Death and rebirth: blowing up the Thunder

Artwork by Jessica Brough

The 2019 free agency kicked off with a bang when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving teamed up and migrated to the Nets. Boston swiftly filled the Irving shaped gap with shimmyin’ Kemba Walka, and the Hornets filled that gap with Scary Terry Rozier.

The bangs kept on coming, as the Lakers nabbed Anthony Davis, giving up a large depth of players to do so, and signing a hopefully-healthy DeMarcus Cousins.

The basketball world then waited with bated breath and began speculating where the final big name free agency player, Kawhi Leonard, might land. It was quiet, nothing had really happened for a few days, but we all knew that a bombshell was coming soon.

At almost the 11th hour on July the 5th (10:53 pm, PST), Chris Haynes from Yahoo Sports broke the news (sorry Woj, you were 1 minute too late) that Kawhi would be going to the Clippers. This was surprising for some, but no one could have predicted the haymaker that followed.

Literally a minute later, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that Kawhi will be joined by Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and a boat-load of picks.

This completely shocked the basketball world, as this was the most picks given up for a single player in NBA history.

This was when the basketball world turned their eyes towards Westbrook. The 30 year old guard had reportedly been asking for a trade, and the rumour mill began at full speed. Meanwhile, the Thunder traded fan favourite Jeremi Grant to Denver in exchange for a first round pick.

Westbrook eventually landed with the Rockets and his old teammate: James Harden, in exchange for Chris Paul and another two round picks. When the dust settled, Sam Presti had acquired 8 first round picks from trades in free agency. Including their own, Oklahoma now has a cache of 15 first round draft picks between 2020 and 2026.

Since then, there has been plenty of speculation on why Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Sam Presti decided to part ways, and what could possibly be in store for the Thunder in the future. The rebuilding process is a slow one and it may take many years to bear fruit, that is to say if it bears any fruit at all…

This is a brief analysis of the events leading up to, and directly following, the detonation of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Collapse

The best way to explain the causes and analyse the outcome of what happened to the Thunder is to compile the significant moments leading to this point into a timeline. This way we can see the peaks and troughs and what could possibly be the catalyst for the Thunder’s rebuild.

April 22, 2015

It all starts with long-time Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who started with Oklahoma during their first season back in 2008, being fired after the Oklahoma City Thunder fail to secure enough wins to continue to the playoffs in the 2015 season.

This disappointing end to the season seemed to be the final straw for Sam Presti, who had high expectations of Brooks after back to back Western Conference Finals appearances, as well as a finals appearance in 2012 (albeit, a relatively short one).

To his credit, Brooks was instrumental in the creation of a winning Thunder team.

Brooks took the job in OKC just after Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka were drafted and the team made the move to Oklahoma from Seattle. He drafted James Harden in 2009, with those 4 players being the becoming the cornerstone of the team’s success over the next few years.

Brooks went on to lament his firing on an episode of The Vertical podcast with Chris Mannix.

He says he is disappointed about the decision, his goal always being to win a Championship with the Thunder. The entire podcast is worth a listen, Brooks discusses the trades of Harden and Reggie Bullock, as well as what it was like dealing with a 24 year old MVP in Kevin Durant.

Eight days later, Sam Presti hires former Florida Gators coach Billy Donovan, who’s impressive 19 year tenure with the College resulted in two national championships and four appearances in the Final Four.

April 16, 2016

The Thunder enter the playoffs with 55 season wins, placing them third in the Western Conference. The fantastic four of Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and Adams can’t be slowed down and expectations for the playoffs couldn’t be higher. The Thunder then make quick work of the Mavericks and smoothly finished off the Spurs in Round 2.

May 30, 2016

For Oklahoma City Thunder fans, this day would be forever burned into their memory. Coming down from 3 – 1, Golden State, or more specifically Stephen Curry, had managed to drag the Western Conference Finals to a game 7 showdown. Despite this, the Thunder were still pegged as favourites to win this series from the outset.

The Thunder were up 6 points at the half, which was capped by Ibaka pinning a Curry layup to the backboard with 10 seconds left, which resulted in Westbrook being fouled on a fast break.

