottery and postseason, a feat that bodes well for their long-term goals. Championship aspirations may not be on the agenda now, but they have become a team that other NBA squads cannot take lightly anymore.