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The Thunder’s Rebuild Has Hit the NBA’s Sweet Spot

Oklahoma City is having its cake and eating it, too, experiencing stunning success in the present while its front office is focused on the future

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

My friend Paul Flannery of SB Nation told me something last year that stuck with me: “The best time you can have in [the NBA] is right before you get good.” There’s a vibe, an electricity, and a warmth that seems to pulse through a team that’s figuring out what it can be while it’s still free from the weight of expectations and the need to have all the answers right this second.

Tune in to an Oklahoma City game these days, and chances are you’ll find yourself feeling that kinetic energy. A mix-and-match Thunder roster stitched together in the aftermath of two foundation-rattling trades—a bunch of dudes with two or fewer years of NBA experience, a couple of journeyman vets, a giving tree, a pair of potent and underrated scorers, and a point god—has blown past underwhelming preseason projections and cemented itself as a bona fide playoff team rather than a resident of the shaky lower half of the Western Conference. While Russell Westbrook and Paul George continue to enmesh themselves in the fabric of their would-be title contenders—a process that figures to get a little emotional for Westbrook on Thursday, when he’ll enter Chesapeake Energy Arena as a visitor for the first time—the rebooted and retooled Thunder are finding their own way to win. And they’re having fun doing it.

Check out Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the jewel of the trade that sent George to Los Angeles, high-stepping with joy at the leg-jellying stepback that Chris Paul hit Tristan Thompson with in the closing seconds of the second quarter of a win over the Cavs, before CP3’s buzzer-beater try even leaves his hand:

Or this supercut of Thunder players gleefully messing with one another in postgame on-court interviews:

Or young SGA just leaving it up there like Wesley Snipes after lofting a floater over the top of LaMarcus Aldridge late in a recent win over the Spurs:

Or the OKC faithful rising in unison after Paul splashed in what wound up being the game-winner over Maxi Kleber on New Year’s Eve:

The Thunder enter Thursday’s nationally televised matchup with Westbrook, James Harden, and the Houston Rockets as winners of 10 of their last 12 games, sitting seventh in the West at 21-16. Last season, through 37 games, with franchise linchpin Westbrook and an MVP-caliber George still in the fold, the Thunder were … 24-13.

There’s a bit more of a difference than those three wins would indicate. This year’s team has outscored opponents by 1.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, a just-above-average mark; last season’s squad was plus-7.3 points-per-100 at this stage, the same differential as the LeBron-AD Lakers. On balance, though, the Thunder have responded to the sea change in their construction by being just about as effective at winning games—while also having the rights to as many as 15 first-round picks between 2020 and 2026 burning a hole in Sam Presti’s pocket.

This wasn’t an outcome most observers anticipated this summer when George forced his way to the Clippers and Westbrook was shipped to the Rockets, due in part to the expectation that Presti—the well-regarded executive who built a perennial contender by hitting the all-time grand slam of landing Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Harden in a three-draft span—would further accelerate OKC’s rebuild by flipping new arrivals Paul and Danilo Gallinari for even more young talent and draft capital. But no market for Paul’s services ever developed, owing to the prohibitive cost of acquiring a player owed $85.6 million over the next two seasons. (Provided, of course, Paul doesn’t opt out of a guaranteed $44.2 million in 2021-22, his age-36 season.) While teams were waiting for players who signed new contracts this summer to become trade-eligible, Gallinari settled snugly into his role as a bombs-away stretch-4, taking nearly nine 3-pointers per 36 minutes (by far a career high) and drilling 39.2 percent of them.

The Thunder weathered a rough first month, during which they struggled to a 5-10 record, but hit their stride right around Thanksgiving. Only three teams have a better record since November 25, thanks largely to dynamite performances in close-and-late situations. During that span, Oklahoma City is 13-3 in games that have been within five points in the final five minutes, scoring a scorching 125.2 points-per-100 in “clutch” time and outscoring the opposition by a whopping 41 points-per-100—both the best crunch-time marks in the league over the last six weeks.

A lot of the credit for those gaudy numbers belongs to Paul. The nine-time All-Star is posting his lowest usage rate in nearly a decade—he’s taking the same number of shots per game as Rui Hachimura and Marvin Bagley—but has routinely stepped out of the bullpen to serve as OKC’s closer, becoming an absolute assassin late in tight games.

The 34-year-old leads the NBA in clutch points scored, dominating locked-in crunch-time defenses to a degree we haven’t seen from him in years. Paul has finished in the top 10 in clutch scoring three times, including a tie for second place in 2011-12, his first season as a Clipper, but he served as more of a distributor and release valve in recent years. Now he’s already scored more points in the clutch in Oklahoma City than he did in two years combined as a Rocket.

Paul is shooting a sparkling 36-for-66 (54.5 percent) from the floor in the final five minutes of tight games, mostly by working his way around a high screen to his preferred spots—typically the elbows, especially the right one—and drilling jumper after contested midrange jumper. For more information, please consult the way he buried the Nets on Tuesday, with a steady stream of snaking, fading J’s that continue to feel like a clenched-teeth eff-you to everyone who said he was washed up last season, who thought Westbrook raised Houston’s ceiling higher than he could, and who figured he’d just placidly accept being put onto the ice floe of a rebuilding team and pushed away from the shore:

Paul is cooking at the controls of a closing lineup that’s been OKC’s best grouping this season: Steven Adams at center, Gallinari at power forward, and Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder around the perimeter. The small-ball fivesome has hammered opponents by 77 points in 108 minutes. Billy Donovan has also gotten pretty comfortable with that three-guard look, a unit that scores like gangbusters and mitigates its lack of size by wreaking defensive havoc.

