The year is 2007. The Seattle SuperSonics have hit rock bottom, and the franchise is about to make some major changes. Behind lone star Ray Allen, the Sonics finished 31-51. In his first full season as head coach, Bob Hill proved to be ineffective. Same with GM Rick Sund. After one of the team’s worst seasons ever, the Sonics fired Hill and Sund. The move the Sonics made next would define them for the next decade and beyond. It would create a dynasty that never was, and I’m here to tell you this story and wonder what could have been.
30-year-old Sam Presti worked his way from video intern to assistant GM of the San Antonio Spurs. The Thunder hired him as their general manager, which could’ve been the franchise’s best hiring ever. Presti’s first move? Trading Ray Allen and his about 15 million dollar contract to the Celtics. In return, Seattle received a few players, but the main prize was Jeff Green, the fifth overall pick in ‘07. This meant the Sonics owned the second and fifth pick in the 2007 Draft. After the Blazers took one of the biggest busts of all time in Greg Oden, Presti drafted Kevin Durant. A lanky, scoring wing player, KD would’ve been the easy #1 pick if Oden wasn’t there. Jeff Green wasn’t as much of a scorer, but he was strong all-around. Both Durant and Green played 80 games in their rookie seasons. KD started every game, scored 20.3 points per game, and won Rookie of the Year. Green was quieter, but he dropped a respectable 10.5 points per game on his way to being named to the All-Rookie first team. The rest of the SuperSonics? Not good. Seattle finished 20-62 despite KD and Green’s best efforts. And thank goodness they finished that poorly because they were able to acquire a stud as a result.
Then, Presti made another great draft choice. He took Russell Westbrook fourth in the draft. Russ has turned out to be the best player in that draft, and we all know what he’s done. Seattle’s most impactful move of the ‘08 offseason still hadn’t even been made, though. On July 2nd, a deal was made so that the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City. The city of Seattle refused to build a new arena, so the new ownership group (Professional Basketball Club LLC) moved the team to OKC. And so the Thunder were born. It was a small market and still is, but when Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook are in the building, tickets will be sold.
The Thunder’s first year in Oklahoma was pretty dismal, though. Coach P.J. Carlesimo was fired midseason after starting 1-12, and new coach Scott Brooks took the reigns. The Thunder finished 23-59. Despite the losses, things weren’t looking bad in OKC. KD (25.3 PPG), Green (16.5 PPG), and Westbrook (15.3 PPG) were the team’s top 3 scorers and Sam Presti had yet another top pick at #3. Presti selected James Harden there. Again, we know what Harden has done and that Presti can be considered a basketball genius. Sure, he had three top four picks in three years, but to pick three MVPs is an insane feat for any sports executive. And Presti did that in three years.
Anyway, it was time for the Thunder to contend. Their four young studs on rookie deals led the team in scoring. Harden showed promise off the bench, KD dropped 30.1 points per game, and Russ distributed 8.0 assists per game. Sorry Jeff Green, but the spotlight will be off you for about a year. The 2009-2010 Thunder finished 50-32 under Scott Brooks in his first full season as head coach. They had to face the #1 seed Lakers led by Kobe Bryant in the first round, and they put up a fight. They lost the series 4-2, but considering the fact that LA went on to win the title, that doesn’t sound too bad. And who cares anyway? The Thunder had plenty of time to figure it out. With great talent comes great expectations (a little Spider-Man rephrasing there), and next year OKC would try to fulfill them.
With the same pieces from ‘09-’10, the Thunder were supposed to take off. However, there were some changes. Jeff Green was dealt to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. This move cleared the way for ‘08 first-round power forward Serge Ibaka to break into the rotation. Harden was still relegated to the bench in their deep system, but Russ and KD each averaged over 20 points per game for the first time that season. OKC earned the #4 seed in the west and made a run to the Western Conference Finals against the Mavericks. They lost, but, again, it was to the eventual champs. But y’know what? Morale was pretty good. KD signed a 5-year extension. The Thunder were ready to build on their momentum even more.
