This had been a circuitous journey again to hopefulness, one set in movement by Kevin Durant’s 2016 departure. There was Russell Westbrook’s MVP yr, a statistical explosion that by no means promised a lot in the way in which of postseason success. Then, Paul George’s shock arrival, which proved to be short-lived and shortly forgotten. Chris Paul got here alongside to exchange Westbrook for a memorable pit cease, however quickly he too sought greener pastures. Left within the wake of this celebrity revolving door: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 2021 lottery decide Josh Giddey and a comically lengthy listing of future draft property.
But June introduced the Thunder, which gained simply 24 video games final season and 22 the yr earlier than, a brand new franchise pillar in Chet Holmgren. By July, the No. 2 general decide from Gonzaga had moved Oklahoma City again onto the “must-watch” listing for League Pass die-hards, due to his standout play alongside Giddey within the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas summer season leagues. Unfortunately, catastrophe struck in August when the 20-year-old Holmgren suffered a fluky foot injury whereas defending LeBron James throughout a Seattle pro-am sport.
Holmgren’s injury, which would require him to redshirt his rookie season, supplies gasoline for critics satisfied that his lanky 7-foot, 195-pound body will not be capable of stand up to the NBA’s rigors. More instantly, his absence destabilizes Oklahoma City’s prolonged rebuilding effort proper as issues had been beginning to come collectively.
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The upcoming season was purported to be a carefree, joyful experiment for the Thunder, with Gilgeous-Alexander serving because the lead choice, Giddey pushing the tempo and Holmgren wowing viewers along with his shot-blocking and shot-making abilities. Thunder President Sam Presti drafted a wave of rookies and shored up his supporting forged by rewarding Lu Dort (5 years, $82.5 million) and Kenrich Williams (4 years, $27.2 million) with new contracts. While there have been certain to be rising pains, particularly for the thin Holmgren, Oklahoma City appeared poised to climb over the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets within the Western Conference’s backside tier. This promised to be a step ahead, competitively and aesthetically.
Even so, shared growth remained the highest precedence for a roster that was the NBA’s youngest final season. Holmgren and Giddey displayed immediate chemistry in summer season ball, anticipating one another’s actions and complementing one another’s strengths. As Giddey arrange Holmgren on decide and rolls and in transition, Holmgren’s size made him a pure lob goal and his spacing capability created driving lanes for his Australian teammate. Until Holmgren returns, the 19-year-old Giddey might want to tackle a larger scoring burden and switch extra typically to his shaky outdoors jumper.
There’s nonetheless loads of time for Holmgren and Giddey to refine their on-court bond, though the identical cannot essentially be assumed with regards to Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s coming into his fourth season in Oklahoma City. The 24-year-old Canadian guard is arguably the NBA’s most underrated participant, averaging 24.5 factors, 5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per sport in relative obscurity final season.
Gilgeous-Alexander is simply starting a five-year, $173 million extension, however he’ll however spawn a endless stream of commerce rumors given that he’s a rising star in a small market taking part in for a crew that’s years away from contending. Dejounte Murray and Donovan Mitchell match comparable payments, and each had been dealt for pick-and-prospect-laden packages this summer season. As it occurs, Gilgeous-Alexander was on the opposite facet of this recurring phenomenon because the centerpiece of Oklahoma City’s 2019 blockbuster return for George.
Set to enter this season with out Holmgren or any main free company additions, the Thunder’s finest path ahead is to race to the underside as soon as once more. Despite its warfare chest of future draft property, Oklahoma City solely possesses one 2023 first-round decide to chase potential franchise gamers similar to Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson: its personal. Pairing Holmgren (7-6 wingspan) and Wembanyama (7-4 with an 8-foot wingspan) can be a mind-blowing proposition, a frontcourt tandem match for “Space Jam 3.” To maximize its possibilities of making that occur, Oklahoma City should brace for an additional spherical of purposeful late-season dropping.
Continually promoting endurance to a participant like Gilgeous-Alexander is difficult, particularly after shutting him down early to angle for draft positioning in every of the previous two seasons. That savvy technique has clearly benefited Oklahoma City’s long-term outlook, nevertheless it leaves Gilgeous-Alexander at a drawback in comparison with friends who’re having fun with postseason showcases and all-star plaudits. A franchise can solely play that card so many occasions earlier than it should ship a long-promised payoff.
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San Antonio seemingly concluded that Murray wasn’t a franchise-changing expertise, and that it was higher off pursuing a full rebuild with out him. Perhaps Oklahoma City will likely be weighing an analogous calculus by the February commerce deadline or subsequent summer season. On the flip facet, Murray, who continues to be simply 25, has sounded thrilled by the prospect of using shotgun to Trae Young on the Atlanta Hawks. Gilgeous-Alexander could not be blamed if he will get uninterested in beginning summer season trip in March.
Holmgren might nonetheless bridge this hole. The Spurs did not have one other budding star alongside Murray, and so they undoubtedly did not have a franchise huge man with defensive participant of the yr upside whose stellar summer season league debut drew reward from Durant. Likewise, Utah moved Mitchell partly as a result of its roster lacked promising younger sidekicks.
If everybody in Oklahoma City stays targeted on the imaginative and prescient, Holmgren’s misplaced season might finally be remembered as an annoying sidestep on the trail again to constant profitable. After all, Joel Embiid blossomed into an MVP candidate after lacking his first two years in Philadelphia. There are, additionally, loads of grim options to contemplate when younger huge males maintain severe accidents early of their careers.
“Can’t wait to hoop once more,” Holmgren tweeted on Sunday, expressing a sentiment that’s absolutely shared by the Thunder and its followers, who have not seen the crew win a playoff sequence since Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. Given this summer season’s sharp change in circumstances, the wait is certain to be agonizing.