The Western Conference finals are still a long way from being over, but it’s clear that Oklahoma City can go toe-to-toe with Golden State. The Warriors have been on a historic winning spree over the past two seasons, and no one has pushed them like this Thunder team has. OKC turned the tables on one of the greatest regular-season teams of all time in the Spurs, and is now in the process of doing it again. Perhaps what’s most surprising is how Sam Presti’s once-questionable personnel moves have filled essential roles on a championship contender. This must feel like vindication for the embattled GM, whose public perception had gone from boy wonder to chronic fumbler, the man who traded James Harden — and might lose Kevin Durant.
While there’s no way to know what would have happened if OKC’s Big Three had remained intact, Presti’s gamble on the future may still end up paying off. The emergence of Steven Adams — taken with one of the picks acquired in the deal — has made the trade easier to swallow for Thunder fans. Adams is still only 22 and is quickly becoming one of the best centers in the NBA. He has a rare combination of elite size and elite athleticism, finishing at the rim and clearing the glass at a high level while also being able to slide his feet on the perimeter. He even blocked a Steph Curry 3 on Sunday, which isn’t something a 7-foot, 255-pound Goliath caught outside of his comfort zone should be able to do. His skill level is improving with each game, as he has showed off a post game and the ability to pass on the move in this series.
Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter, former top-five picks who have become punching bags on Twitter, arrived in Oklahoma City with reputations of being selfish and one-dimensional. And while the two underwent a lengthy and often frustrating adjustment period, both have become essential team players and bought into their roles without complaint. Waiters has been excellent all postseason, turning himself into an unexpected 3-and-D wing while also providing a needed dash of playmaking and shotmaking to complement Durant and Russell Westbrook. Kanter’s role was minimized in Game 3, but the Thunder wouldn’t have made it this far without his eye-opening performance against the aging Spurs in the second round.
Billy Donovan deserves a lot of the credit for these developments. The rookie head coach has pressed all the right buttons in the playoffs, whether that has meant shortening his rotation, sticking with Andre Roberson in the starting lineup, or deciding in crucial junctures between the Twin Towers lineup and KD at the 4. A lot of eyebrows were raised when Presti fired an accomplished and beloved coach like Scott Brooks to bring an NBA neophyte into such a pressure-packed environment. But in 14 playoff games so far, Donovan has gone against a murderers’ row of coaches — Rick Carlisle, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr — and managed to come away with an exponentially higher approval rating.
There’s plenty of time left in this series, and a shocking upset of the Warriors would still leave the Thunder with LeBron James and the Cavs, presumably, as roadblocks to their championship aspirations. Still, the Thunder have to be feeling good about their chances this season, and the long-term trajectory of the franchise. This team is equipped to win it all, and that’s likely all Durant needs the team to prove to get him to stay. It’s looking more and more likely that we’re witnessing the once and future core of the Thunder. And if Durant plays his entire career in Oklahoma City, Sam Presti will have done his job.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 23, 2016.