This year's Oklahoma City Thunder preview stands in stark contrast to what it faced last year. Kia MVP contender Paul George is gone after asking to join Kawhi Leonard in a move to the LA Clippers. Former Kia MVP winner Russell Westbrook is gone too, traded to Houston when the Thunder’s ambitions got shifted on them. And just like that, in a week’s time in July, a franchise that has been in the hunt for a decade -- winning 55 games or more four times, never fewer than 45 -- was brought to its knees. This season is a bigger unknown than any in the franchise’s Oklahoma City history.
> 30 Teams in 30 Days: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder’s summer began peacefully enough. GM Sam Presti was busy with general housecleaning, eventually talking to some role players (Alec Burks, Mike Muscala) in free agency. Then Clippers coach Doc Rivers showed Leonard a list of potential targets that included George’s name and the Thunder’s world changed forever ... George was sent to L.A. for Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and seven future first-round Draft picks … Six days later, Westbrook was accommodated, dealt to the Rockets for four more first-rounders and All-Star point guard Chris Paul … Around that same time, Presti send forward Jerami Grant to Denver for one more future pick
1. What shall we call this? Is it a rebuilding? A restructuring? Presti recently mentioned “repositioning” and “replenishing.” Some have termed what the Thunder will face in 2019-20 as a “transitional time” because they might not be as bad as some fear. It’s too soon to know whether that other dreaded “t-“ word will apply. Some fans accustomed to so much success at Chesapeake Energy Arena might opt for words of the unprintable sort.
2. Gallinari, Schroder can be had, too. That’s the conventional thinking, at least. If Paul is the big prize for OKC to trade -- to get out from under his contract and reap more youth or picks -- Gallinari and Dennis Schroder might hold appeal to title-chasing teams between now and the February deadline. Both were quite productive in 2018-19.
3. One piece is firmly in place. Gilgeous-Alexander was a terrific rookie for the Clippers, a point guard they happily would have kept if not for the urgency to acquire George. He might be playing off the ball a lot, if Paul sticks around, but the chance to understudy with the future Hall of Famer will aid his development. He and center Steven Adams figure to endure what Presti has in mind for the club’s mid-term future.
MAN ON THE SPOT
On the most obvious level, this was nothing Chris Paul had in mind or would have considered, moving from Houston’s title contender to OKC, newly grinding its gears. He might be expected to use whatever leverage he has to get out ASAP. Then again, this market was where Paul began his career. He has legitimate good memories of his time in OKC. And the best way to demonstrate his value to a potential suitor is to be a good soldier and play well. The $124 million left on his ginormous contract between now and 2021-22 will play a part in this, too.
Chris Paul | 15.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 8.2 apg
In his two seasons there, Houston was 89-27 when Paul played.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | 10.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.3 apg
His numbers were best among rookies playing on winning teams.
Terrence Ferguson | 6.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.0 apg
Still only 21, the catch-and-shooter is working on creating offense.
Danilo Gallinari | 19.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Thanks to 43.3 3FG%, he led NBA in points per possession.
Steven Adams | 13.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.6 apg
Career highs across the board, and No. 2 in NBA in offensive boards (4.9).
Nerlens Noel | 4.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg
Second-best defensive rating among NBA centers (101.7).
Dennis Schroder | 15.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.6 apg
Ranked 12th among league’s top scorers off bench.
Andre Roberson | 5.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.2 apg (2017-18)
Defensive specialist hasn’t played since January 2018 (knee surgery).
THE BOTTOM LINE
This season will be whatever the Thunder decide it will be. As currently constituted, there’s enough talent and experience to snag a low playoff berth in the West. If Presti opts to shift into full rebuild, or if Paul decides he wants out, they could wind up in position for a top lottery pick. Remember, OKC holds 15 first-round picks between next spring and 2026. That’s something to look forward to, anyway.
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