One shot ended an era of Thunder basketball.
It was a 40-foot prayer from Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, heaved over Paul George as time expired in Game 5 of the Western Conference first round.
The shot dropped, nothing but net. The Portland crowd erupted. The Blazers were advancing to the second round, a feat the Thunder has yet to achieve in the post-Kevin Durant era.
A few months after this series, all-star Paul George requested a trade. Once George was traded, fellow superstar Russell Westbrook voiced his desire to be moved. Both stars netted Thunder General Manager Sam Presti a lucrative stockpile of draft picks and a hodgepodge mix of veterans and young players, including nine-time all-star Chris Paul.
With some scattered talent but no true superstar, Vegas oddsmakers set the Thunder’s win/loss line at 32.5 going into this season. For the first time in a decade, it would be a year of rebuilding and retooling, with the Thunder selling off its veteran pieces for more unproven young players and draft picks.
More than halfway through the season, Vegas has been dead wrong.
The Thunder now sits at 26-19, good for the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They have gone 20-8 since Thanksgiving, a 59 win pace over an 82 game schedule. The Thunder has also found its composure on the road, going 12-4 after starting 0-6.
It is without a doubt a new era of Thunder basketball, with new players and a new play style—but they just keep winning.
Veteran point guard Chris Paul is terrorizing opponents with clutch shooting and elite playmaking. Second-year player Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is leading the team in scoring and drawing high praise from NBA executives and writers alike.
Steven Adams is owning the paint, Danilo Gallinari is on fire from three and Dennis Schroder is a leading candidate for sixth man of the year.
In a league where the top superstars dominate headlines and shape the direction of the league, this unlikely group of established veterans and young prospects is playing as a unit and turning heads in the process. With their unexpected success in mind, a conundrum persists. Should GM Sam Presti try to net even more picks by trading veterans like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari at the Feb. 6 trade deadline?
My opinion is no, at least not until the offseason.
The Thunder does not have the talent of elite contenders like the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. Their bench outside of Schroder and center Nerlens Noel is questionable, and they lack a true superstar required to win a championship. The Thunder will not, barring some kind of miracle, win a championship in 2020.
What they can do is hang in there with any team in the league. They have beaten all but two of the current Western Conference playoff teams and are within 3 games of the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
A spirited run to the second round would solidify Oklahoma City as a basketball town—not just the former home of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Trading talent away to get the 12th pick instead of the 20th pick, especially in a weak draft class, just does not seem worth it, especially when you consider the Thunder has a stockpile of picks from several different teams. Why tank when you can have other teams do it for you?
Winning a championship is the ultimate goal for any NBA franchise, but winning games and making the playoffs is an accomplishment in its own right. Winning games is fun. Playing in the playoffs, even if you are not the favorite, is fun. The Thunder should take advantage of this opportunity to compete one last time before it focuses on acquiring and rebuilding around young talent.