There is no traditional way on the road to title contention in professional sports. Championship contenders take various routes hoping to end up in the same destination of raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.
It is obvious that the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sam Presti are thinking long term and want to build a perennial championship caliber organization. The team will not settle for middle of the road results and are willing to suffer through multiple bad seasons to earn one perfect season of winning a championship.
With that in mind, I will try my best to dissect the blueprint the Thunder should follow if they intend on reaching their end goal of raising a banner inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The True Rebuild
I consider this Year One of the true rebuild. Many thought last season was the start, but the Thunder’s surprise success and Presti’s willingness to let the season play out without moving any of the veterans like Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schroder or Steven Adams delayed the deconstruction until this past offseason, where all four players mentioned above are no longer with the team.
Now is the time for the true rebuild as the team will actively look to move players like Al Horford, George Hill and Mike Muscala before the trade deadline and the offseason. The team is a surprising 6-7, but all team stats indicate that the team will eventually start losing more games and play for ping pong balls. The team is 29th in offensive rating, 20th in defensive rating and 28th in overall net rating.
The good news is that I think the Thunder have already found 60% of their starting lineup for their next title contender in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Darius Bazley.
Dort and Bazley have shown promise that they can be respectable starters with modern NBA skills. SGA has shown that his ceiling is an All-NBA guard while his floor is a borderline All-Star player.
When it comes to contending for a championship, I think SGA’s best role will be a team’s 2nd or 3rd option. Which is no discredit to SGA’s game, he has a great feel for the game and can be a very efficient scorer and playmaker. If SGA is your 2nd or 3rd best player, then 50+ win seasons will be a guarantee.
So one year in and the Thunder have already discovered two good-to-great starters and a lower echelon star. This means that the other two players will need to be All-NBA talents.
Dipping Into The Draft Warchest
There are multiple ways to acquire these two talents, but I think the safest and quickest blueprint would be for the team to draft one and trade for the other.
The Thunder just need to hit on one of their lottery picks in the next half decade for this team to seriously start manifesting into a title contender. The team has enough ammunition to shoot as many shots as they want in upcoming drafts to see who works out and who doesn’t.
Fans should not panic if the team drafts a few busts in between hits. In fact, it should be expected; for every Joel Embiid, you are as likely to get a Markelle Fultz, Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel.
This is why the Thunder are already in a better position than most teams who decide to start over. Not only does OKC own their own picks, they also have control of other team’s future picks in the Clippers and Rockets, where the former can be in purgatory soon while the latter is already there.
The Thunder have enough picks to throw at the dartboard to statistically hit on a few while also being able to package picks to move up in drafts if they really like a prospect, like Cade Cunningham.
Which is why I am not as concerned about the team winning as much as they have early on. If the front office really likes and believes someone like Cade Cunningham can be the face of the franchise for the next decade, they can easily create an attractive enough package to trade up and take him.
Let’s assume the Thunder does hit big it on draft pick in the near future. The Thunder will have 4/5ths of their starting lineup completed with enough picks left over to trade for a disgruntled star already in their prime with multiple years left on their contract.
With Presti hoarding so many picks, I would not be surprised if he is be banking on the fact that someone will be wanting out of their current team by the time the Thunder are almost ready to contend.
It is hard to predict who will grow unhappy with their team years from now, but a pair of safe bets include Karl-Anthony Towns and Bradley Beal. Other riskier bets are Devin Booker if the Suns don’t win in the playoffs and Ben Simmons if the Embiid-Simmons duo does not work in Philadelphia.
It will really depend on the timing and just how far ahead the Thunder get in their progression, but every year at least a few All-Star caliber players want out of their current situation. I expect this trend to continue as the NBA has shifted towards a more player friendly league.
One particular name I would watch out for is Trae Young. The Atlanta Hawks went on a spending spree this past offseason, collecting experienced talent like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Gallinari, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo. Atlanta wanted to compete now and could not stomach another poor year, which, when considering how their payroll situation looks like, is a bit short sighted. These moves have raised the Hawks’ floor but lowered the team’s ceiling.
As currently constructed, I cannot envision the Hawks developing into a championship contender with Young there unless one of their other younger players make a giant leap in the coming years. And, as we have seen with other star players, this will eventually frustrate their star player and will eventually lead to a trade request.
If Young is available to be moved in a few years from now, Oklahoma City should jump all over that, it makes too much sense not to.
Young has Oklahoma connections as he went to high school and college in Norman, OK. This should give the Thunder confidence that they could keep Young in the long run instead of just a couple of years. Young will sign a rookie extension that will keep him in Atlanta until the mid-to-late 2020s, but I will not be surprised if he requests a trade in the middle of that contract if the Hawks do not develop into a serious contender.
By then, the Thunder will still have enough picks and potentially young players on rookie contracts that will incentivize the Hawks to bite the bullet and take the deal.
Trading for a star player in their prime will signal that the Thunder are back in business of winning and playing until late May and hopefully June.
Bringing the Blueprint to Reality
Of course, this is the best case scenario blueprint for me when discussing how the Thunder can get back in contention. Reality will most likely not cooperate. It is hard to predict what the NBA will look like a couple months from now, much less years in advance.
But looking at how teams historically build up their contender, this seems to be the most popular timeline. A team drafts young star players and respectable starters, then they trade for whatever are the missing pieces with picks and young players on rookie contracts. Such is the cycle of professional sports.
While the Thunder have had a head start with finding SGA, Dort and Bazley, it is up to Presti to put up the finishing touches by getting two All-NBA stars, whether it’s via the draft, trade or free agency (lol).
SGA is blossoming into an All-Star guard, Dort is looking like a 3&D player who could potentially be more and Bazley plays like a modern day wing with a versatile game. After the five starters, the bench will be easy to piece together as ring chasing veterans will take a discount to join the team and the Thunder should be able to trade for established NBA rotation players.
Attracting role players in Free Agency should also be easier for the Thunder now than in the past considering just how much good PR they have gained with their handling of the Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul trades. The Thunder could have easily traded them without consulting on what they prefer. But instead, Presti took the time to sit down with them and work out a deal for each of them to end up at their preferred destination. This will build up credit with both players and their agents when the time comes to convince players to sign with Oklahoma City.
These are the extra miles that the team must take in order to convince players to sign and stay in Oklahoma City nine months out of the year. Presti recognized this and is doing everything in his power to gain the trust of players and free agents. This will help out in the long run when trying to convince established players to sign here and help the team win a ring.
I think the days of Pau Gasol and Mike Miller passing up on signing with OKC when they were title contenders are behind us, due to how well they handled trading away three future Hall of Famers in a 14 month span.
Ownership has also shown a willingness during the Russell Westbrook years of whipping out money and paying a heavy luxury tax at the cost of winning. It didn’t work out in the end, but it’s a great sign to see that the current ownership group is willing to pay up when the time is right.
Rebuilding can be a scary phase for a franchise and its fans. Diving into the depths of darkness with no guarantee of making it out to the other side can cause anxiety. But It’s only the first season of the true rebuild and I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel.