The Thunder are ahead of schedule, so how can they avoid a repeat of the KD and Russ era?

Go back in time nearly a dozen years, to June 2012. The Oklahoma City Thunder had a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals and were preparing to host Game 2, and the future couldn’t have been brighter. With a young core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, this seemed like a team for the next decade. All four were either 22 or 23 years old at the time, the result of the greatest three-year draft haul in NBA history.

If you asked a Thunder fan in the then-Chesapeake Energy Arena that night how many more NBA Finals games they would see in that building over the next decade, they might have answered in the teens or even twenties.

The correct answer, however, was zero. The Miami Heat won that game and the next three in their own arena (shoutout to the old 2-3-2 format), and that Thunder team never got back to the NBA Finals. Westbrook was hurt in the 2013 playoffs, Durant was hurt in 2015 and the beautiful-game San Antonio Spurs were a little too good for them in 2014. Harden was traded to Houston, moves for Dion Waiters and Enes Freedom didn’t quite work out and a Klay Thompson hailstorm hit in 2016. Next thing you know, Durant was a Golden State Warrior, and it was all over.

That long winded monologue was all to set up this thought, do the current day Thunder have to strike now while the iron is hot with a MVP caliber season from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, over achieving rookie Chet Holmgren and a deep cast of youngsters with arguably the greatest stash of first round picks ever collected to package for the next available superstar?

Forget the long, slow rebuild and the lure of future draft picks in 2028 or whatever: the Thunder are way ahead of schedule. SGA has taken multiple year type of leaps over the course of a summer. Holmgren is far from your typical rookie.

Oklahoma City has more than shown itself to be in the league’s elite. The Thunder have already won at the Denver Nuggets twice, beaten the Boston Celtics and pounded the Minnesota Timberwolves and LA Clippers.

The Thunder don’t quite have the league’s best record, at 23-11 heading into Monday. Their plus-7.5 point differential is easily the best in the Western Conference despite a not-particularly-easy schedule thus far.

Amazingly, the Thunder got here in a much different way from what you might have expected. That surfeit of future draft picks they have as a result of all the trades they made dismantling the Westbrook-Paul George core? They’ve only factored into this current roster at one point, when a 2022 pick from the Clippers landed them Jalen Williams. Otherwise, the Thunder selected Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey and Cason Wallace essentially with their own picks (Wallace after trading up by taking on a contract) and stole Lu Dort and Isaiah Joe off the scrap heap.

And of course, they got Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the trade that started the whole rebuild, the deal with the Clippers for George.

Amazingly, the Thunder would have won this trade even if they hadn’t received a single draft pick. Gilgeous-Alexander has become arguably the best player in the league, a dynamo who creates high-percentage 2-point looks at the snap of a finger.

Watching him absolutely fry Boston’s Jrue Holiday on Wednesday was an eye-popping experience. His sudden stops and starts repeatedly left the Celtics’ ace defender in the dust. Nobody does this to Holiday; Gilgeous-Alexander did it like he was practicing against traffic cones.

Gilgeous-Alexander is a legitimate MVP candidate, the first real threat to the Nikola Jokić-Joel Embiid-Giannis Antetokounmpo holy trinity in half a decade. Through Sunday’s games, Gilgeous-Alexander is third in PER, third in BPM and second in win shares; his 31.1 PER would be the best ever by a guard not named Michael Jordan. He is shooting 73 percent in the basket area and over 50 percent from every 2-point distance; between that and a high free-throw rate, he manages to be an insanely efficient scorer despite rarely shooting 3s.

Gilgeous-Alexander is 25 years old, signed through 2027 with no options and seems perfectly content in Oklahoma City. The Thunder have paired a young, All-Star-caliber big man with him in Holmgren, whose emergence in his rookie year is the other huge part of the Thunder’s story. Williams is a potent wingman for those two and is only 22; in fact, the Thunder’s top seven players all are 25 or younger. Between that and the future picks — Oklahoma City might have seven firsts in the next two drafts — the future could hardly be brighter.

But as 2012 showed us, it is not guaranteed. Finishing on top of a 30-team mountain still requires an incredible confluence of fortune and skill, even with odds tilted in a team’s favor. That takes us to the biggest question heading into the Feb. 8 trade deadline: Could the Thunder’s success induce them to take a big swing, or even a medium-sized one, with some of their draft capital?

The case for patience is strong. This group has yet to be a in a playoff game together, let alone go through the crucible of a deep playoff run. Weaknesses might be exposed that we haven’t seen yet, deficiencies that only come to light with seven games of opponents scouting every action to the nth degree. They’ll always have next year and the year after that and probably a bunch of years after that.

On the other hand … Gilgeous-Alexander kind of changes the calculus, doesn’t he? The Thunder might have the best player in the league right now. Why wouldn’t you maximize your chances in that scenario? Additionally, there are some clear areas where they could use immediate help. The Thunder are 29th in defensive rebounding and are badly undersized any time Holmgren leaves the court, playing long stretches with the 6-foot-5 Williams and the 6-3 Dort as their “forwards.” It’s not really a Thunder game until you see five of their players nailed to the floor while the other team’s point guard outleaps everyone for an offensive board.

It would be pretty easy for the Thunder to part with some of their less valuable draft capital — the picks that don’t have a chance to land in the top 10, for instance — and turn it into a quality four or five who could help them this year and next.

That’s because the other part of this game for Oklahoma City is likely to keep the door open to make a major splash in the summer of 2025. The Thunder are lined up to have max cap room that year, and while events could change that (most notably a contract extension of Giddey), that would be the logical time to strike. After that summer, extensions for Holmgren and Williams would likely make any free-agency play impossible, and Oklahoma City would shift toward being a more typical expensive contender managing the luxury tax.

It goes without saying that the Thunder’s decision point is the biggest wild card heading into the trade deadline. Oklahoma City can outbid anybody for any player given its stockpile of draft capital.

Of course, other factors also have to come together. Most notably, the right player has to be available who fits what the Thunder need. At the moment, finding any team who is a definitive seller is something of a challenge. Certainly, Oklahoma City shouldn’t waste its capital on talent that isn’t difference-making in a playoff series, and it’s very possible the right deal for the right player with the right contract just isn’t there.

Bigger picture, however, I don’t buy the idea that the Thunder need to sit this one out just because they have a young team and a long horizon for contention. As 2012 showed us, opportunities in this league can be surprisingly fleeting, and the moments with a player like Gilgeous-Alexander at the peak of his powers are precious.

The Thunder look as good as any NBA team this season, and with a core that should seemingly get better with every minute they play, there is no ceiling for this group.

My suggestion is simple, when that superstar becomes available, package a bunch of those future picks and maybe one or two young players just outside of the true core and become a powerhouse in the short term. Don’t wait around and draft a bunch of potential when you have the chance to cash in on greatness.

By the summer of 2025 the Thunder will make that move, if not sooner.


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