Where they are
Right now, they are sitting at their respective homes. No, not because it’s the second round of the playoffs and the Thunder were eliminated from playoff contention back in mid-March as they limped to the finish line for a 31-51 season that we all predicted they would have. But because of the Coronavirus. The Thunder were actually having a surprisingly good season before it was cut short due to COVID-19. The future is unknown, so all we can do is speculate, and that’s what we’ll do.
Jazz vs. Thunder
For a Thunder fan, what is the most reasonable, but ideal, end to this season? That would be pulling off the slight upset (Thunder would be the 5 seed in the West based off current standings) of the Utah Jazz (4 seed) in the first round. Then they’d bow out respectably in 6 or 7 games against the Lakers in the Conference Semis. Honestly this is probably what would happen if the playoffs were to actually occur.
Ironically, this OKC vs. Utah matchup was the beginning of the postponement of the NBA season as Gobert tested positive with the Coronavirus just before the tip-off of this game back on March 11th. Shortly thereafter, Utah’s star Donovan Mitchell also tested positive, and now the two can’t be in the same room together. The back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA, who is known for protecting the rim better than anyone, couldn’t protect his immune system.
Gobert’s joking of the significance of the virus by making sure he wiped down every microphone with his hands before exiting his interview, of course incited God, Jesus, Buddha, Zeus, and Karma all to strike down at once and give him the disease. Not only that, but to make matters worse, they decided to give it to his All-Star combo guard as well. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that their team chemistry has tested positive for being in the pooper. I have difficult time imagining the best two players of the Utah Jazz mending relations well enough to come together and beat one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
So assuming the Thunder would win this series seems reasonable. What would this mean for this organization and their fan base? It would mark the first time since Kevin Durant left back in 2016 that this team got out of the first round. It would mean they avenged their first round loss to the Jazz back in 2018 when Paul George memorably had more turnovers than points on a 2-for-16 shooting effort in the Game 6 loss. And it would mean that a team who traded away the 3rd guy in the MVP race a season ago and an MVP from just 3 seasons ago who had just completed his third consecutive season of averaging a triple double, for future assets rather than winning right now, made it further in the playoffs without those guys.
Considering that this was a team whose over/under on wins for the season was set at 32, this would be an incredible success by any estimation. Only one other team in the league had already surpassed their projected Vegas win total, and that was the Memphis Grizzles. Not only had the Thunder already surpassed it, but they’d done so by 8 games, and had 18 more to go in the season. This team was without a doubt on pace to win 50 plus games.
But was anyone claiming this team as a championship contender?
Not anyone sane. They were 0-3 against the Lakers in matchups this season. The Thunder also looked very human against other elite teams. If you don’t believe me, you must not have watched the Thunder vs. Bucks on February 28th where they lost 133-86. Even a gentlemen’s sweep against a Lakers team with a 5-game lead over anyone in the loaded West, with a guy on their team named LeBron James, perhaps you’ve heard of him, and another named Anthony Davis, would be an accomplishment.
At its best, this was a semifinal playoff season which would mark the 10th playoff run in the last 11 seasons. Don’t get me wrong, even that is a miraculous performance given the circumstances. But that’s now no Conference Finals in four straight years, no Finals run in eight straight years, and no championship since the move to Oklahoma City. All despite having All-Stars like Kevin Durant (2016), Russell Westbrook (2019), James Harden (2012), Paul George (2019), Carmelo Anthony (2018), Chris Paul (Current), Victor Oladipo (2017), and Domantas Sabonis (2017) since 2012.
Where they were
Do you think during this virus that the majority of Thunder players are staying at their Oklahoma City residence? I doubt it. Why? Because if you were a player in the NBA with millions of dollars at your disposal, would Oklahoma City be your destination of choice? Didn’t think so. So how in the hell has the city of Oklahoma City gotten the laundry list of All-Stars and MVP’s listed above to play for their team? Phenomenal drafting, trading, and work in free agency to get guys to re-sign. Kevin Durant fell in general manager Sam Presti’s lap, but James Harden and Russell Westbrook were not thought consensually to be great draft picks.
The Golden Years
Those guys, along with the steal of Serge Ibaka in the ’09 draft, led me to make the absurd statement to a friend before finals week in early June of 2012 that the Thunder would bring home 5 titles in the next 8 years. It sounded crazy at the time, yes. But looking back, was it? You’ve got three MVP’s on that roster, all before their prime. You keep that nucleus together and who’s to say that it wouldn’t have happened? We will someday sit down with our children and grandchildren to watch the 30 for 30 on what could have been with this organization.
