The Thunder aren’t burdened by the present. They’re living for three to five years down the line, selections in drafts where the top picks are now entering high school, even middle school, functioning as a waystation for aging vets with no place better to go, stashing assets and formulating a plan that’s more of a notion. They’re keeping their options as open as any team in the league, which is not the same thing as achieving success. It just expands the possibility. Some percentage ticks upward, seven becomes nine. It’s mise en place, a productive form of killing time. Whether what you’re waiting for will ever show up is still only sort of within your control.
Sometimes I sit down at my desk full of feeling that’s powerful precisely because it lacks specificity. What will I write? Something overwhelming. This is a good moment, the part of the process that barely qualifies as a first step, when you’re imagining that you’ve already written the thing, and everyone agrees that it’s excellent. And then you have to start putting words together. That’s always disappointing. Every team that tears down operations and hoards draft capital wants to believe they’re going to replicate what the Thunder did more than a decade ago, when they picked three MVPs-to-be in consecutive drafts. It’s curious for Sam Presti to believe in his ability to do this, because he has done it once before. But he must know that he was as lucky as good, and anyway, the Thunder didn’t win a title with those guys.
We’ll evaluate Presti’s rebuild whenever it begins to bear fruit, or collapses beneath the weight of its own uncertainty. In the meantime, the Thunder have one (1) really good young player on their roster and he’s surrounded by sea-battered flotsam, Twenty-three-year-olds who might grow into decent seventh men. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander thrived in the OKC backcourt last year, enjoying a kind of point guard apprenticeship next to Chris Paul, benefiting from the scoring punch of Dennis Schroder’s best season as a pro. He actually didn’t play much point guard, featuring more often at small forward than the one, but that’s probably where he’ll end up. It’s certainly a position he’s going to play quite a bit this coming season, given that Paul has been replaced with George Hill and Schroder hasn’t been replaced at all.
Shai broke out in his second year, demonstrated that there’s just about nothing he isn’t at least pretty good at, with a particular knack for creating space for himself around the rim. But he did have a lot of help, which is not how you would describe the 2020-21 Thunder. Depending on the degree to which Al Horford is washed up—how much of it was age? how much of it was Philly?—SGA might be out there on his own, trying to craft offense alongside Horford, Hill, and Trevor Ariza, or Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, and Mike Muscala. There’s a strong chance he’s the beating heart of one of the very worst teams in the league.
That’s not a positive developmental environment for any 22-year-old, but it’ll be especially bothersome to see Shai taking on entire defenses after he found his groove last year as a secondary option, cutting off back screens and spotting up. Even when he was getting buckets more or less by himself, taking the ball from the top of the key to the rack, there was a fluidity to it: he’d get the pass and go immediately. Penetrating from a dead stop, having just walked over halfcourt, is a different skill, as is all the point guard-y stuff he has so far only dabbled in. He can make plays, but he’s never been expected to run an offense for 30, 35 minutes per night. And again: the guys he’ll be slashing and kicking to aren’t exactly Klay Thompson.
Many young players come into the league and, from the jump, their teams are terrible. We’ve decided that is fine, because not many 20-year-olds make a positive impact anyway. The primary thing they’re accomplishing over their first year or two is adjusting to how much quicker, stronger, and smarter NBA players are than college and AAU competition. But there comes a point when your burgeoning star needs a decent squad around them, so that they can begin to apply their general skills and knowledge to pressure situations, against opponents who are locked in because they’re down by two in the fourth quarter instead of up by 17. We’re seeing that now with the Atlanta Hawks, who made a big effort over the past couple months to put talent around Trae Young, so he can start testing himself at a higher level than before.
Shai is travelling in the exact opposite direction. He spent his first two seasons on solid teams and now what? He’s supposed to see if he can average 24 and 8 on a squad that misses the playoffs by 15 games? It’s not that the Thunder are doing the wrong thing in the broader picture, but at least for this season, they’re doing wrong by Shai, who doesn’t have much left to learn from participating in bad basketball. He’ll get a chance to explore the limits of what he can do as a number one option, which will be fun, until the losses begin to pile up and the malaise sets in. Maybe this will be only a one-year thing—if there’s any year to punt on, it’s this one—but wasted time and effort, especially from a player we’ve seen contribute to winning as much as Shai has early in his career, is still a waste.
More 2020 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
2017 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards