More than 10 years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the NBA’s next big thing.
It all started when they drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden with top four picks in three consecutive NBA Drafts beginning in 2007. The Thunder quickly established themselves as a Western Conference power house and they even made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 2012. Unfortunately, they lost in five games to the Miami Heat and that turned out to be the peak of this iteration of Oklahoma City.
A few months after losing to the Heat, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets due to salary cap considerations. Their championship window remained open though as Durant and Westbrook continued to flourish, but the former eventually bolted for the Golden State Warriors in 2016. Westbrook was eventually traded to Houston as well in 2019 and this kicked off the franchise’s first rebuilding process since moving from Seattle in 2008.
This time around, the Thunder have not had as much success in tanking for top picks in the NBA Draft as they did a decade and a half ago. They have only had two picks in the top 10–2021 (6th overall) and 2022 (2nd overall)–which have netted them 6’8 point guard Josh Giddey and 7’1 center Chet Holmgren.
In addition, Oklahoma City’s general manager Sam Presti also managed to find another gem in the late lottery, 6’6 forward Jalen Williams, with the 12th overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
At the moment, these players pale in comparison to Durant, Westbrook, and Harden and it is unreasonable to expect them to reach the heights, at least in terms of individual achievements, that their predecessors have done so far in their respective careers.
Nonetheless, the Thunder’s rebuild has been accelerated.
They suddenly found themselves in the play-in game last season instead of the bottom of the standings as what was initially planned. The trade that kicked off their rebuild–the one that sent away multiple-time NBA All-Star forward Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers–has also been responsible for revitalizing their franchise.
In exchange for George, Oklahoma City acquired veteran forward Danilo Gallinari, a treasure trove of draft picks, and a player who was fresh off a promising rookie campaign at the time by the name of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The 6’6 guard has flourished in his time with the Thunder, increasing his scoring in each of his first four campaigns with the team. Last year, he bumped up his average to 31.4 points per game while also averaging 4.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.6 steals, and a block. This paved the way for him to make his NBA All-Star debut and win his first selection on the prestigious All-NBA First team by the end of the season.
The strong play of Gilgeous-Alexander made it difficult for Oklahoma City to tank last year despite their built-for-tanking roster and they wound up with a 40-42 record that qualified them for the play-in tournament. Though they lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the final game of the West play-in, it was clear that this team was on the come-up and they have only confirmed this over the past month.
The Thunder are off to an 8-4 start this season and are currently behind the West-leading Denver Nuggets by only 1.5 games. They have won five of their last six outings and with the way that they have been playing, this team should battle for one of the top seeds in the Western Conference throughout the entirety of this season.
Gilgeous-Alexander has been spectacular once again, averaging 28.8 points on 51.1% field goal shooting, 6.5 rebounds, six assists, 2.6 steals, and 0.7 blocks through 11 games. What has pushed this team forward this year though is the improved play of the rest of their starting five.
The 22-year-old Williams has emerged as their second option on offense, scoring 17.2 points per game on an efficient 52.0% field goal shooting. Meanwhile, Giddey is emerging as this team’s connector and his balanced statistics (13.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists) are proof of this. The fact that Gilgeous-Alexander often shares the floor with two dynamic players such as Williams and Giddey makes life easier for him and this perimeter trio will only get better with more time together.
Holmgren, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, has made an impact in his rookie campaign as well. Over the first 12 games of his NBA career, the 21-year-old has averaged 15.5 points on 52.9% field goal shooting, 7.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 steals, and 2.2 blocks. These numbers have allowed him to emerge as a viable contender for this season’s NBA Rookie of the Year plum against the highly favored Victor Wembanyama and their race for this award will be an exciting one to watch for the rest of this campaign.
It is actually Holmgren who holds the key to success for Oklahoma City as a skilled interior presence is now a requisite rather than just a nice-to-have in the modern NBA. Once he gets fully acclimated to playing at this level, it will be difficult to stop this team.
Lightning hardly ever strikes twice, but for the Thunder, it looks like they have successfully emerged from another rebuild with one of the most promising teams in the NBA today. This team is only a few minor tweaks away from contending for an NBA title and it will be interesting to see if their front office decides to use their abundance of draft picks to accelerate their timeline.
The future is now for Oklahoma City and they are only going to get better from here on out.