On July 11, 2019, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul, Houston’s 2024 and 2026 first round draft picks, and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. For the first time ever, the Thunder’s fiery leader, triple-double king, and most-beloved figure is no longer a member of the team. Also gone, Paul George, in a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers, and Jerami Grant to the Denver Nuggets.
So it was, after nine playoff appearances in eleven years, the Thunder faced a season full of the unknown.
“I didn’t expect them to be this good,” said Andrew, a Thunder fan preparing to watch the team take on the Atlanta Hawks. “I thought it was a rip down to the studs and start over type year.”
Paul, another Thunder fan in attendance at last Friday’s game against the Hawks, agreed. When asked if he thought the team would be good this year, Paul laughed and replied, “Not that good.”
Early in the year, when the team was competitive but losing, it almost seemed like a foregone conclusion that OKC would flip its tradeable assets to add to its unprecedented stash of draft picks and young players. In fact, from the moment the Paul for Westbrook trade was announced, speculation ran rampant that Paul’s stint in Thunder blue would be brief, if non-existent. The Point God, as he’s appropriately known, is in his 15th season, which defies the common perception that the Thunder want to stock up on young talent and rebuild. Importantly, Paul is just in the second year of a four-year, $160 million contract, with the fourth year a player option for an astounding $44 million.
Yet, 48 games into the season, the Thunder are 28-20 and sit firmly in seventh place in the Western Conference. Excluding the first 17 games, the Thunder have won at a 71% clip, a 58-win pace. Despite expectations that the team would struggle, the Thunder are legitimately good.
But February 6, 2020 looms large. The NBA trade deadline. With reports throughout the season that virtually everyone on the Thunder roster could be available in a trade, and interest from teams in Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams and Chris Paul, the potential impact of the trade deadline is as big as any other season in Thunder history.
Sam Presti finds himself with a difficult decision ahead. Keep this roster intact for a playoff run (or even try to add some pieces to move up in the Western Conference hierarchy) or be active at the deadline, moving talented players to add to the team’s historic war chest.
Presti will never show his cards, but fans of the team certainly have no qualms sharing their opinions on the matter.
Mickey, a Thunder fan dressed from head to toe in Thunder apparel–even down to the socks– would hate to see a key piece, such as Gallinari or Adams, traded. “I would probably be pretty upset [if we traded a key contributor].” When asked if the Thunder should be aggressive to get better, Mickey didn’t hesitate, “I think we should win.”
Greg agreed. “I’m loving the chemistry that they have right now and hoping that they don’t trade anybody… I like all those guys and wish they could stay around.”
Other fans, however, are enjoying the ride but prepared for anything. “It would be tough to see any [player] go. I really like all of them,” said Andrew.
Amy, a season-ticket holder from the beginning, hopes the team remains intact, but understands the difficult decisions that lie ahead. “I’ve had more fun this season watching the Thunder since [the second] season… I’d be disappointed if we traded a key piece [such as] Paul, Adams, Gallinari, Schroeder.” But Amy acknowledged that the future matters, too, “[If the Thunder did make a trade], I’d hope it’s for the betterment of the future.”
Ultimately, it seems the pulse of Thunder Nation is awareness that the team has options this season. “For this year, I’m good with just about everything,” said Don, a reader of Daily Thunder. “I’d love for them to make a playoff run.” But like Amy, Don wants a better future for the Thunder, more than a present in the playoffs.
“By opening night next year I want to see some progression toward returning to the elite tier and not a team that will perennially fight for the 8 seed.”
No matter the decision made, though, Presti will at least have Andrew’s full confidence.
“I trust Presti. I’ll leave it to him.”