The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder were the two winningest teams in the NBA from the time Clay Bennett moved the Seattle SuperSonics to his home back southwest until the time Chris Paul ended his second stint in his first home away from home.
Now just one and a half years the later, the Thunder and Spurs are in a tight race to finish lower than one another in the lottery standings for the NBA Draft. Goodbye Western Conference Finals battles, hello Tank Tussles.
Long gone are the days of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook versus Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan. Neither James Harden nor Manu Ginobli are walking through that Paycom Center door. When the Thunder face off against the Spurs on Wednesday night, one of the most intriguing storylines will be the fact that Josh Giddey and Joshua Primo are the two youngest players in the league. That’s a far cry from a primetime Slim Reaper vs. The Klaw showdown.
If you look closer, though, the matchup between Oklahoma City and San Antonio is a fascinating study of two former small market but mighty teams that have been forced to rebuild because the past faces of their franchises fled. Both teams are relying on front offices considered some of the best in all of sports to guide them through tanking terrains and find greener playoff pastures on the other side. The Spurs have an ace up their rebuilding sleeves in Gregg Popovich, while the Thunder have their own trump card in Sam Presti. San Antonio has an emerging star in Dejounte Murray and a couple other nice young players in Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker, while OKC has an emerging bigger star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a couple nicer younger players in Josh Giddey and Lu Dort.
But while the Spurs ultimately got the best of the Thunder in the last decade because they added a ring to the thumbs of Pop and Timmy in 2014, OKC has a big upper hand in the coming decade. Not only did Oklahoma City start their rebuild with a cheat code named Shai, Presti has a historical number of first round picks to build around SGA, Giddey and Dort. San Antonio has one extra first round pick: a protected 2025 selection from Chicago. That’s it. If the Spurs are going to infuse talent to excite a fanbase used to competing for championships and not ping pong balls, they’re going to have to rely on their own draft picks.
And that’s why Wednesday’s game within the game is the jockeying for lottery positioning. OKC is currently in the #4 spot with a 14-29 record, but hold a precariously paper-thin edge over the Myles Turner-less Pacers at 15-29. That edge is about two sheets thin over the Zion-less Pelicans and the now Bryn Forbes-less Spurs, both at 16-28. Trading away a 42% three-point shooter the night before battle was the Spurs’ first move. Mark Daigneault, you know the assignment: superglue the Moose’s caboose to the bench.
Thunder/Spurs tonight won’t have quite the same shine as one of their classic conference supremacy clashes featuring past franchise superstars. But the cornerstone superstars of both organizations’ futures may be impacted by which team can be more sorry for Jabari, wallow for Paolo or play like chet for Holmgren.
Basically, whichever of these two winningest teams of the past decade ends up winning by losing tonight and being one of the losingest teams this season will take a step in their goal to be one of the winningest teams of the next decade.
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We knew it already, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has reminded us of late that he is the Thunder’s timeline. He’s bounced back from an inefficient pattern, going toe-to-toe with Luka Doncic to drop 34 in last night’s close loss.
It’s not just that SGA is Oklahoma City’s best player. He’s its Timeline because he’s good enough to give them a developmental floor–both for winning more games than a typical rebuilding team now, and as a foundational piece to pair with other players then. OKC can’t lose in perpetuity with Shai, and they won’t be lacking for a blue chipper to go along with the star-hopefuls they’ll eventually pick near the top of the draft.
I came around to the Timline nickname because, to me, it entails more than just being a great talent on the court. Stars “getting it” can be almost as important to a team as getting the stars in the first place. And Shai gets it: he’s still feeling out more parts of his game, his long-term teammates, and playing the patient role of buying into the organization’s philosophy as the face of the team. We’ve not yet reached the first year of SGA’s max contract, but everything is entirely on track.
– Cray Allred
SGA balled out, but the Thunder came up just short in Dallas.
Nick Crain (Forbes) breaks down Bench Bazley. Surely our collective, effusive praise of Darius Bazley’s play off the bench didn’t jinx his 1-8 stinker last night?
Zach Harper (The Athletic) gives props to the Thunder for winning so many games thus far, but still thinks they can tank harder the rest of the way. “I said the Thunder wouldn’t make it to 18 wins, and they’re already at 14. That leaves them going just 3–37 the rest of the way. While that seems insane to believe in, I still think it’s possible.”