Regime changes, in the NBA, often have many casualties. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were long the only survivors of the Philadelphia 76ers’ infamous “Process” era; after the front office renewed once more, there was only Embiid. The Chicago Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas two years ago, and the only inherited players he’s kept are Zach LaVine and Coby White, with the clock ticking on White’s rookie deal. Danny Ainge has not been in charge of the Utah Jazz for very long, but he’s already traded everyone but Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley—and who says either of them is there for the long run?

Players get moved when executives change, yes, but they can also stay and get lost. And while Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder has kept his job there for 15 years, he aggressively shifted his edict in the summer of 2019, effectively becoming a different kind of team-runner. No longer in “win-now” mode, he has taken on a lens that many a young, confident, and developing player is worried to hear of: he’s been “collecting assets.” This has been going well, but if Presti is to learn from the lessons of previous versions of the project, it may be time for it to stop, even though the grand prize of Victor Wembanyama is theoretically just one more bad season away.

This is because the Thunder already have a star, who clearly wants to win as much as possible right now, and keeping him happier is likely more important than marginally increasing the odds on your NBA Powerball ticket. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 24 and too good to ignore, has started the season in All-Star form, averaging over 30 points and about six assists per game—if he wasn’t playing next to another able point guard, you could easily imagine that latter number jumping up dramatically. Gilgeous-Alexander is fast, crafty, accurate, explosive, intelligent, and hyper-confident. He can kill you off the ball or on it; in transition, or in the mid-post with practiced 90’s big man footwork. He can reliably draw a double-team in crunch time. We don’t have time to go over every way he can hurt the opponent.

Other teams have noticed—not that they didn’t see Shai already. But now they’re hoping that the Thunder do not alter course soon, so that their standout point guard may get frustrated enough to ask out and hit the trade market. That would be a thrilling development for the already spicy competitive balance of the league, but decidedly bad for OKC. Presti spoke to Gilgeous-Alexander’s commitment to the team in September, suggesting that any rumors of his availability were due to the generally insatiable nature of NBA media and its audience. Guilty. 

But whatever Shai has said in the past, and whatever he’s saying now, there is a psychic toll that comes with unserious basketball circumstances, and it can warp the confidence of competent players, making them worse versions of themselves—if it gets bad enough, it becomes kind of impossible for said players to flourish where they are, and necessary to send them off to bloom with a different team, in exchange for start-over talent. This is what Karnisovas deduced (probably rightly) about Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter, Jr. when he came to Chicago midway through their languishing; that a certain spiritual decay had already set in too deeply to be fixed in this place. Now, both are thriving elsewhere, and looking like the kinds of players that a middling Bulls squad could use.

Consider the far more dramatic past versions of the Sixers. At one point, they fielded a notoriously potent Summer League roster: alongside an exciting young Simmons, there was Alex Caruso, T.J. McConnell. Christian Wood, Jerami Grant, and Richaun Holmes. Simmons is his own curiosity, these days, but the rest of that squad is a heck of a lot of young talent that, because of how Philadelphia was running things, had to express itself elsewhere. This is exactly what fans of the Thunder would like to not be saying about their team, several seasons from this one.

So far, there haven’t been prominent red flags. Presti, it seems, has genuinely considered these perils along the way, and made sure the Thunder actively cultivate a familial culture; Shai has said as much, as recently as this past summer. But now comes that dreaded—but also, exciting—inflection point. Even with No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren and his nuclear defensive potential out for the season, the Thunder are already too good to lose with the worst of them. In order to maximize their lottery odds, they would certainly need to bench, rest, and otherwise hold back this talent.

There’s Shai, but Alexsej Pokusevski has also shown real signs in his third season, with huge jumps in his scoring efficiency and noticeably improved control of his super-lanky frame. Luguentz Dort has provided brawn all along, and Josh Giddey’s life as a secondary play-maker is only getting easier as his backcourt partner reaches the stratosphere. Jalen Williams looks ready as a rookie, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl appears to understand his role perfectly.  The Thunder aren’t ready to make noise in the playoffs, but they are ready to grow together, whether that’s part of the plan or not. That’s an undertaking in which timing is important: these guys have to start their win-some-lose-some grind together at some point, but it can’t just be any point, or whichever moment is most convenient for transactional purposes. It’s got to be now.