The Oklahoma City Thunder have no intention of winning games this season and are yet again involved in the race to the bottom to improve their chances of snagging the top pick in the NBA Draft.
Their blatant tanking has led to some painful losses this season, most infamously their record-breaking 152-79 drubbing at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies over a month ago. While the on-court product that the Thunder bring out for every game often teeters between barely watchable and disturbing, a couple of bright spots and seedlings of hope have begun to spring up here and there.
The most recent one was their 130-109 road win over a loaded Brooklyn Nets team that is bannered by two superstars, James Harden and Kevin Durant, who were first drafted and nurtured by Oklahoma City. Though Durant and Kyrie Irving sat out the match, it was still an eye-opening win that teased the potential of this Thunder team.
The growth of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whom they acquired in the 2019 trade that sent seven-time NBA All-Star Paul George to the LA Clippers, was on full display in this confidence-building win. His 33 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists led the way for them and it was the latest proof that he deserves to be the undisputed foundational piece of this franchise.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s development into a borderline NBA All-Star is the first sign of light at the end of the tunnel for their rebuilding phase, with the second one emerging and now slowly gaining attention around the league.
Josh Giddey, whom they selected sixth overall in this past NBA Draft, has proven to be worthy of becoming Gilgeous Alexander’s permanent backcourt running mate on this team. The Australian guard is only 19 years old, but plays with the poise and pace of an established veteran which has led to
lazy juxtapositions with his compatriot Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz.
Looking beyond their shared heritage, the comparisons between the two 6’8 playmakers are actually warranted. They both use their craftiness to make up for their lack of elite NBA-level athleticism to get past defenders, although Ingles has been cast as a swingman for most of his career and Giddey primarily plays point guard. At this point, the 34-year-old Ingles is also a much better shooter than Giddey, who has shown potential here and should eventually catch up as his game progresses.
Ingles also entered the league at a much more advanced point in his career, making his debut with the Jazz in 2014 when he was already 27 years old. By the time Giddey reaches that age, he will most likely be on his third NBA contract already and is projected to have already surpassed his idol by then.
Over the first few months of his first year, Giddey has seamlessly transitioned and blown past the expectations set on him with ease. As a big point guard, he can control the tempo of the game through his excellent rebounding ability and court vision. He was unfazed in his match-up against the Nets and Harden, putting up 19 points, which tied his career high, together with three three-pointers, three rebounds, and seven assists.
It was the latest strong game for the rookie who is having a stellar January so far. He kicked off the New Year with his first career triple double, where he tallied 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 14 assists versus the Dallas Mavericks. He became the youngest player in league history to record one and is now averaging 14.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and eight assists this month.
These recent developments have fueled the hope of Oklahoma City that the partnership of Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey can be the super-sized modern backcourt that can bring them back to relevance.
They can already create their own shot and facilitate for their teammates at a high level, which means that the profile of their surrounding players need not be high usage scorers for them to achieve success. At a minimum, a couple of reliable shooters with defensive capabilities that clock in at even just league-average could be enough to help these two spark a run to the playoffs as soon as next season.
The potential is there, but the key will be the buy-in of their front office. With general manager Sam Presti focused on accumulating draft picks, it will be interesting to monitor whether they will give their prospects the freedom to blossom or if their tankathon will be prioritized.
A failure to recognize the importance of building winning habits for these young players and instead continuing to tank can possibly stunt their growth. Some of these draft picks that they have in their war chest could be used to acquire veterans who can provide them with on court production and leadership to help build their culture.
The Thunder have something special brewing with Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey running the show. The question now is whether they can recognize that or if they will continue gazing into the future and salivating over what they could have, instead of appreciating what is already going on in Oklahoma City.