It had been a circuitous journey to hope, sparked by the departure of Kevin Durant in 2016. There was Russell Westbrook’s MVP yr, a statistical explosion that by no means promised a lot when it comes to success in playoffs. Then, the shock arrival of Paul George, who turned out to be fleeting and rapidly forgotten. Chris Paul got here on as Westbrook’s alternative for a memorable pit cease, however quickly he too was searching for greener pastures. Left within the wake of that famous person revolving door: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 2021 lottery decide Josh Giddey and a comically lengthy checklist of future asset initiatives.
However June introduced the Thunder, who gained simply 24 video games final season and 22 the yr earlier than, a brand new franchise mainstay in Chet Holmgren. In July, Gonzaga’s No. 2 general decide had put Oklahoma Metropolis again on the “should see” checklist for die-hard League Cross followers, due to his standout play alongside Giddey in the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas summer leagues. Sadly, catastrophe struck in August when 20-year-old Holmgren suffered a foot injury whereas defending LeBron James in a pro-am sport in Seattle.
Holmgren’s damage, which can drive him to put on a crimson shirt for his rookie season, is fueling critics who’re satisfied that his lanky 7-foot, 195-pound frame will not be capable of stand up to the pains of the NBA. Extra instantly, his absence destabilizes Oklahoma Metropolis’s protracted rebuilding effort as issues started to fall into place.
The upcoming season was meant to be a carefree and joyous expertise for the Thunder, with Gilgeous-Alexander serving as the principle choice, Giddey pushing the tempo and Holmgren wowing viewers along with his blocking and taking pictures abilities. Thunder president Sam Presti drafted a wave of rookies and bolstered his supporting solid by rewarding Lu Dort (5 years, $82.5 million) and Kenrich Williams (4 years, $27.2 million) with new contracts. Whereas there have been certain to be rising pains, particularly for the scrawny Holmgren, Oklahoma Metropolis seemed poised to climb over the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets into the Western Convention’s high tier. It promised to be a step ahead, competitively and aesthetically.
Even so, shared improvement remained the highest precedence for a roster that was the youngest within the NBA final season. Holmgren and Giddey displayed immediate chemistry in the summertime ball, anticipating one another’s strikes 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 means created driving lanes for his Aussie teammate. Till Holmgren returns, the 19-year-old Giddey should shoulder a heavier burden and switch to his fragile outdoors jumper extra usually.
There’s nonetheless loads of time for Holmgren and Giddey to refine their on-court bond, although the identical cannot essentially be assumed relating to Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s coming into his fourth season in Oklahoma Metropolis. The 24-year-old Canadian guard is arguably essentially the most underrated participant within the NBA, averaging 24.5 factors, 5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per sport in relative obscurity final season.
Gilgeous-Alexander has solely simply begun a five-year, $173 million extension, however he’ll nonetheless spawn a relentless stream of commerce rumors provided that he is a rising star in a small market enjoying for a workforce that is a great distance off. years of competing. Delete Murray and Donovan Mitchell matched related payments, and each have been handled to packages loaded with picks and leads this summer time. Gilgeous-Alexander occurred to be on the opposite facet of that recurring phenomenon because the centerpiece of Oklahoma Metropolis’s profitable 2019 comeback for George.
Set to enter this season with out Holmgren or any main free company additions, one of the best ways ahead for the Thunder is to hurry down once more. Regardless of its warfare chest of future draft property, Oklahoma Metropolis has just one 2023 first-round decide to chase potential franchise gamers like Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson: its personal. Pairing Holmgren (7ft 6in wingspan) and Wembanyama (7ft 4in with an 8ft wingspan) can be a shocking proposition, a frontline tandem worthy of “House Jam 3”. To maximise their probabilities of doing so, Oklahoma Metropolis should put together for one more deliberate shedding streak late within the season.
Regularly promoting persistence to a participant like Gilgeous-Alexander is difficult, particularly after shutting him down early to get into the draft in every of the previous two seasons. This shrewd technique has clearly benefited Oklahoma Metropolis’s long-term prospects, but it surely leaves Gilgeous-Alexander at an obstacle to his friends who get pleasure from postseason showcases and star-studded applause. A franchise can solely play this card a sure variety of instances earlier than it should ship a long-promised payout.
San Antonio seemingly concluded that Murray was not a franchise-changing expertise and that it was finest to pursue a full rebuild with out him. Perhaps Oklahoma Metropolis will weigh an analogous calculation by the February commerce deadline or subsequent summer time. However, Murray, nonetheless solely 25, appeared thrilled by the prospect of placing a shotgun on Trae Younger on the Atlanta Hawks. Gilgeous-Alexander cannot be blamed if he is uninterested in beginning summer time trip in March.
Holmgren may nonetheless shut that hole. Spurs did not have one other budding star alongside Murray, and so they definitely did not have a franchise massive man with the upside-down Defensive Participant of the 12 months whose stellar league debut in summer time drew praise from Durant. Likewise, Utah moved Mitchell partly as a result of its roster lacked promising younger sidekicks.
If everybody in Oklahoma Metropolis stays centered on the imaginative and prescient, Holmgren’s misplaced season may probably be remembered as a boring sidestep on the way in which again to constant profitable. In any case, Joel Embiid turned an MVP candidate after lacking his first two years in Philadelphia. There are additionally loads of grim options to contemplate when vital younger males undergo critical accidents early of their careers.
“I can not wait to play hoop once more”, Holmgren tweeted sunday, expressing a sentiment absolutely shared by the Thunder and its followers, who haven’t seen the workforce win a playoff collection since Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. Given the sudden change in circumstances this summer time, the wait guarantees to be agonizing.