After play-in experience, Thunder not rebuilding, just building, with no end in sight
Thank Kawhi Leonard.
Thank him for convincing the Clippers what they really needed was him and Paul George on the same Los Angeles court, even if it meant sending Oklahoma City a prospect by the name of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, veteran sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari, five first-round draft selections and the rights to swap additional first-round picks.
Thank him, too, for the domino-falling exodus his demands wrought:
Chris Paul, two more first-rounders and the rights to two more swaps from Houston for Russell Westbrook; a first-rounder for sending Jerami Grant to Denver; another first-rounder and Dennis Schroder, too, for sending Carmelo Anthony and his expiring contract to Atlanta.
Of course, after helping the Thunder to the Orlando bubble playoff, Paul and Schroder, sent to Phoenix and the Lakers, were each worth another first-rounder sent OKC’s way.
So thank him.
Though yet to play more than 60 games in a season since arriving in LA, Leonard's demands have sure worked out around here.
Because while what happened Friday night in Minneapolis may be regrettable — a 120-95 play-in-to-the-playoffs loss to the Timberwolves — the Thunder’s future does not merely appear impossibly bright, but impossibly bright as soon as October.
Think about it.
• Gilgeous-Alexander’s become one of the best four or five players in the league, averaging 31.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists and, for good measure, a single blocked shot, tops among NBA guards, even as the calendar says the 24-year-old has yet to enter his prime.
• From last season to this one, the Thunder improved by 16 victories and they did it without the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft, Chet Holmgren, who missed the season to foot surgery, but who everybody believes would have been worth a few more wins, his absence leaving OKC without real rim protection.
• Those victories and many more should arrive as soon as next season, not just because Holmgren should be in the lineup, though that’s huge, but because the rest of the squad, the youngest in the NBA this season, will be a year older; meaning Lu Dort and Josh Giddey cold come back better shooters; rookie of the year candidate Jaylen Williams should come back a little sharper in all areas and maybe without the hesitation he offered in his first postseason experiences, at New Orleans and Minnesota.
• Not to mention, OKC has so many first-round picks still in the bank — two in the coming draft and 15 more through 2029 — it will be adding to an already fantastic core and a dang good bench for years and years to come.
Listening to sports radio as the play-in games approached, you might have heard this question:
Is the rebuild over?
It’s a dumb question because it presumes there’s only two states of play in today’s NBA, selling out to win a title and trying to run the other way.
Should somebody asks you that question, tell them you disagree with the premise. Tell them the Thunder aren’t rebuilding, just building, and they’ll be doing it for a long, long time and it ought to be fabulous.
We may think the core is Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, Giddey and Jaylen Williams, but that presupposes none will be supplanted by future draft picks, nor dealt in service of a better fit to chase a crown, an outcome that could visit any one or two of the three, Gilgeous-Alexander the only untouchable.
You want confidence in OKC’s future, think about this: 60 percent of Wednesday’s and Friday’s starting lineups — Giddey, Jaylen Williams, Jaylin Williams — were picked up in the previous two drafts, none of the three a top-five pick, only one a top-10 and one even a second-rounder, which is crazy and all those future picks remain on the table, too.
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