After the 2011 NBA lockout, the Thunder took the league by storm. KD and Russ were all-stars and Harden won Sixth Man of the Year. Ibaka made strides, too, starting every game he played in. OKC finished 47-19, the #2 seed in the west. They signed Russell Westbrook to an 80 million dollar extension midseason. They took the playoffs by storm, too. The Thunder tore through Dirk Nowitski, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan in each respective round. Unfortunately, they were outmatched in the Finals by Lebron, DWade, and Chris Bosh of the Heat. The first tough decision that Sam Presti had to make was coming soon.
Before the ‘12-’13 season, Presti traded James Harden to the Rockets. Why? They couldn’t reach an agreement on a contract extension. Russ and KD were already extended, so Presti was hesitant to give Harden all he wanted. So, instead of letting Harden become a restricted free agent after that season, the Thunder front office dealt him for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and picks. And who cares if you lose one future MVP when you still have two? So, the Thunder rolled into the season led by KD and Russ. Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha rounded out the starting lineup. Kevin Martin stepped into Harden’s role, and the Thunder improved again, earning the #1 seed at 60-22. However, they faltered in the playoffs again, losing to the Grizzlies.
The next two seasons, the roster stayed pretty much the same. KD won MVP in ‘13-’14, but missed most of the next season due to injury. As a result, OKC made the Western Conference Finals in 2013-14, but then missed the playoffs the next season. Despite the Thunder winning many games under his watch, Scott Brooks was fired before the 2015-2016 season. He mentored Westbrook and KD, but was never able to get them over the hump. So, OKC hired Florida coach Billy Donovan with the hopes of finally winning a title. The bad news? Kevin Durant was set to become a free agent that offseason. He was guaranteed to explore the market. It was do or die for the Thunder.
The Thunder went on to have a great regular season. They went 55-27 and earned the 3rd seed, which was impressive considering the Warriors went 73-9. The Spurs with Kawhi, Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and many more vets were also a big roadblock. However, the Thunder starting lineup of Russ, Andre Roberson, KD, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams was quite formidable. Add Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters to the mix and you have a top-flight squad. OKC obliterated the Mavs in first round. Next, they took on the Spurs. It wasn’t as easy as round 1, but the Thunder triumphed behind monster performances from Westbrook and Durant. Then, one of the greatest playoff series’ ever took place. It involved stars, future free agency implications, and just a bit of crotch-kicking. In short, the Thunder blew a 3-1 series lead and the Warriors advanced to the NBA Finals.
The future free agency implications I was talking about? After the Warriors final loss, Draymond Green decided that having three all-stars wasn’t enough to win more titles (himself, Steph, and Klay). So, he reached out to KD, asking him to join Golden State in free agency. The Thunder never even had a chance. Durant signed with the Warriors, picking up nicknames such as “Snake” and “Cupcake” in the process. This move left the Thunder in shambles, at least for the next season. The ‘16-’17 season was famous for OKC not because they were great, but because Russell Westbrook was great. Russ put the Thunder on his back that year. His biggest help came from Victor Oladipo, which sounds pretty good right now, but this was before Oladipo had reached stardom. Russ averaged a triple-double with 31.6 points, 10.4 assists, and 10.7 rebounds per game and won MVP. However, one man can’t carry a team through the playoffs. The Thunder were bounced by James Harden and the Rockets in the first round.
After that dismal season, Sam Presti worked some magic to reinstill some hope in his franchise. After Paul George requested a trade from the Pacers, Presti dealt Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for PG. This seemed like an all-around win for OKC. Little did everyone know Oladipo would become an all-star. George would become a free agent that summer, but he was undoubtedly worth what Presti gave up. Then, in September, Presti sent Enes Kanter and not much more to the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. This gave birth to the “OK3”. Russ now had help, so the expectations were once again high in Oklahoma City. And the Thunder didn’t live up to those lofty expectations. Russ averaged a triple-double again and PG and Melo played well, but OKC was beaten in the first round, this time by the Jazz. Melo turned out to be a failed experiment. He scored 7 points in each of the last two games of that series, which was not what the Thunder needed.
