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Last year, in the 2022-23 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder finished in 10th place in the Western Conference.

Today, they are just one game back from the No. 1 seed.

Since being rebranded from the Seattle SuperSonics in 2008, the Oklahoma City Thunder have had their share of ups and downs. But after claiming the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference this season, NBA fans have taken notice of the young team and their future. 

“It’s easy to point out Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] being the player that stands out the most, but Jalen Williams deserves the spotlight here,” Edgar Ortiz, of New Jersey, told Slice of Culture. “With very efficient shooting splits and a balanced statline across the board, his contribution cannot be understated.”

A few years ago, NBA fans were hardly talking about the Thunder this way. But Thunder general manager Sam Presti foreshadowed these moments after the 2020-21 season where he said:

“When we do get back to the postseason, we want it to be an arrival, not an appearance,” Presti said. “… It takes time to retool. And the lottery will play a role with that.”

How They Got Here

The Thunder drafted three players in consecutive drafts (2007-2009) that ended up winning an MVP award. Two of them, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, ended up winning the award with the Thunder, while the third, James Harden, won it elsewhere. 

The three MVPs played together for three years and achieved one finals appearance until Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets after contract negotiations hit a roadblock. This turned out to be disastrous for the team, as Harden immediately blossomed into a superstar.

Westbrook and Durant played a couple more seasons together, and were at the verge of toppling the Golden State Warriors in 2016, who had just achieved the best regular season record of all time at 73-9. But they lost the series despite being up three games to one.

Had they won that 2016 series, they could have had the chance to win the championship against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The OKC franchise has just one NBA championship under their belt, and that was in 1979.

Hope then seemed to be lost after a pivotal moment for the NBA where Durant left the Thunder to join the team that beat them, which started a bigger rivalry between the two teams. At this point, the contention window for the Thunder was closed, despite trying to build a contending team for a couple more seasons. They acquired All-Stars and future All-Stars in Chris Paul, Paul George, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis during these years. 

The Thunder accepted defeat in 2019, when they traded Westbrook and his co-star Paul for a plethora of picks and one of them was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has emerged as a superstar since then. 

Westbrook was traded for Paul, who ultimately helped Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder make the playoffs in 2020. They almost defeated the Houston Rockets, who were led by both Harden and Westbrook.

The Rebuild

Following the 2019-2020 season, the Thunder officially decided to completely rebuild and trade all of their older players, including Paul. In NBA terms, a rebuild is when the upper management of a team seeks new pieces, including its players and sometimes coaching staff. 

OKC bottomed out in the lottery, selecting sixth and second in the 2022 and 2023 drafts respectively. This led them to draft Josh Giddey and Chet Holmgren. Giddey has been solid for the Thunder thus far, and Holmgren has been performing at an All-Star caliber level. 

The Thunder also drafted Jalen Williams and Cason Wallace within the past two drafts. Williams has shown flashes of developing into an All-Star, while Wallace has had a solid rookie year thus far.

This young core, which is the second-youngest in the league, is made up of: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (25); Chet Holmgren (21); Jalen Williams (22); Josh Giddey (21); Luguentz Dort (24); Ousmane Dieng (20); and Cason Wallace (20). They have propelled the Thunder to the top of the Western Conference, giving them a solid shot at taking the first seed of the league. 

In addition, they can control fourteen first round picks in the next six drafts, giving them the ability to draft more young talent or packaging them for bonafide superstars.

The only thing that the team had been lacking was playoff experience.

But now, after this past Thursday’s trade deadline, that issue has been solved. The Thunder acquired All-Star Gordon Hayward from the Charlotte Hornets; in return, the Hornets got Vasilije Micic, Tre Mann, Davis Bertans and two future second-round draft picks. For OKC, Hayward–who has appeared in the 2012, 2017, 2019 and 2020 playoffs–offers a shooter and drive-to-the-basket threat — when healthy. He is currently on a calf injury and hasn’t played a game since Dec. 26, which could mean extra time for adjustment. 

Rebuilds are common in the NBA, but it’s rare for it to work out, especially for a young team.

“This is a case where patience seems to be paying off, but rebuilding is never a sure thing like most might suggest,” Ortiz added. “Plenty of franchises have engaged in unsuccessful rebuilds. I don’t think this will be the case for OKC.”

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