The Oklahoma City Thunder have seen a lot of turnover in their roster in the past eight years. After losing their core of James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook the Thunder have managed to accumulate young talent and remain relevant in the Western Conference.
Every season there tends to be a team that falls short of championship expectations, but it’s rare that we see a franchise manage to do that for a majority of a decade. The Oklahoma City Thunder have managed to do just that in the past decade. Continuously “fumbling the bag,” the bag, in this case, is the number of championships they missed out on in the past.
It all started with the trade of James Harden to the Houston Rockets over a $4.5 million contract extension dispute. That started a snowball effect that would haunt the Thunder all through the 2010s era and is possibly the biggest mistake by a front office in recent memory. Breaking up the young trio of Harden, Durant, and Westbrook mirrored throwing away at least two championships. Four years later the Thunder would lose Durant (the greatest player in their franchise’s history) in free agency, they then lost Westbrook and Paul George in trades three years later signaling the start of their rebuild.
Fast forward to the halfway point of the 2019–2020 season and the Thunder find themselves in a better situation than everyone thought they would be in. The team that was supposed in a rebuild is also the seventh seed in the Western Conference currently with a record of 26–19. The Thunder find themselves in a unique spot with their roster and position in the playoff picture. Their roster is a blend of young promising players and experienced veterans. The starting five of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Terrance Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams shows the blend of veterans and youth.
The most notable story of the Thunder’s season is the pairing of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul in the backcourt. Paul has been a game-changing presence in the locker room and on the court. His leadership and mentorship has allowed for the Gilgeous-Alexander to emerge as a rising star this season and one of the front runners for Most Improved Player. Paul’s winning attitude has rubbed off on the team, and he is slowly putting all the rumors of him being a bad teammate to rest. Paul’s averages of 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 6.4 assists aren’t the numbers that we have become used to seeing from him but his impact on the team isn’t something that can be measured on the box score.
On the other hand, Gilgeous-Alexander is having himself one heck of a season as they approach the all-star break. He is averaging 19.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists along with 1.2 steals a game. The highlight of Gilgeous-Alexander’s season came on January 13 when he notched his first career triple-double putting up 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists.
Aside from the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the play of Dennis Schroder as the sixth man has also been a key factor in the Thunder’s success so far. With averages of 18.3 points, 3.8 assists, and 3.8 rebounds Schroder has been a spark plug off the bench when Paul is sitting. Schroder has put himself among the likes of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell in the battle for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
The x-factor for the team is Danilo Gallinari playing as a stretch four. The one negative that has followed Gallinari throughout his career was his tendency to be injury-prone. So far this season he has been available for most of the games, playing in 36 of the 45 games played so far. His shooting has allowed for the Thunder to stretch the floor and has found him a new role that he will succeed in throughout the whole season if he stays healthy. On the season he is averaging 19.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists while shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc on 7.5 attempts per game.
These key players are surrounded by players who are capable defenders, and athletes who can run in the open floor. Players such as Hamidou Diallo, Terrance Ferguson, and Darius Bazely provide the Thunder with athletic young wings who can hit a three and play defense. Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel serve as solid rim protectors and partners for Chris Paul in the pick and roll. Abdel Nader and Mike Muscala give their bench some extra shooting from beyond the arc.
General manager, Sam Presti has made many mistakes in the past, but for each one he has managed to find a way to come away with a competitive team. He still stands as one of the best general managers in the NBA. Billy Donovan who has received harsh criticism for his coaching has shown his chops as a head coach this season.
What started as a journey into no man’s land has turned into a pleasant surprise for Thunder fans and NBA fans. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s future seems set and with the numerous picks and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.