So, Presti traded Anthony to the Hawks and actually got a pretty good return. OKC received Dennis Schroder and a few more players. The Hawks released Melo and geared up for the Trae Young era. As for the Thunder, they luckily were able to re-sign Paul George. Everyone thought he’d take his talents to Los Angeles, but George chose to stick it out. And PG came out firing. He averaged 28.0 points per game and finished 3rd in MVP voting. However, shoulder surgery brought his stats back to Earth for the second half of the season. As for Russ, he took a back seat to George. However, come playoff time, the Thunder would crumble again. In a stacked west, the Thunder drew the Blazers in the first round. This seemed like a relatively easy matchup, but that proved to be untrue. Damian Lillard hit a circus shot from deep three-point range that won the series for Portland 4-1. Immediately following his buzzer-beater, he waved to the Thunder bench to say goodbye.
It turned out that this wave would be symbolic because things fell apart for the Thunder. Paul George requested a trade to the Clippers, fulfilling his LA prophecy a year after everyone expected him to. The return? Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and a whole lotta picks. Then, Presti dealt Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul and more picks. As the dust clears after this demolition, it’s evident that the Thunder won’t be contending for a few years. What remains is CP3, a handful of other guards, and too many picks to count.
How did it come to this? With three future MVPs, how did OKC end up without a championship? That’s a really hard question to answer because the Thunder fielded some great teams from 2010 on. They had their best opportunities in 2012 and 2016, but they never finished the job. There are three groups that you can blame when something like this happens; the players, coach, or management.
Let’s start with the players. Russell Westbrook is a famously adversarial character. Kevin Durant isn’t necessarily a top-tier teammate either. I’m sure his free agency rumors affected the OKC locker room in 2016. You can’t really blame Harden at all. He just wanted his money and playing time, and OKC was unable to provide either. Now, KD has won two titles, so you can’t really question if he can contribute to a championship team. So, questions about Westbrook’s leadership and capability of winning could be posed here. He clearly can distribute the rock, but turnovers and lack of shooting limit his offensive potential. There’s no doubt Russ is a great player, but is he a winner? How he does in Houston these next few seasons will truly define him as a player. If he thrives, then he shouldn’t receive any blame for the Thunder’s failure, but if he flops in a new jersey, “Brodie” may be partly responsible.
Next, we have the coaching staff. The two head coaches of this Thunder era have been Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan. Brooks is famous for developing talent. He currently is the head coach of the Wizards, a team he hasn’t taken very far either. Despite taking the Thunder to the Finals in 2012, it was deemed he couldn’t get them over the hump. That became Billy Donovan’s job. Donovan won two NCAA championships coaching the Florida Gators, so he was thought to be a winner. Well, he hasn’t been yet. However, he hasn’t had the weapons Brooks had. Donovan only had one season with KD, and they went to the conference finals with him. I don’t mean to give either of these coaches excuses, though. Looking back, I’m particularly baffled that Harden came off the bench for so long under Brooks. With the teams they’ve fielded, more success should’ve been reaped. The Thunder obviously could’ve hired coaches more capable of harnessing their immense star power.
Lastly, the Thunder executives could be partially to blame. Without Sam Presti, OKC never would’ve even been in a position to win a title. However, he wasn’t able to keep Harden or KD (I won’t count Russ because he was there for a while). The Harden situation was truly tough, though. “The Beard” wouldn’t take the contract offered, and Presti wanted some value if he was to lose him anyway. And the Durant stakes were trying as well. Presti wasn’t about to trade the Kevin Durant in his prime. It was believed that OKC had a shot at re-signing him, but he chose the bigger-market Warriors. That’s another reason it wasn’t management’s fault. Oklahoma City is a small market that doesn’t attract top talents. Why would KD want to stay in OKC when he could head to California or Brooklyn? Or why would Paul George stay in the Panhandle State when LA was beckoning? That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam Presti becomes the one to take his talents elsewhere so he can really use his abilities.
Despite the draw of large markets, Presti probably isn’t going anywhere for a while. I doubt he’d pass up the chance to use all those shiny, new draft picks. OKC has assets upon assets, perfect for this heralded GM to restart his franchise. But for now, he’ll ride CP3 and not much else. Don’t expect the Thunder to contend this season, but the future is bright in Oklahoma City. That is, if they can learn how to keep their stars.
*All stats from basketball-reference.com, a great site for all basketball analytics