Then the world turned upside down on Oklahoma. The Thunder were held to only 12 points in the third quarter, combining this with a 29 point effort from the Warriors in reply. Down 11 points at the start of the 4th, the Thunder were facing an uphill battle.

Kevin Durant attempted to bring the scores closer, managing to bring his team within 4 of the Warriors with 100 seconds remaining on the clock. All hope was lost when Ibaka fouled Curry as he shot a three, effectively putting the Warriors up 7 with less than a minute remaining.

Durant left for the Warriors less than two months later, and it would be years before Thunder fans would move on from this perceived betrayal.

This was a massive turning point, as Oklahoma would spend the next three years treading water in the first round.

June 30, 2017

Despite averaging a triple-double for the season and picking up a few role players, Russell Westbrook and his friends are knocked out of the first round by the Houston Rockets, led by former teammate James Harden.

Eager to taste success, Presti traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George, who had only recently fully recovered from a horrific broken leg.

September 23, 2017

The Thunder trade for Carmelo Anthony, who left behind a tumultuous career with the New York Knicks. The Thunder had now rounded off their “big three”: Russell Westbrook, Paul George and now Carmelo Anthony.

I could go into more detail about the effectiveness of this trio, but we all know how that turned out…

19 July, 2018

After Paul George announced at a party Westbrook threw just a few weeks prior that he would resign with the Thunder, a collective sigh of relief was made by Thunder fans.

That quickly turned into cheers as Carmelo Anthony is traded (and then waived) to Atlanta for Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala (who was then sent to the Sixers for Frenchman Luwawu-Cabarrot).

The Thunder had managed to keep free agent Paul George while at the same time dumping Carmelo Anthony, who was perceived as the reason behind their poor post-season results, while at the same time acquiring a back-up point guard in Dennis Schröder, who can easily keep speed with his All-Star counterpart. Things were looking up for the thunder

However, as both George and Westbrook were eligible for their max contract, this completely blew whatever cap space Sam Presti had available to work with.

Presti played his final hand, all he could do now is watch and let the chips fall where they may.

April 23, 2019

It’s game five of Oklahoma’s playoff series against Portland in the first round and things look bleak for the dysfunctional Thunder. The Thunder’s only win this series is at their home, so they enter this game facing an uphill battle.

Way back before the All-Star break, Oklahoma were tipped as one of the teams to dethrone Golden State following a solid January. It just seemed impossible that a team like this seasons’ Thunder could be a first round knock.

However, no matter how good a team looks on paper, that is in no way an indicator of post season success. Look at the Lakers, as soon as LeBron moved to the west coast there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the great LeBron James couldn’t bring even the troubled Lakers out of the dirt and into the playoffs.

After the All-Star break, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed to have lost all momentum. Hampered by shoulder injuries, Paul George made a decidedly average 40% of his shots, that number dropped to 33.6% from beyond the arc.

Compare that to January, where Paul George was shooting 45.1% overall and 44.2% from three. If he kept this up he would have been the best three-point shooter with at least 500 attempts in the league.

Not surprisingly, Westbrook’s stats went up as he tried to pick up the slack left by George’s lacklustre shooting. This resulted in Oklahoma finishing the regular season with a 12 – 13 record, placing them 6th in the west, with one win above the Spurs and Clippers.

Portland was facing troubles of their own coming into the playoffs.

Jusuf Nurkic suffered a spine chilling injury while playing against the Brooklyn Nets in March (It was so gruesome everyone was forced to avert their eyes). Nurkic was an important part of the Trailblazer’s offence and defence, averaging a double-double in points and rebounds, so this was a big blow for Portland.

The likelihood of Oklahoma’s success seemed to increase, especially so since the man replacing Nurkic was Enes Kanter, former Stache-brother and backup to Adams. Absolutely no one believed in the Turkish big man, but this proved disastrous as despite an injured shoulder and fasting for Ramadan, Kanter continued to put up big numbers throughout the series, refusing to let the Thunder underestimate him.

Ultimately, the final nail in the coffin was the Oklahoma Thunder’s underestimation of Portland. Damian Lillard just simply put the ball in the basket, with one of the greatest shots in Playoff history (again).

