With their magical season officially over, the OKC Thunder must figure out the course they want to chart for their immediate and long-term future.
Expectations are a funny thing in sports, the lens through which we view and assess equal levels of success or failure and everything else along the scale.
Consider the Toronto Raptors of the Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan era. Not too long ago would a second-round sweep at the hands of LeBron James have been welcomed by a franchise with just a single second-round appearance in the 18 seasons before 2014.
But when you punch through your ceiling, with five straight playoff appearances and your first-ever trip to the conference finals, success relative to the rest of the league is irrelevant. It’s about exceeding the bar you helped raise. Thus, the firing of Coach of the Year Dwane Casey after a franchise-record 59 wins and the swap of DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.
The OKC Thunder don’t have a similar title-or-bust mentality, but the organization has a future that needs to be shaped in the present.
Danilo Gallinari will enter a weak free-agent class as one of the most sought-after stretch forwards. Steven Adams will hit the open market in 2021, the same as Dennis Schroder, who has drastically increased his stock as a finalist for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
Nobody knows the market for Chris Paul after his bounce-back season or whether or not he’ll even be made available by Sam Presti. The more years Presti holds, perhaps the more enticing a CP3 acquisition looks for teams that won’t have to stomach as much of his gargantuan contract. Hand in hand with that comes a player who, despite his unexpected production, is playing with precious amounts of time at 35 years of age.
Up one with under two minutes remaining. Down one with under 10 seconds left and the ball in their hands. For a litany of reasons, the league’s best team in the clutch failed to close the most important game of their season in Game 7 against the Houston Rockets.
Zoom out from the in-the-moment pain, however, and OKC’s 2019-20 season couldn’t be classified as anything but a rousing success. A sub-two percent chance at the postseason was capitalized on with a top-10 winning percentage and the No. 5 season in the unforgiving Western Conference.
That these results came immediately after trading away two All-Stars, and perhaps the greatest player in franchise history, is a testament to so many. None more impactful than Paul in a year that was supposed to mark the beginning of his downfall.
The issue at hand is not a matter of could or would but should the OKC Thunder run back the core of this overachieving roster?
Wouldn’t it be better to commit to the rebuild a bit too early before it becomes too late altogether? Who knows the type of haul Paul, Schroder or Adams would bring back in a trade and whether their value would fluctuate in OKC’s favor if they stood pat?
Making the playoffs was good enough for the Thunder when nobody thought they could. The same absence of belief won’t be present next season, which would sour a similar result. For a team without much hope beyond the second round, is committing to that ceiling worth the cost of admission?
No team has ever commanded the assets at OKC’s disposal. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander emerged a bright young star. Luguentz Dort used the playoff stage to showcase his defensive chops.
Along with the famous hoard of who-knows-how-many draft picks, the OKC Thunder have greatly set themselves up for the coming years. Now comes the challenge of determining how quickly they want to get there.