The NBA season is still [checks notes] more than three months away, but with all the major offseason moves likely completed, we’re entering a period when rampant speculation will fill the summer hours. The Clippers-vs.-Lakers debate is already fascinating to ponder—and will provide TV talking heads with material for months—and the question of how the Nets will affect the East race (if at all) looms. But those teams are full of stars who are known quantities and will all make the playoffs. Right now, it’s more fun to think about the team that flipped its identity twice in a week and enters the season facing any number of possible outcomes.
That brings us to the Thunder. Heading into free agency, Oklahoma City would have likely made a top-10 list of teams least likely to see an offseason overhaul (just ask OKC Mayor David Holt). And yet the Thunder essentially underwent their own version of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. (Ty Pennington could play Sam Presti in a movie, right?) Paul George and Russell Westbrook were traded to the Clippers and Rockets, respectively, and faster than it took some of us to realize what had happened, they were replaced by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and Chris Paul, as well as roughly 200 draft picks. OK, it’s only eight future first-round picks.
After OKC landed Paul in the Westbrook trade, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Thunder were looking to offload him in a second deal. But as of Wednesday, that no longer seems to be the case. Wojnarowski reported that the Thunder are prepared to go into the season with Paul on their team. So Paul is back in OKC, the place where he began his career with the Hornets, now playing for a franchise that many believe is entering a foreign new stage: rebuilding.
But look at the team’s roster, and that categorization might not be so simple. OKC, despite its new lack of star power, is not built to tank, or lose, or even be mediocre, for that matter. Paul is still a top-35-or-so player, Gallinari and Steven Adams are both underrated, and Gilgeous-Alexander contributed heavily to a playoff team in his rookie season. That’s a better-than-most top-four line that has too much talent to bottom out. And even if they get off to a poor start this season, there’s not much incentive to lose: They still won’t be one of the very worst teams in the league (hello, Charlotte, Phoenix, Cleveland, Washington, and the promising but young Grizzlies). Give OKC some injury luck, add the fact that coach Billy Donovan may finally be able to implement a system, sprinkle in a breakout season for SGA, and maybe, just maybe, could this be a playoff team? Thunder fans, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but: Why not?
Any possibility (again: POSSIBILITY!) of the Thunder making the playoffs will be rooted in Paul’s health. He’s missed 69 regular-season games over the past three seasons with various injuries and has been hurt during the Rockets’ past two playoff runs too. But when healthy, he is still a 16-point, eight-assist player, a floor general with a ridiculous plus-minus, and someone who will, at the very least, institute more ball movement in a post-Russ world. Then again, history tells us it’s more likely than not that Paul will have to miss some games, which brings us to the second guard in this equation: SGA.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie season with the Clippers was a perfect trial by combat, and he fought hard all season, including in a pair of surprising playoff wins over the Warriors. He’s got All-Star potential, but it is still early in his career, and there’s always a chance that a sophomore slump is coming. If Paul is willing to take on a mentorship role in OKC, that could pay dividends for Gilgeous-Alexander’s development. In Los Angeles, SGA’s point guard examples were Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, who certainly exuded a lot of confidence and fire, and SGA incorporated that into his game. But with Paul, he will get a close-up view of what an elite point guard looks like and how he sees the game.
The rest of the OKC players are no slouches, either. I maintain that Gallinari would have been an All-Star last season had he played in the East, and his addition gives the team the reliable, big wing/stretch-4 shooter that it hasn’t had lately. Andre Roberson reportedly should be ready for training camp after rehabbing from the left knee injury that kept him out all of last season. With him back in the lineup, the Thunder’s defense could be menacing. Terrance Ferguson is still developing but has already shown flashes of athleticism on both ends, and, last time I checked, Nerlens Noel was still long and athletic and would serve as a perfectly fine backup big option. Plus: Steven Adams is still on this team. I repeat, Steven Adams is still on this team! Adams might benefit the most from the Westbrook-Paul swap. He’ll actually get to, you know, rebound, and his scoring could go up, too, given Paul’s expert passing and the targets that will certainly come his way on pick-and-rolls. Dennis Schröder will be a decent halfway point between Paul’s experience and SGA’s youth. Given Paul’s health issues, he may end up seeing a good chunk of minutes, too.
Barring injuries, or an actual blow-up in which Presti does decide to move Paul and Adams after December 15, the Thunder would not be bad enough to get a high draft pick next season, even if they tried. Plus, they don’t really need to blow it up. In some ways, this is the beauty of Presti’s forced rebuild. He did just have to ship off the franchise’s marquee superstar and the other superstar he convinced to stay in OKC just last offseason, but he got a boatload of picks in return and has a team that can still be in relative contention.
Now, the Thunder are facing a similar situation—albeit the lite version—to the win-now-and-later dream 2016-17 Celtics. That season, Isaiah Thomas became a full-blown deity and carried the Celtics all the way to the Eastern Conference finals—before they even drafted Jayson Tatum or traded for Kyrie Irving—all while Boston maintained a closet full of draft picks ([Ariana Grande voice] thank you, Nets). Of course, we know how that worked out (poorly), but the point stands: Shipping off stars for huge future returns doesn’t mean a team has to bottom out. Sure, that Celtics team played in a weak Eastern Conference that allowed it to overachieve; the Thunder don’t have that luxury in the West, where there are six, maybe seven, clear-cut playoff teams, and the Kings, Mavericks, Pelicans, and Spurs will fight for the last spot. OKC won’t sniff the conference finals like Boston did, but this could turn into a stay-competitive-now-win-later scenario, which is a perfectly suitable way to go about the next three or so seasons before their picks turn into players.
Injuries and maybe a trade or two are possibilities, so the smart odds are still on OKC’s missing the playoffs. But as presently constituted, its roster has more potential than you think—and with Westbrook gone, you can bet that there will be strong Ewing Theory vibes too. Don’t count them out just yet.