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A Defense of the Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder’s strategy has come under a lot of fire this week, here are the facts

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last week or so, we have heard a fair few pundits line up and take a swing at the Thunder’s rebuilding process. All of the criticisms has been along the lines of ‘the Thunder are ruining SGA’s career’ or ‘the Thunder’s rebuild is a black eye for the league’. Everything that has been said is misguided or genuine garbage.

I will lay out brick by brick why the Thunder’s process is no different to what has happened elsewhere around the NBA. All of these hot-takes are overly dramatic and have very little grounding in reality.

#1: The Thunder are wasting Shai’s career

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is often the centerpiece of all these discussions. A lot of these pundits find inconceivable that a great player is stuck on a rebuilding team at the start of its cycle. The truth is different to how the Thunder have been perceived.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is entering his third season with the Thunder and has already played playoff basketball in Oklahoma Blue at such a young age. In his first season with the team, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Thunder in scoring and into a first round match-up with the Houston Rockets.

He played relatively well against the much vaunted Rockets and the unfancied Thunder went seven games in the first round before eventually being eliminated. His last playoff game was 14 months ago. Devin Booker did not even see sight of the playoffs until his fifth season in the league.

There is no truth to this point at all, Gilgeous-Alexander has played meaningful basketball for the Thunder and would have led the Thunder into the play-in if he stayed healthy for a whole season. Oklahoma City went 16-19 with Shai in the lineup. That is a winning percentage of 45.7%. The Thunder would have won 33 games out of a 72 game season if Shai was healthy until the end of the season.

The San Antonio Spurs won 33 games and occupied the last spot of the play-in tourney. Gilgeous-Alexander did all of this with very little help. George Hill played 14 games and Al Horford only played 28 games. The veterans who knew how to win games were not always available for Shai to lean on.

There is no evidence to indicate that Shai’s career is being wasted unless you are a Kyrie Irving level of conspiracy theorist. That is unless you believe the next statement.

#2 Shai was not really injured and the Thunder deliberately tanked

This one is also complete garbage. Gilgeous-Alexander had plantar fasciitis in his foot and could not play without feeling excruciating pain. No other team is criticised for taking precautions with their star’s health.

In the 2019-20 season, Stephen Curry sat out three months with a broken metacarpal in his left hand. That injury usually takes two months to rehab before a professional athlete can step onto the court. The Warriors gained another month of gutless, godawful basketball with Curry out which only helped them in their tanking quest.

The Thunder were cautious with Shai’s plantar fasciitis but this does not mean that Gilgeous-Alexander had a fake injury. The counterpoint to the fake injury argument is evident by SGA’s decision not to join Team Canada for the Olympics.

The Tokyo Olympics was a golden opportunity for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to announce himself to the world. Jamal Murray was unavailable due to injury and Shai would have been starting point guard for Team Canada. It is a glory and an honour that is difficult to turn down.

Shai did not play in the Olympics and focused on rehabilitating his injury. If it was just a fake injury, you would have expected him to go to Japan and lead Team Canada.

#3 The Thunder are a black eye for the NBA

This argument makes me chuckle because it is wholly ridiculous. The Thunder have the 4th best winning percentage of any NBA team since 2011. Oklahoma City have won 60.9% of their games for ten years. In what way is that a black eye for the NBA?

The other point worth noting is that the Thunder have been to four Western Conference Finals, the NBA Finals and only missed the playoffs twice over the course of ten years. The Kings have not been to the playoffs in fifteen years.

The beloved Los Angeles Lakers went through years of sloppy, terrible basketball before LeBron James turned the team around. We never ever heard that the Lakers were a stain on the NBA’s product.

I have heard a fair few pundits focus on the Thunder’s approach to tanking being bad for the NBA as a whole. That statement is also a lot of waffle. The tank did not start in earnest until the middle of March. By my count, Oklahoma City tanked for two months as they tried to get a high draft pick.

The Thunder did nothing different when compared against teams like the Rockets, Pistons or Magic. The only difference was that the Thunder were frank about their decision to sit Al Horford for the last two months of the seasons.

You are entitled to believe that a professional basketball team should approach every single game with the aim of winning and not artificially affect results by sitting healthy players. I can understand that but there is a historical precedent already in place; Phoenix took the same course with Eric Bledsoe during their time stuck in the NBA’s cellar.

The length of the Thunder’s tank is incredibly short when measured against prior examples as well. Cleveland have spent three years since LeBron left doing nothing but losing. They have had Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro with no real tangible improvement to show for the injection of fresh blood.

The Philadelphia 76ers lost for three years straight during the Sam Hinkie era. Oklahoma City’s tank simply does not compare to either example.

The reality is that the Thunder are a bad team right now. Oklahoma City are very young and do not figure to win many games. This is a common issue for at least six teams across the league right now. It does beg a question why there is such an intense focus on the Thunder during this rebuilding period.

Regardless of what is being discussed and debated, Presti will unflinchingly pursue his plan. Presti has spoken about sustained success being the end goal for the Thunder; I cannot see Sam sacrificing that goal for a short-term gain.