I remember the feeling in the arena (I’ve got goosebumps as I’m typing this out) as I sat in the nosebleeds affectionately known as “Loud City” for my 16th birthday as the Thunder came back from a 15-point halftime deficit in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals in 2012 to beat the Spurs and punch their ticket to play for an NBA Championship. The tears of joy from the city’s passionate fans on the jumbotron who couldn’t believe what was occurring in front of their eyes are still fresh in my mind.
I remember just two years prior chanting “beat LA, beat LA” walking out of the arena as the Thunder won Game 3 as the 8 seed in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. The college-like atmosphere that Thunder fans brought to the arena caused the NBA decibel record to be broken (still got goosebumps). Now it is 2020 and the future seems bright, but there is no real hope of a championship next year, and the Thunder are yet to win a championship (goosebumps gone).
The Light Begins to Fade
After losing four straight games, causing LeBron to win his first title in 2012, the Thunder then traded James Harden for eventual MVP and a guy who has averaged 29.7 points, 6 rebounds, and 7.7 assists since the trade, Kevin Martin. Oh wait, sorry, those are James Harden’s stats since the trade. My bad. Yes, I know the Thunder did get draft picks and Jeremy Lamb, but still.
The next season in 2013 was good for 60 wins, but Patrick Beverly decided to attempt to kill Russell Westbrook (that’s how I saw it) before an obvious timeout. That ended his season and caused the Thunder to end theirs in the second round soon thereafter. Kevin Martin is then gone to the Wolves after his 14 point, 2.3 rebound, and 1.4 assist per game season. In 2014 the Thunder win 59 but lose to the eventual NBA champion Spurs in the Conference Finals.
In 2015 they were plagued by injuries as Serge, Russell, and KD all missed at least 15 games, with KD missing 55. Missed playoffs. In 2016 the Thunder were one game away from playing for an NBA championship again, but then lost three straight to the Warriors, and Kevin Durant decided to join those same Warriors, in the offseason. Real tough guy move. But I’m not bitter. It’s fine. Cupcake. Okay, I’m done. Yeah, the 2nd greatest player on planet Earth leaves for nothing in return.
The Lead Up to the Blow Up
Oladipo and Sabonis join the team in 2017 as Serge leaves, Russell Westbrook puts together the first triple double season and MVP since the big O back in the 60’s, and the Thunder lose in the first round. Presti works his trade magic to acquire Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the offseason (Oladipo and Sabonis of course become massive successes and All-Stars when they leave). This results in one more win in the regular season and the previously mentioned Jazz loss in the first round as the 4 seed. Carmelo gets the boot. 2019 results in one more regular season win as well, and another first round loss, this time as a 3 seed. I’ve heard that Damian Lillard is still waving goodbye in Portland.
Then, massive blowup and rebuild occurs. Paul George gets sent to LA for Gallinari, SGA, and five draft picks. Russell, who felt like the city itself, not a part of the city but THE city, heads to Houston for Chris Paul and more picks. So there they are, left with the only All-Star remaining on the team, a thought-to-be washed up point guard who can’t win and is a cancer to his teams with too big a contract to trade. The freaking Toronto Raptors have an NBA championship and the Thunder don’t. Drake, who seems to be a curse to every team he bandwagons for, has a ring, but the Thunder – who have had maybe 6 future Hall of Famers in the last 8 years – don’t. Being an Oklahoma City fan is fun. 🙂
Where they are headed
To address the Thunder’s situation in the near and distant future, we have to take a look at their contract situation. Out of their “death lineup,” four of the five have their contracts guaranteed through next season, with only Gallinari having an expiring contract. Terrance Ferguson and Darius Bazley’s contracts are through next year as well, with Nader, Diallo, and Burton all having team options. Nerlens Noel and Andre Roberson, who hasn’t played a game in coming up on two and a half years, have contracts that will expire. Muscala has a player option and Lu Dort will be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason. So at first glance, the Thunder could have a starting 4 and a backup center leaving their team.
Now that the particulars are out of the way, let’s look at what the Thunder might do with the guys on the current roster potentially leaving due to free agency.
At 31 and in his 12th season in the league, Gallinari had one of his best seasons of his career with 19.2 PPG and 5.5 RPG, making 3 threes a game on 41% shooting from behind the arc. The stretch four found great success in the three point guard lineup with their ability to draw two defenders and kick to the open Gallinari. For a young team that’s enjoying success now, but certainly looking towards the future, I have a tough time seeing the Thunder re-signing the soon-to-be 32 year old, especially after having his trade to the Miami Heat fall through in the final minutes of the trade deadline. Even if he were to stay, I would imagine it would be temporary, with the 4 position being a target in the draft for OKC as they look to the future.
