It’s time to get serious about the Oklahoma City Thunder

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

That’s as much confirmation as you’ll 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, took over responsibilities from his mentor, Billy Donovan, in 2020 shortly after Chris Paul led the Thunder to a fifth seed in the Western Conference in a surprising fashion. They traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook for a boatload of draft picks the previous summer, and general manager Sam Presti further deconstructed the roster, disposing of veteran starters Paul, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams.

They tried to lose, and they did, posting the league’s fourth-worst record each of the past two seasons. The Thunder served as an infirmary for ailing contracts, routinely resting their best players for long periods of time and fielding 65 different starting lineups. None of the five-man unit that started last season’s final four games are currently on an NBA rotation. Three of them are not even in the league.

The NBA reportedly pushed Sam Hinkie out of his front-office post on the Philadelphia 76ers for relying on the same years-long process, before the fruits of his tanking (namely Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) ever played together. Presti is free to push through with his plan, if he’s not chasing a bigger market, and it’s already paying off, largely because Daigneault has fostered a competitive culture in a losing atmosphere.

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

Conventional wisdom pinpointed Gilgeous-Alexander as the next disgruntled NBA. He was the best player most fans have never seen, stuck in Oklahoma City where they would rather he had no influence on winning a regular season. It was enough for any player to rethink the direction of his career.

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The Thunder may also have considered dealing Gilgeous-Alexander. He should have been given a maximum rookie extension of $179 million, and there was no guarantee they would be good by the time it was over in 2027.

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

It took an incredible amount of trust in each other for Gilgeous-Alexander and Presti to walk this path in the face of 46 combined wins over the past two seasons, and it looks like they’ve 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 fell to 11-18, third from the bottom of the league. West, exactly where forecasters expected it to be. “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 middleman between them is Daigneault, whose young Thunder plays harder than anyone else in the NBA. They lead the league in loose balls recovered and attacks drawn and rank third in game shots. Two years away from 24th, their defense is in the top 10, despite the absence of an edge-protecting center. They are 2-8 when shooting better than 39% from 3-point range, a testament to their ability to win with grit.

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

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The Thunder are now entrenched in a hunt for the last few playoff seeds. They are one loss behind the sixth-place Los Angeles Clippers and lead the LA Lakers in twelfth by the same margin. Teams between the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, among others. Gilgeous-Alexander has been as good, if not better, than any superstar on those teams, including LeBron James, Devin Booker, and Stephen Curry.

That includes George, whose trade request from the Thunder to the Clippers in 2019 led to this rebuild. In addition to Gilgeous-Alexander, Presti squeezed five first-round draft picks and two pick swaps out of his rival’s desperation. Oklahoma City has already converted two of those rosters in 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 middle of the playoff chase and looking up to all but the tanking San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Oklahoma City’s last 12 wins include four against lottery-tied teams and wins 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 much more reason for optimism.

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

Gilgeous-Alexander is a paradigm-shifting force, and he does it without the distance advantage of his own 3-point shot (35.5% on just 2.8 tries per game) or his teammates. If Isaiah Joe hadn’t 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 looking for someone to shoot better than the league average at a healthy volume.

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

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In the process, the Thunder has identified complementary players that should develop alongside them. Williams has the makings of a 3-and-D wing that can create if given a chance on the weak side. Lu Dort could be an All-Defensive guard. All four are among 13 players on the roster who are not yet 25 years old.

The Thunder insisted on including Aleksej Pokusevski in that core, and he has helped their tanking efforts. His on-off difference of -19 points per 100 possessions is among the worst in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. Admittedly the sample size isn’t overwhelming, but simply trading forward Mike Muscala for Pokusevski in a lineup that includes Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Dort and Williams will take the Thunder from being outscored by 24.5 points to being outscored by opponents with 24.5 per 100 possessions. Kenrich Williams has produced similar positive results acting as a 6-foot-6 stretch center in small ball setups.

Now imagine replacing either one with Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick last June. He’s a 7-footer with the potential to protect the rim, shoot from range, and create an elite-level attack. 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 during an exhibition game .

This should be a winning roster next season, before any of their core members reach their peak. They also have a whopping 13 first-round picks — mostly from the Clippers and Rockets — for the next five drafts. That gives them the opportunity to participate in any trading discussion in a market that will not attract free agents.

More importantly, they have the identity Daigneault instilled and Gilgeous-Alexander embodied at Presti’s trial. They play hard. They like each other. And they have shown collective improvement through adversity. Hinkie’s Sixers could never say that, even if they ended up being a perpetual 50-win team. The Thunder is no longer just an NBA team in theory. They are a contender on their come-up.

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Ben Rohrbach is a senior NBA writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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