IN 2005, CHRIS PAUL and a makeshift operation set up shop in Oklahoma City. It was Paul’s first time living anywhere besides a southern college town – Winston-Salem, N.C.
Paul was the prized rookie of the New Orleans Hornets, a team finding refuge in Oklahoma City and unknowingly setting up an eventual Thunder relocation. He lived in Edmond, ate with his brother at Charleston’s every day before games and practiced at Southern Nazarene University.
Nearly 15 years later, downtown Oklahoma City has undergone an incredible revitalization, with development projects, hotels, restaurants and housing springing up everywhere. Now Paul is back in Oklahoma City, placing his own brick in the rising foundation laid by Thunder players over the past 11 years – a platform that honors the people who believed NBA basketball could thrive here and invested in the unknown fully from the start.
“It's amazing to see how much the city has changed,” he said. “The people here, the fans here, make this city what it is.
“It's crazy. Our life comes full circle,” Paul continued. “Now I have two kids. To bring them out here, they came out here this weekend to see me, them and my wife, it's cool to give them perspective.”
While both scenery and substance have certainly evolved in Oklahoma City, one constant has steadied the region over the past 11 years -- the competitiveness of Thunder Basketball and its players. A playoff berth in nine out of 10 years, five Northwest Division titles, four Western Conference Finals appearances and an NBA Finals appearance all helped the Thunder generate the second-best winning percentage (62.9 percent) in the NBA since January 2009. That long run of contention set up an inevitable need to shift gears to deal with the realities of the NBA’s salary cap and luxury tax systems.
A tidal wave of transactions cascaded down over those loyal Thunder fans this offseason and as a result, external expectations were tossed in the wind by anyone with an opinion.
As Paul himself noted, those outside the walls of the Thunder Ion will try to write the team’s truth for them, but internally amongst the players, coaches and staff, there’s no change in the daily requirements to be a steward of NBA basketball in this state.
“I'm excited about our team,” Paul said. “We're going to go out to win every single night.
“It’s just building that camaraderie, just building that togetherness and making sure everyone understands that it doesn’t matter what everyone says on the outside, it matters what we do.”
Paul comes into this situation as a longtime NBA veteran who has played for three other franchises, each of whom did things differently than Oklahoma City. Yet he has clarity because the vision for attaining sustainable success for the Thunder organization hasn’t strayed since 2008.
“The one thing this organization does really well is keep consistent with the values,” seventh-year center Steven Adams noted. “Doesn't really matter who the players are. We still represent Oklahoma, the people here. We still have a duty to the people that we have to fulfill.”
Adams, the longest-tenured member of the organization along with Andre Roberson, has a unique perspective. From a culture in New Zealand that values the collective over the individual to a higher degree than in America, Adams views his chance to make a mark on the history of the franchise as a privilege. With that comes the responsibility to go into every game thinking about that legacy of work ethic and intensity along with the willingness to accept any role and do what it takes to win.
“I care about the organization here. We're here because we're trying to support the organization itself, and the organization needs to do well,” he said.
“I know with every player that's played here, it's been a huge honor to contribute to the history that Oklahoma is making because I think it is a very special organization, small market that's doing really well for itself,” Adams continued.
During Training Camp, there was a focus on maintaining a culture of competitiveness even with eight of the 15 players being new to the team. Full-time or on a two-way development contract, Thunder players have gotten after one another in scrimmages and carried that temperament throughout the four-game preseason schedule. “The spirit has been right,” Paul said. “Our practices have been hard, they’ve been competitive. Guys cheering for one another. That doesn’t win you games, but at the same time, it can make it fun to come play.”
Thanks to intentionality in the offseason – like Paul immediately getting phone numbers of his new teammates after being traded to Oklahoma City and player-initiated mini-camps – the Thunder was able to hit the ground running and play five on five even while getting to know one another’s tendencies.
“I’m just trying to get these guys in position where they can play against each other as much as possible with a different combination and set of players,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan.
“We’ve had some good team meetings, trying to talk about our concepts,” Paul added. “The biggest thing is that you just want to go out there and play and try to build our team identity.”
For Donovan, getting players into a win or lose environment from the first training camp practice was a nice reminder that a fire and passion for the game are prerequisites for seeing minutes in Oklahoma City.
“They’re always looking up at the scoreboard when we’re keeping score, that’s for sure,” Donovan quipped. “There’s a reason they’re NBA players and they’re at this level, because they are prideful and they are competitive.”
That immediacy helped the Thunder offense thrive in the preseason, with the ball whipping around between the three point guards, Paul, Dennis Schröder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That trio will serve as the oars that propel the Thunder boat forward, skimming headlong into the open court and initiating offense before a defense gets set.
Few teams have ever played three point guards at the same time, but look for Donovan to find time for those playmakers to stir the Thunder offense together during stretches this season. With their ballhandling and passing there’s bound to be catch-and-shoot looks for newcomers Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala, along with fellow sharpshooter Terrance Ferguson.
In the first preseason game against Dallas, the Thunder racked up 116 points and shot 53.2 percent from the field and 14-of-28 from behind the arc. In the half court, players have constantly been in motion, either guards attacking off of screens to find shooters or bigs like Adams or Nerlens Noel set up at the nail for the perimeter players to cut, dive and flare out for opportunities.
Adams hasn’t just stepped out to the high post, but beyond the 3-point line as well. The first shot of the preseason was a swish from Adams from behind the arc in the right corner. One game later against his countrymen, the New Zealand Breakers, Adams took a defensive rebound and went coast to coast for a scooping righty layup on the left side of the rim. The Big Kiwi is levelling up this season.
That goes for others beyond just the Thunder center, as each player aimed to come back stronger in some area of their game. Paul and guard Andre Roberson have gone vegan. Abdel Nader adopted an alkaline diet. Second-year guard Hamidou Diallo dedicated his entire summer to defense, and he’s taken assignments like defending the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic head on with vigor, confidence and poise. Rookie forward Darius Bazley entered a mystery, but is showing that a gap year between high school and the pros provided him a chance to mature and tap into his natural versatility and moxie.
Up and down the roster, the Thunder has talent and a combination of experience and youth, a balance that will provide intrigue throughout the season as veterans play a steadying role and relative newbies find their way with breakout performances and bumps in the road. There’s also opportunity for younger assistant coaches who were promoted from the OKC Blue to get prime NBA experience serving under a diligent worker like Donovan.
Continuing to push themselves and stretch their limits, the Thunder is ready for a nightly slugfest in the Western Conference throughout the regular season, which starts on Wednesday in Utah against the Northwest Division-rival Jazz. Regardless of the final win-loss record, what will be on display is a hunger, a drive to get better and a togetherness of purpose that the group can lean on throughout the season.