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Why the Thunder need to make a ‘win now’ move before the NBA Trade Deadline

Oklahoma City is ahead of schedule and there’s no time like the present to capitalize on that. We go over why the team should go ‘all-in’ at the deadline to push for a title run.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Phoenix Suns
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren of the Oklahoma City Thunder react during the game against the Phoenix Suns on November 12, 2023 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder made a run to the NBA Finals in the 2011-12 lockout shortened season with a young core featuring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. The Thunder had been building this core through the draft over the years, putting together an exciting roster local fans could rally around as the franchise relocated from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains.

After a 23-59 campaign in the first season, the Thunder made the playoffs in the next two years. They would be eliminated by the eventual NBA champions in both instances but this run to the Finals served as optimism for the years to come. Here’s a look at that core from 2011-12:

Kevin Durant (23 years old) - 28 ppg, 8 rpg, 3.5 apg
Russell Westbrook (23 years old) - 23.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 5.5 apg
James Harden (22 years old) - 16.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.7 apg
Serge Ibaka (22 years old) - 9.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.7 bpg

This team won 47 out of 66 games, a pace that would give them 58 or 59 wins over a full 82-game season. Even though the Thunder would lose to the more experienced Heat 4-1 in that final series, this was looking like the next dynasty in the NBA. And suddenly, it was done.

How everything fell apart for the original Thunder stars

Harden was the first to depart due to contract issues and the desire for a bigger role. Durant was the next to leave, a seismic blow to the franchise after it ceded a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals the previous postseason. Ibaka also departed, leaving Westbrook to try to carry the franchise himself. And eventually, he got tired of doing that.

All four players are still playing professionally, with Durant, Harden and Westbrook still in the league. Those three are on championship contenders, with the latter two being teammates on the Clippers. Durant and Ibaka won championships outside of Oklahoma City, while Harden and Westbrook both have MVP awards after the complete breakup of the core. These four players have had plenty of success, and it’s a bittersweet pill Thunder fans and ownership have to swallow.

The Thunder did try to patch together the franchise, trading for Paul George to pair with Westbrook. When that effort didn’t materialize as expected when George reneged on his contract commitment, the team went for a rebuild. There were two rough seasons but the Thunder made a surprising run to the play-in tournament in 2022-23. And this year, Oklahoma City is ready to be a playoff force.

The new “Core Four” for Oklahoma City

At the epicenter of this rebirth is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who began his career with the Clippers. Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed into a superstar point guard, and has been locked in on a long-term deal. And while it would be unfair to compare him to Durant, he’s the new focal point of this franchise.

Behind Gilgeous-Alexander’s consistent development, the Thunder sit at 27-13 heading into Thursday’s showdown against the Jazz. They are on pace for 55 or 56 wins, and they have a new young core which appears ready to contend for the next decade or more. Here’s a look at their numbers this season ahead of Thursday’s game.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (25 years old) - 31 ppg, 6.3 apg, 5.7 rpg
Chet Holmgren (21 years old) - 17.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.5 bpg
Jalen Williams (22 years old) - 18.6 ppg, 4.4 apg, 4.1 rpg
Josh Giddey (21 years old) - 11.8 ppg, 4.6 apg, 6.1 rpg

While they don’t necessarily fit into the same roles as the Thunder core from 2011-12, they do share some similarities. SGA is clearly in Durant’s role, while Giddey is the Swiss Army knife Harden projected to be. Giddey was recently cleared of off-court allegations, so we’ll see if that development helps his focus on the court a bit more. Holmgren has shades of Ibaka as a rim protector, while Williams provides the explosiveness of Westbrook.

These four players, along with Lu Dort, form one of just five five-man lineups to play 400+ minutes this season. They are +79 in those minutes, behind only the Nuggets and Bucks. When the 400+ minute threshold is removed, Oklahoma City is only behind the best combination of Philadelphia, Denver, Boston, Milwaukee, Minnesota and the Clippers when it comes to plus/minus for five-man lineups. The Thunder are +1800 to win the NBA title according to DraftKings Sportsbook, which are the seventh-best odds. They have the fourth-best odds to win the West at +750.

What the Thunder should do at the 2024 NBA Trade Deadline

The Thunder are ahead of schedule but they know all to well that this can be over in a flash. They can’t allow what happened just over a decade ago to happen again, and they do seem to be a better spot when it comes to finances. SGA’s extension is locked in, but Giddey, Holmgren and Williams are still on their rookie deals. Giddey’s extension opportunity will kick in soon though, and Holmgren and Williams will follow within a couple seasons of that. Even though the Thunder have the right to match offers in restricted free agency, they ideally don’t want it to get to that point. And the new CBA has harsher penalties for franchises that continue to push into the luxury tax, something Oklahoma City has been hesitant to do. That means this trade deadline is massive for the Thunder.

Oklahoma City is still swimming in first-round picks, and there’s just no way it can use all those selections to fill out the roster and make every player pan out. That’s not a feasible path, even for a franchise with a strong track record for player development. The Thunder also have a sizable Davis Bertans deal and an expiring Aleksej Pokusevski contract that can be combined to create a nice salary filler without dealing any of the core players. That makes Oklahoma City a contender for a decent move.

The most obvious deal is a reunion with Jerami Grant, who is averaging 21.4 points per game and shooting 41.7% from deep on a Trail Blazers team going nowhere. Grant provides a veteran three-and-D presence Oklahoma City could use in many lineups, although his big long-term contract is a complication. Hornets forward Gordon Hayward has declined and is currently injured, but he’s on an expiring deal and does have 29 career playoff games under his belt. When engaged, he can be a capable scorer and defender. Sixers forward Tobias Harris also fits the bill as an expiring deal but Philadelphia is a contender and won’t give him up.

The other big options at the deadline don’t make much sense for Oklahoma City. Hawks guard Dejounte Murray is an All-Star level player but he’s slipped tremendously this season and plays a position the Thunder are already loaded at. Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma can fill it up but is a defensive liability and is on a big long-term deal. The Jazz, who are in the play-in mix, are unlikely to give up Lauri Markkanen. Donovan Mitchell has been balling out for the Cavaliers, who are in the thick of the East playoff picture. Bulls guard Zach LaVine combines the problems of Murray and Kuzma.

Barring a complete disaster in the second half, the Thunder should make the playoffs. However, they cannot go into the thick of the trade season believing this core will continue making playoff pushes at this level. The NBA is starting to see more parity, and the Western Conference is particularly deep. As of this writing, there are 10 teams with at least 21 wins as we hit the halfway point of the campaign. Five teams have at least 25 wins. Oklahoma City has a lot to be excited about but that also comes with the expectations of winning. And we know how that went the first time around.

The Thunder can’t allow history to repeat itself, and there are deals out there for Oklahoma City that wouldn’t gut the current four-man core. There will be financial considerations, but there’s also the possibility of the Thunder making a deep playoff run. Sam Presti has long been viewed as one of the best, if not the best, general manager in the NBA. It’s time for him to work his magic and make a “win now” move for this team.