It’s time to start taking the Oklahoma City Thunder seriously

The Oklahoma City Thunder have not been great at shooting (24th in effective field-goal percentage), passing (25th in assist rate) or rebounding (26th in rebounding percentage) the basketball, and yet here they are, a shade below .500 after the NBA season’s midway mark and squarely in the play-in tournament mix.

That is as ringing an endorsement as you will find for Mark Daigneault’s Coach of the Year candidacy, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s All-NBA campaign and the Thunder’s prospects as a perennial contender on the rise.

Daigneault, 37, assumed responsibilities from his mentor, Billy Donovan, in 2020, shortly after Chris Paul led the Thunder on a surprising run to a fifth seed in the Western Conference. They traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook for a boatload of draft picks the summer before, and general manager Sam Presti further deconstructed the roster, shedding veteran starters Paul, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams.

They were trying to lose, and lose they did, logging the league’s fourth-worst record each of the past two seasons. The Thunder served as an infirmary ward for distressed contracts, routinely rested their best players for long stretches and fielded 65 different starting lineups. Nobody on the five-man unit who started the final four games of last season is currently in an NBA rotation. Three of them are not even in the league.

The NBA reportedly pushed Sam Hinkie from his front-office post on the Philadelphia 76ers for trusting the same years-long Process, before the fruits of his tanking (namely Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) ever played together. Presti has free rein to see his plan through, if he does not bolt for a bigger market, and it is bearing fruit already, largely because Daigneault has fostered a competitive culture in a losing atmosphere.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is having the best season of his career. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Conventional wisdom pegged Gilgeous-Alexander as the next NBA malcontent. He was the best player most fans never got a chance to see, mired in Oklahoma City, where they preferred he not impact winning down the stretch of a regular season. It was enough for any player to reconsider the direction of his career.

The Thunder might have considered dealing Gilgeous-Alexander, too. He was due a $179 million maximum rookie extension, and there was no guarantee they would be any good by the time it was through in 2027.

Only, a funny thing happened between the time he signed his contract in August 2021 and the moment it kicked in this season. Gilgeous-Alexander developed into one of the best players alive. His 30.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks a game are matched only by Michael Jordan in 1987-88, also at the age of 24, and Gilgeous-Alexander is doing it more efficiently. He should be an All-Star starter.

It required an incredible amount of trust in each other for Gilgeous-Alexander and Presti to navigate this path in the face of 46 combined wins over the last two seasons, and it appears they have struck a chord.

«It’s always easy to trust someone when they haven’t given you a reason not to trust them,” Gilgeous-Alexander told The Oklahoman’s Joe Mussatto in early December, as the Thunder were falling to 11-18, third from the bottom of the West, right about where prognosticators expected. «It’s always easier to trust someone when they tell you something and it happens. And that’s been my relationship with Sam so far.»

The conduit between them is Daigneault, whose young Thunder play harder than anyone else in the NBA. They lead the league in loose balls recovered and charges drawn and rank third in contesting shots. Two years removed from rating 24th, their defense is top 10, despite the absence of a rim-protecting center. They are 2-8 when they shoot better than 39% from 3-point range, evidence of their ability to win with grit.

Within a week of Gilgeous-Alexander’s praise for Presti, the Thunder embarked on a three-game winning streak that has since blossomed into a 12-6 string over the past month. During that span, Oklahoma City has registered top-10 ratings on both sides of the ball and outscored opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions, third in the West behind the conference-leading Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies.

The Thunder are now entrenched in a hunt for the final few playoff seeds. They trail the sixth-place Los Angeles Clippers by one loss and lead the 12th-place L.A. Lakers by the same margin. Teams between include the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. Gilgeous-Alexander has been every bit as good, if not better, than any superstar on those teams, including LeBron James, Devin Booker and Stephen Curry.

That also includes George, whose trade request from the Thunder to the Clippers in 2019 birthed this rebuild. In addition to Gilgeous-Alexander, Presti squeezed five first-round draft picks and two pick swaps from his rival’s desperation. Oklahoma City has already turned two of those selections into Tre Mann and Jalen Williams, a pair of promising prospects who have both contributed to the team’s recent success.

There is reason for skepticism. Gilgeous-Alexander’s game-winners against the Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers and Nuggets this season are the difference between being in the thick of the playoff hunt and staring up at everyone but the tanking San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Oklahoma City’s last 12 wins include four against lottery-bound teams and victories against the Grizzlies without Ja Morant, the Nuggets without Nikola Jokic, the Dallas Mavericks without Luka Doncic, the Brooklyn Nets without Kevin Durant, the Indiana Pacers without Tyrese Haliburton and the Chicago Bulls without DeMar DeRozan.

There is far more reason for optimism.

Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are part of the Oklahoma City Thunder's bright future. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are part of the Oklahoma City Thunder's bright future. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are part of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s bright future. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Gilgeous-Alexander is a paradigm-shifting force, and he is doing it without the benefit of spacing from his own 3-point shot (35.5% on just 2.8 attempts per game) or his teammates. If Isaiah Joe had not cracked the rotation in December and started launching 5.5 3-pointers at a 45% clip in his 19 minutes off the bench, the Thunder would still be searching for anyone to shoot better than league average at a healthy volume.

Likewise, Josh Giddey, last year’s sixth overall pick, has developed into a nightly triple-double threat, despite shooting just 32.8% from distance. There is room for improvement for both of OKC’s best players.

In the process, the Thunder have identified complementary players who should develop alongside them. Williams has the makings of a 3-and-D wing who can create when given a chance on the weak side. Lu Dort could be an All-Defensive guard. All four are among 13 players on the roster yet to turn 25 years old.

The Thunder insisted on including Aleksej Pokusevski in that core, and he has helped their tanking efforts. His on/off differential of -19 points per 100 possessions is among the worst in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. Granted, the sample sizes are not overwhelming, but simply by swapping floor-spacing forward Mike Muscala for Pokusevski in a lineup with Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Dort and Williams, the Thunder go from being outscored by 24.5 points to outscoring opponents by 24.5 per 100 possessions. Kenrich Williams has yielded similar positive results acting as a 6-foot-6 stretch center in small-ball lineups.

Now, imagine replacing either of them with Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick this past June. He is a 7-footer with the potential to protect the rim, shoot from distance and create offensively at elite levels. He averaged 19 points (on 48/42/94 shooting splits), 12 rebounds, four assists and four blocks per 36 minutes in a handful of Summer League games, before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc fracture in an exhibition.

This should be a winning roster by next season, before any of their core members reaches his prime. They also have as many as 13 first-round picks — mostly from the Clippers and Rockets — over the next five drafts. That gives them the ability to enter any trade discussion in a market that will not draw free agents.

More importantly, they have the identity Daigneault instilled and Gilgeous-Alexander embodied during Presti’s process. They play hard. They like each other. And they have demonstrated collective improvement through adversity. Hinkie’s Sixers could never say that, even as they ultimately became a perennial 50-win team. The Thunder are no longer an NBA team only in theory. They are a contender on their come-up.

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Ben Rohrbach is a senior NBA writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach