It was ironic that the NBA decided to come down on Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks last week for tanking. Especially when they have an entire season’s worth of evidence last year where the Oklahoma City Thunder actively threw games by trotting out 24-Hour Fitness quality talent.
It felt like Thunder GM Sam Presti purposefully prolonged his best players returning from injury last season. Nobody on the OKC roster played more than 70 games. His three best players — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, and Lu Dort — played under 56 games. This season, Gilgeous-Alexander played 68, Giddey 76, and Dort 74.
Gilgeous-Alexander, this year’s Most Improved Player front-runner, played at an All-Star level last season, averaging 24.5 points, 5.9 assists, and 5 rebounds. But you wouldn’t know it, as Presti had him on ice more than he would have liked. Hard to argue the tanking didn’t work in their favor, as the Thunder landed the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, selecting Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. That’s where the story of OKC gets complicated.
During a pick-up game in August, Holmgren suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot, keeping him out of the entire season. The writing on the wall seemed written in blood, ensuring another sacrificial tank to the basketball gods. But something weird happened on the way. Gilgeous-
Alexander became a basketball god himself.
And now the No. 10 Oklahoma City Thunder are playing for a spot in the NBA playoffs, starting Wednesday when they face the No. 9 New Orleans Pelicans in the play-in game.
Oklahoma City Thunder’s boosted by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
This season Gilgeous-Alexander’s scoring averages jumped to 31 points, with averages of 4.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.6 SPG on 51 percent shooting from the field. He is the league’s best driver, capable of slicing through opposing defenses, on his way to leading the league in drives per game (23.9). He’s also generating the highest scoring average of any player on his drives at 17.1 per. In addition, his dribble penetration collapses the defense, allowing his teammates to get open looks on spray-outs.
SGA’s ascension into not only the MIP category but MVP as well expedited the rebuilding process. It also helped that OKC’s 12th pick in last year’s draft, Jalen Williams (this is the pick received from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Paul George trade), became the second-best rookie this season. While Williams doesn’t see the same usage, role, or defensive scheme Orlando’s Paolo Banchero is tasked with, the advanced metrics love Williams on both sides of the court.
Williams’ instant readiness, SGA’s ascension, and head coach Mark Daigneault’s outlier case for Coach of the Year has turned the Thunder into a top-10 defensive team and third in pace.
The rebuild is officially over. The Oklahoma City Thunder are finally competitive again, and it only took two full seasons of tanking to get there. They now have a bonafide star in SGA and three players with very high upside in Giddey, Williams, and Holmgren. However, this season turns out it’s been a complete success. It makes it even sweeter this Thunder team is so likable. They are not only incredibly young but enthusiastic, a welcome level of joy missing from the previous version of Thunder University led by Kevin Durant.
GM Sam Presti still has some work to do
The rest of the bench still needs work. Presti has swung and missed on Tre Mann, Aleksej Pokuševski, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and especially Ousmane Dieng, who he traded three protected first-round picks to the Knicks for last summer. But Jaylen Williams and Dort provide enough defense and raw scoring to round out the starting five. Presti will eventually need to consolidate his draft capital and include two or three of his young core to nab an impact player capable of being their second option behind SGA.
The Thunder also have a historic number of draft picks (15) over the next few years. Their quick ascension this season might tilt Presti’s hand to cash in on some of them sooner than he predicted. If he does, just about any player in the NBA would become available. If Luka Dončić gets tired of the Mavericks losing ways and demands a trade from the Dallas Mavericks, what team could offer a better package than OKC?
The Thunder could theoretically outbid any team for any disgruntled star. The only question would be, would any star want to live in Oklahoma City for the long term? If the team continues to make gains toward winning, the young core keeps showing out with sky-high potential. Why not?
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter