“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Who knew that Charles Dickens’ iconic opening line from a novel published in 1859 would become the perfect prophetic summer summary of a basketball team in Oklahoma City 162 years later? Well, nobody did because James Naismith wouldn’t even start lobbing soccer balls into peach baskets until 32 years later and Oklahoma wouldn’t become the 46th state until 48 years later.
What’s the biggest lesson here, kids? Basketball is older than Oklahoma.
Let’s recap the Thunder offseason.
The Best of Times
OKC lands the #2 pick. Without a doubt, the most exciting single moment in Thunder hoops since trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George. For the first time in years, OKC fans felt a sense of hope that they could be contenders again one day. And it made two years of tanking absolutely worth all those tough losses and opposing fan ridicule.
OKC drafts Chet Holmgren. Some fans preferred Jabari Smith Jr, other fans preferred Paolo Banchero. But the majority of the Thunder faithful seemed to lean towards Chet’s massive upside inside a that tiny frame. Regardless of personal preference, any of the top three seemed like a slam dunk potential superstar at a position of need. Fan fervor reaches a fever pitch.
OKC drafts two more lottery picks. The news of OKC trading multiple draft picks for the #11 pick almost qualified for The Worst of Times, but then Woj dropped a magnificent bomb: OKC was keeping the #12 pick. No matter what anyone thought of Ousmane Dieng or Jalen Williams, the Thunder was walking away with 3 of the top 12 best and most buzzed about players in the draft.
Fans fall in love with the draft class. Chet’s skinny size but stout swagger. Two Ja(y)le(i)n Williamses. The Spider-Man memes. Dieng’s endearing humility. That infectious JWill smile. JDub’s prodigious Doogie Howser intelligence. Team Tik Tok dance videos. Social media back and forth barbs. These guys seem to be as fun off the court as they are potentially talented on the court.
Mike Muscala re-signs. The sharpshooting 7 footer, locker room leader and fan favorite signed a team friendly contract to stay in OKC.
Kenrich Williams extends long term. The Nick-ish plus minus king, Swiss army knife, locker room leader and fan favorite signed a team friendly contract to stay in OKC.
Lu Dort extends long term. Yeah, I know a vocal minority are muttering this one should be in The Worst of Times because of the financial terms of the contract. But keeping a 23-year-old defensive stopper with an improving offensive game that would be selected in the lottery of a 2019 re-draft and would be selected first in an Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Best Friends draft is the right move. Oh… and it turned out the contract was more team friendly than initially reported so even the naysayers turned to yaysayers.
Chet Holmgren is a Summer League star. Holmgren’s first game in a Thunder uniform, despite being a glorified pick up game against fellow rookies and sophomores, felt like the most hyped OKC game since Game 6 of the 2016 WCF. This one turned out slightly better. You couldn’t have dreamed of a better debut for the most important Thunder draft pick since James Harden. Chet’s final line: 23 points, 7 rebounds, 6 blocks, 4 assists, 1 steal and 4 of 6 shooting from 3. He’d go on to play several more games and though he never reached those first game heights again, Holmgren flashed his tantalizing all-world talent in every game.
Jalen Williams shows out in Summer League. Chet got all the hype. Ousmane got all the criticism. JWill got all the “now which Jalen Williams is he again, Linda??” confusion. But the player that saw his stock grow the most this summer was JDub. While some fans initially felt taking Williams at #12 was a reach, his play in Utah and Las Vegas put any of those doubts to rest. The combination of shooting, cutting, ball handling, passing, feel, IQ, length and bounce that JDub displayed in Summer League makes the lottery pick feel less like a reach and more like a steal.
OKC gets national press and relevancy again. For most of the team’s existence, the Thunder have been a marquee name. From the likable up and coming boy scout squad to the perennial powerhouse, the Thunder were yearly contenders that were featured prominently on national TV, Christmas Day games, magazines, social media, blogs, talking head debate shows and Game of Zones storylines. Despite the small market and short NBA history, OKC was a team that the league was more than proud to put front and center. That’s what Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul will do for you. OKC pivoting to a rebuild the last couple of seasons has threatened to lead to a result more painful than losing: irrelevancy. The only times the Thunder name has been in talking heads’ mouths lately has either been to falsely label OKC as the face of tanking or to try to ship Shai out to a contender. Enter Chet. Drafting a universally hyped, lanky 7’1” unicorn was a gamechanger. All of a sudden, OKC was being talked about daily on ESPN and Fox Sports. NBA analysts started taking notice of the Thunder’s exciting young core as Chet, SGA and Josh Giddey felt like the beginning of something special. The likes of KD, Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and Kendrick Perkins were tweeting their admiration of Chet’s game. The tanking felt completely worth all those blow out losses and G League lineups. The future looked bright. The Presti Plan was coming together.The sun was shining again in Loud City.
The Worst of Times
Chet Holmgren gets injured and will miss the 2022-2023 season. Oh give me a freaking break.
One final note. The Thunder’s offseason was the best of times in Oklahoma City, the homebase of Sam Presti’s draft day war room and all those contract extensions. And it was the worst of times when Chet slipped on a court in… Seattle. Dickens knew exactly what he was doing when he titled that novel A Tale of Two Cities.