The general consensus about the Thunder heading into this season was as long as they employed Chris Paul, they would not be bad. Optimistic projections even had OKC competing for a playoff spot in the loaded West. And with all that said, the Thunder have still been a surprise in 2020, shooting all the way up to the No. 5 in the conference standings, ahead of the Rockets by virtue of a tiebreaker, and only 2 1/2 games out of third place. CP3 has been masterful (and as he made clear to SI earlier this season, not bashful about his self-worth), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a star in the making, and Denis Schroder has been one of the most impactful reserves in the league. So can OKC capitalize on this current success instead of eventually tearing things down?
Thunder GM Sam Presti has made it clear a rebuild is coming eventually. He wrote an op-ed in a local paper after trading away Russell Westbrook preparing fans for a different era of OKC basketball. And he told me rather politely the team is “going through a transition” after years of fashioning itself a title contender. It would be uncharacteristically aggressive for Presti to push his chips into the middle of the table with the current core as opposed to trying to construct something from the ground up. And building around this team would mean being comfortable having an older point guard on a huge contract as your centerpiece. But for Presti, the Thunder, OKC fans, and the NBA, the ideal scenario should be the Thunder trying to go for it instead of feeling like a rebuild is the best option.
I understand why Presti, hamstrung by his market, sees rebuilding as the best path forward. Stockpile picks, try to find stars in the draft, and then supplement with veterans. Signing big name free agents like a Giannis simply isn’t viable, and even keeping guys past their first big extension won’t be simple. (See: Durant, Kevin.) The NBA is set up for teams like the Thunder to take their chances in the lottery, and I’m personally not sure what the solution is to make things remotely equal for markets like Oklahoma City. (Personally, I love OKC and had two outstanding Japanese meals there. But I live in Los Angeles, so I’m part of the problem.)
I wish the Thunder were incentivized to throw caution to the wind and go all in with the current group. Use the nuclear shelter amount of draft picks and trade for veterans. Instead of trying to strip down, beef up and see if you can give Paul another title shot in the city he spent much of his rookie season. The fans get a contender, Paul gets to showcase his talents on a bigger stage, and we spend less time fixated on the future.
Even if this plan is unrealistic, I do hope the Thunder’s current success places them closer to a reload than a rebuild. The players on this roster have been resilient. And there needs to be room in the NBA for small markets to improve without hitting rock bottom. The Thunder have so thoroughly exceeded expectations, maybe that can be enough to change their assumptions about how to build something sustainable.