Noel saw his role increase this year to 18 minutes a game which led to increased production. He put up nearly 8 points and 5 rebounds a game on 69% shooting, not to mention his 1.5 blocks and 1 steal per game. With his production this year, I think it’s safe to say he’ll make more than the veteran minimum this upcoming season. Given that the Thunder have Steven Adams covering the starting center position, I doubt the Thunder will be the highest bidder. Including that Muscala has the option to leave, I think the Thunder will be looking for a post, stretch 4, or bigger 3 that could guard inside as well at the 25th pick from Denver. The Thunder also have the 52nd pick in the draft, but we’ll just look at number 25 here.
Jalen Smith 6-10 225 PF Maryland –
I love this fit right here for the Thunder. He reminds me of what the organization turned Serge Ibaka into later in his Thunder career when he transitioned to more of a stretch 4 than a consistent interior presence. Although Smith played a solid amount with his back to the basket in college, I think he could float more on the perimeter and fit the stretch 4 position nicely for this team.
As a sophomore Smith averaged 15.5 points and 10.7 boards a game, to go along with 2.4 blocks per game. What excites me most about Jalen is his 37% 3-point shooting and that he knocked threes down at a 41% clip in Big 10 play for the Terrapins. I was also intrigued by the significant improvement and strides he made from his freshman to sophomore season. He’s certainly not the shooter Gallinari is, but he shoots it well enough. Along with his superior athleticism, that would create nightmares for opponents when he’d be alongside Adams. In the words of Michael Jordan, the ceiling is the roof for Smith.
Jordan Nwora 6-7 225 SF Louisville –
If the Thunder are looking for a forward that can create space for their creative guards and knock down the open jumper when these guards draw defenders, they don’t need to look much further than Jordan Nwora. The junior shot 40% from the three point line on just over 6 attempts per game. He scored 18 points to go along with his 7.7 rebounds per night. He consistently pulled from well behind the college line, so I don’t see the transition to the NBA line being much of a problem for Nwora’s smooth stroke. Given his thickness and sneaky athleticism, I also don’t see him guarding 4’s being much of an issue, especially with the help of Adams inside.
Robert Woodard II 6-7 230 SF Mississippi St. –
This may upset some Thunder fans, but Robert Woodard could be what the organization thought Terrance Ferguson was. Ever since the Andre Roberson injury, the Thunder have been trying to force the peg that is Terrance Ferguson as a 3-and-D guy (even though there was no 3 in Roberson’s game) into a hole that just won’t fit.
Woodard didn’t wow many with his stats, as he put up 11.4 points and 6.5 rebounds to go along with 1.1 steals and 1 block per game in his sophomore season. However, he did shoot 43% from the three point line, and has the athleticism to frustrate opponents on the other end of the floor. A thicker player than Ferguson by 40 pounds, combined with an inch on Ferg in height, could help him guard 4’s if need be.
Late in the first round, it’s difficult to find gems. But with the Rockets, Clippers, and Heat, all of which the Thunder have future picks from through 2026, all having success, the Thunder may find themselves drafting at or around this position often. Not to mention their own picks that unexpectedly might be much later than once anticipated. It’s my opinion that these three guys all could provide great benefit for not just the long term, but perhaps as early as next year for this Thunder team.
The Thunder management will have more to worry about than just the draft this offseason, and definitely in the following offseason to come.
Will Chris Paul finish out his contract in OKC? I believe he needs to be traded to a contender after this season. No one could have predicted the All-Star year he would have, or that his trade value would be as high as it is now, at the beginning of the season. His contract is only going to increase, while his value as a player is only going to diminish in the upcoming years with age. He served his purpose as a leader for this team, but the Thunder can get some trade value for him that will address the number one priority for this organization going forward, the future.
No matter what they do in the draft, or in free agency, I don’t see it in the cards for the Thunder to seriously contend for a title next season. They already have a jumpstart on the success occurring quicker than anticipated. Grabbing a young piece with potential for Paul will only help see the rebuild come to fruition much quicker, rather than hanging on to an aging star.
Other Trade Pieces
Will Adams and Schroder be a part of the future? I foresee these two’s contracts meeting more in the middle after the 2021 season. Adams is set to make $27.5 million to Schroder’s $15.5 with both being just 26 years of age. Adams isn’t the center they paid 4 years $100 million dollars for, but he’s a good starting 5 in an NBA that’s not producing many of those anymore. Schroder has been terrific averaging 19, 4, and 4 on 38% shooting from three, and willing to provide a spark off the bench. If he made it through last year’s rebuild, I have a difficult time seeing the Thunder letting him get away after the ’21 offseason.
SGA, Schroder, Adams, significant trade value in Chris Paul, a few young guys with potential off the bench (surely one will land), and 164 future draft picks over the next 7 offseasons. No, it’s not Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. But it’s a group of guys that have taken the league by storm multiple years sooner than expected. A group that most everyone is fearful of going forward, and those that aren’t, just might get made foolish. A group that is a part of an organization that just seems to have found a way to create a winning culture in a small market flyover state.