Later, Rachel Nichols asked Lillard the question on everyone’s mind on an episode of The Jump: whether Lillard felt responsible for the break-up of the Thunder. Lillard sheepishly disagrees.

July 5th, 2019

This is the date that Kawhi Leonard finally announces his free agency decision. Things were set in motion beyond outside control and before anyone could react, the news exploded in everyone’s faces.

Despite announcing his decision to stay in Oklahoma only 351 days earlier, Paul George had requested a trade to join Leonard on the Clippers and before anyone could properly react, Sam Presti began the self-destruction and rebuild of the Thunder.

The next day, it came out that Presti reportedly tried to trade Westbrook and George to Raptors, but according to Woj, the Raptors just “didn’t have the assets” that the Thunder wanted.

Soon after, stories emerged of Kawhi’s recruiting efforts, some of which were just short of diabolical. As soon as Anthony Davis landed in Los Angeles with LeBron, Kawhi knew what he wanted. Kawhi’s plan and recruiting method was to form an alliance on the Clippers to rival the Lakers.

George wasn’t the only one Kawhi tried recruiting either. Reports came out that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were also approached by Leonard to form a team, but it was ultimately Paul George who was wooed to LA.

One of the most nefarious recruiting tactics reportedly used by Leonard was when he changed a meeting location with Lakers staff, so he could meet Paul George in secret nearby.

July 11th, 2019

A week later, and after numerous rumours of landing spots, Russell Westbrook is traded to the Rockets to be reunited with his former teammate, James Harden. Although George was first to make a move, according to Marc Spears on his Undefeated show on ESPN, Westbrook had been frustrated with the Thunder and their streak of first round exits for a while.

The Thunder organisation has a lot of respect for Russell Westbrook and vice versa, they entered talks with teams that Westbrook himself was interested in playing in. The Heat was a frontrunner in potential locations for Westbrook, but the Heat refused to part with Justice Winslow, rookie Tyler Herro and centre Bam Adebayo, so Westbrook was sent to Houston.


After attempting to flip Chris Paul for another couple of lottery picks, both Paul and the Thunder decided that it could be advantageous for the ageing point guard to play the next season in Oklahoma.

This likely concludes the Thunder’s summer trade grand slam, and as it stands the line-up for Oklahoma City Thunder is as follows:

  1. Chris Paul
  2. Andre Roberson
  3. Danilo Gallinari
  4. Mike Muscala
  5. Steven Adams
  6. Dennis Schröder
  7. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  8. Terrence Ferguson
  9. Patrick Patterson
  10. Nerlens Noel
  11. Darius Bazley
  12. Deonte Burton
  13. Abdel Nader
  14. Hamidou Diallo
  15. Juwan Evans

You might not be able to describe this team as a champion contender, but Oklahoma Thunder now have plenty of young assets to build around, and a very wide net over the next 6 years to catch several rookies with high potentials.

In 2020 the second Ball brother will have come of age and most likely declare for the draft. Instead of choosing a college team, LaMelo Ball has opted to join Illawarra Hawks in the NBL for the 2019/20 season.

But Ball isn’t the only American rookie testing their mettle in the land down under; top prospect RJ Hampton signed with the New Zealand Breakers in preparation for the draft as well.

The big fish in the 2020 draft however is Anthony “Ant-Man” Edwards. The former footballer turned basketball guard is an athletic marvel (no pun intended) and has put in hours perfecting his jump shot. Edwards averaged 21.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.8 BPG and a shooting percentage of 53.5% when he played in the Under Armour Association, earning him the league’s MVP.

Thunder fans have been blessed from the existence of their organisation with a variety of stars and regular season wins, but ultimately had inconsistent and often little success in the post season.

Rebuilds take a frustrating amount of time, the 76ers began their process years ago and their patience has only begun to bear fruit.

The only way to rebuild is to first destroy. The league has changed dramatically over the past 3 months and it is a fool’s errand to predict with certainty the future of the NBA. Nonetheless, Thunder fans can rest easy that there is a precedent for hope after annihilation.

In the end it was the three first round playoff exits in a row that ended the Westbrook era of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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