Where Do We Go From Here?
After the final buzzer rang in Game 7, the Thunder’s 2019-2020 season was over. It was truly a hard-fought series, with two teams going all out to save their season. Houston escaped by a James Harden whisker, the Rockets lived to play another day–and postponed the very awkward offseason that was looking them square in the eyes. Any concerns about their roster, coach, GM, or ownership got pushed down the road. Even a tough fought loss to the Lakers in the playoffs could make their immediate plans less nuclear than a first round exit would have.
As for the Thunder, their days of reckoning are upon them. Tough offseason decisions must be made that will affect not only the upcoming season, but the franchise’s future.
Run It Back
In this franchise defining offseason (seems like every year is now for Oklahoma City), Sam Presti has three options. In option 1, Presti decides to run it back. Bring back the team as it was by re-signing Danilo Gallinari, and refuse to trade Chris Paul and other vets. This would signal a belief that team has further potential to reach, and has not yet run its course. To me, this definitely seems the least likely to occur of the potential outcomes.
Coach Billy Donovan opting to turn down a two-year deal from the Thunder and “mutually agree to part ways” is a pretty clear indicator that a rebuild is on the horizon, instead of an all-in approach. Gallinari is an unrestricted free agent and would be expensive to re-sign, plus he’s on a different timeline from the team’s young core (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazely, and Lu Dort). It is much more likely that he leaves and signs with another team, or works with the front office on a sign-and-trade, which would allow OKC to receive some assets for him. Chris Paul is 35, and remains determined to win his first NBA Title, which is still rather unlikely in OKC in the short run.
While not publicly stated, it seems that there was a bit of an understanding between CP3 and Presti: the team would go all in this year, with complete support from all players, then look to help Paul get somewhere else after. Dennis Schröder has also made it clear that he wants to win and be a starter in this league. Like CP3, he also completely bought into the team-first mindset this year, sacrificing again as the Sixth Man because it was for the best of the team. When OKC hits the reset button, Dennis likely will be heading elsewhere. The future of Steven Adams is probably the murkiest of the veterans. He’s long been a culture standard bearer for the organization, and is one of only a couple of players left from the Durant-Westbrook Era. Sentimentally, and as a mentor, it makes a lot of sense to keep Adams around for the rebuild, but his next contract would need to be more team friendly. If a team offers a hefty package for him, however, Presti probably wouldn’t hesitate to pull the lever and deal him.
To some extent, the fate of the Thunder rests with Chris Paul. Much as it was during the season, what happens with CP3 determines the outcome. If Sam Presti is able to find a suitable trade with a contender (76ers, Bucks, etc.), one that allows CP3 to compete for a title while securing valuable assets for Thunder’s future, CP3 will be gone this offseason, officially kicking off OKC’s rebuild. If, however, no team is willing to take on CP3’s contract without further sweetener (draft picks), CP3 will remain in OKC for the near future.
This brings on option 2: treading water. In this scenario, Chris sticks around, while Presti starts shipping off other veterans (Gallinari, Schröder, Adams). This is the “middle ground scenario”, where the team is no longer as good as it was, but is not talent deprived enough to truly rebuild either. As long as Chris Paul is on the roster, this team will not be getting high lottery picks. To me, this would be the worst case possible. Teams either need to be good enough to truly contend for titles, or be so dreadful that they receive high lottery picks to supercharge their talent. Middle ground is NBA Purgatory, absolutely the worst place to be.
Finally, there is option 3, the full on rebuild, or “tank” as some like to call it. In this scenario, Presti has found a trade for Chris Paul, Gallinari is not re-signed, and other key vets are no longer on roster. The biggest thing to stress is patience, as Presti begins reshaping OKC into a powerhouse once more. OKC will officially go all in on the SGA, Bazley, and Dort experience, as they develop their talents, while trying to secure high lottery picks as well.
The rebuild will bring upon the “Dark Times” for Thunder fans, as OKC has been quite spoiled by a rather extended period of sustained success. But, after OKC acquires some truly awesome talent with those picks, the future will be bright. Pairing these future players with SGA, Bazley, and Dort will provide a reason to look forward to a truly special future.