(While we’re here: Donovan deserves some credit for steering the ship through choppy waters. For five years, Donovan’s job description has gone from “parachute into a championship-caliber team with one of the trickier 1A/1B dynamics in the league” to “survive the most crushing defection in franchise history” to “try to make two different tricky multistar ecosystems work in consecutive seasons without any shooting” to “take like nine guys who can’t drink yet and a handful of dudes nobody thinks will be here long, including one of the most notoriously prickly conductors in the league, and figure it out.” That they’re closer to second place than eighth in the West while doing it indicates that, as Doc Rivers recently suggested, Donovan hasn’t “forgotten how to coach.”)

Paul, in particular, has punched above his weight class on defense. Always a fire hydrant in the post and a steal-hunting opportunist, the 6-foot-1 floor general has spent plenty of time this season checking bigger forwards like Tobias Harris, Joe Ingles, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, and even LeBron James. It’s working: Oklahoma City forces turnovers on 15 percent of opponents’ offensive plays in CP3-SGA-Schröder minutes, a roughly top-10 mark, and allows just 97.3 points per 100 possessions, stingier than the league-best Bucks. That the guards are backstopped by OKC’s excellent center tandem—mobile concrete slab Adams, who is holding opponents to 52.5 percent shooting on attempts at the rim, and spidery chaos agent Nerlens Noel, who is one of just five players with more than 50 blocks and 30 steals, and the league leader in defensive box plus-minus—helps matters. So does a focus on making teams play in the half court: Only 9 percent of opponents’ possessions against that trio start in transition, an elite number, with OKC preventing run-outs through a combination of quickness and floor balance.

Oh, yeah, there’s another thing that helps keep opponents out of transition: making the other team start by taking the ball out of the basket.

OKC’s three-guard groups blitz defenses, cranking up the tempo to a warp-speed 108.7 possessions per 48 minutes, miles above the Bucks’ league-leading pace. They keep you on your heels, stringing together pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll to take advantage of Paul’s mastery of the midrange, Schröder’s lightning-fast first step and improved 3-point shot (a career-best 35.5 percent on 5.1 tries per game), and the unique undulating rhythm of Gilgeous-Alexander, whom Noel recently described as “a slick, smooth criminal,” which seems just about right … except for the part about the song entering the world a decade before SGA did.

With Adams screening, diving, and crashing the offensive glass—nobody who has played at least 500 minutes is pulling down a higher share of his team’s misses than the hirsute Kiwi—and Gallinari punishing switches against smaller or slower defenders alongside all that perimeter playmaking, the Thunder become awfully tough to stop. How tough? The Mavericks’ no. 1–ranked offense averages 115.5 points per 100 possessions. CP3-SGA-Schröder lineups average 125.

“We have so many weapons on the court toward the end of the game that teams can’t really load up, and they can’t take certain people away from us because it leads to other things for us,” Gilgeous-Alexander recently told reporters.

The 21-year-old was talking about how opponents have to defend the Thunder. In a different context, though, that turn of phrase—They can’t take certain people away from us, because it leads to other things for us—might also be a pretty apt entreaty to the front office.

The Thunder will have chances to sell before the February 6 trade deadline—a smaller deal for Gallinari (who hits unrestricted free agency this summer), bigger ones for Adams or Schröder (both of whom are still on the books for big money next season), or even a blockbuster for Paul. Depending on which suitors come calling, and what offers they plunk on Presti’s desk, maybe those sorts of moves will look like the most prudent course of action for an executive charged with giving Oklahoma City as many bites at the draft apple as possible, in hopes that lightning will strike again. But if the upshot winds up being something that would bust this in-progress run to add, say, a 16th protected/likely late-first-round pick, maybe Presti will remember he doesn’t have to do it.

He’s already ripped off the Russ Band-Aid, swallowed the bitter pill of moving George a year after getting him to re-sign, landed a bona fide foundational stud in Gilgeous-Alexander, and set himself up to have multiple first-round picks in the next five drafts, with the balance sheet almost entirely clear (save for Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, restricted free-agent cap holds, and rookie deals) come 2021. The war chest is already overflowing. The bridge to what comes next isn’t complete, but construction is already in progress, and the Thunder are good anyway90-plus-percent odds of making the playoffs!—without having to tear everything down to the studs. The 76ers had to suffer through four mostly miserable seasons to enjoy the fruits of their Process, but it doesn’t have to be like that. There’s no law against enjoying the present while you’re waiting for your bright future to start, even if it can sometimes seem that way when teams hit the reset button.

This is where the Thunder find themselves as Russ comes home: better than anyone expected, playing with house money, and digging it. Maybe the best time you can have in the NBA is right before you get good. But winning before you’re “supposed to,” while you’re waiting for your next shot at launching a dynasty, doesn’t seem half-bad, either.

An earlier version of this article misstated whom Chris Paul hit a game-winner over on New Year’s Eve. It was Maxi Kleber, not Luka Doncic.