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The League Isn’t Ready for the Oklahoma City Thunder

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
The Thunder are ahead of schedule when it comes to their rebuild, and their win in the Play-in Tournament proved as much.

The Oklahoma City Thunder weren’t supposed to be here.

Heading into the 2022-23 campaign, the media and fan consensus was that OKC would compete in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. This thought was amplified when top draft pick Chet Holmgren was ruled out for the season with a foot injury and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed training camp with a knee injury. Many expected this team to finish with roughly the same record as last year’s (24-58).

“[Oklahoma City Thunder executive Sam] Presti has come this far. He’s not going to stop now,” a league executive told Bleacher Report in October. “The injury to [Holmgren] makes it easier. He’ll try to land twin towers with Wembanyama.”

Only one problem: Nobody told the Thunder.

OKC responded to the preseason non-hype by staying around .500 all season, ultimately finishing with a 40-42 record. While some may scoff at the still-losing record, the team more than doubled its win total from 2021-22. Not only that, but it was good enough to secure the 10th spot in the Western Conference, earning a date in the Play-in Tournament against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Led by a strong second-half performance from Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder struck in New Orleans to the tune of a 123-118 victory, keeping their season alive and setting up a date with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who fell to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday. The winner will be the No. 8 seed in a win-or-go-home situation. SGA finished with 32 points, while Josh Giddey nearly registered a triple-double with 31 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds.

“Essentially we in the play-in after everyone and they momma said we was finna be winning 12 games this year,” rookie Jalen Williams commented on SGA’s most recent Instagram post.

It was just another roaring example of the potential of this young core, one that’s still not even complete. While they may not have been among the worst teams this year in the race for Victor, the front office has a plethora of picks at its disposal over the next half-decade. Let’s break it down.

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The Current Roster

It may not be surprising to hear that the Thunder boast the youngest roster in the league. But did you know that it’s the second-youngest roster in the history of the NBA, at an average age of 22.7 years? Here’s their core:

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — 24
  • Lu Dort — 23
  • Josh Giddey — 20
  • Isaiah Joe — 23
  • Chet Holmgren — 20
  • Aleksej Pokusevski — 21
  • Jalen Williams — 21
  • Jaylin Williams — 20
  • Kenrich Williams — 28
  • Jeremiah Robinson-Earl — 24
  • Aaron Wiggins — 24
  • Tre Mann — 21

Now, this isn’t the entire roster, but it does include those that the front office plans to build around.

Let’s start with the obvious: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a star, literally. He was named an All-Star for the first time in 2023 and the team can build around him moving forward. Not only is he posting a career-high 31.4 points per game — good enough for fourth in the entire league — he’s doing so at a historic rate, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to average 30-plus points on a 50% field-goal percentage or higher for an entire season. The previous record-holder? Michael Jordan.

SGA is hardly the only stud on this team, though. Anyone who’s watched the Thunder knows that Giddey is as nice as they come, and at just 20 years old, has so much room to grow. The guy is an elite facilitator and floor general, which was obvious from Day 1, and is an ideal running mate next to SGA.

Not only that, but OKC has filled in so well on the margins. It found a gem in Lu Dort — a perfect complement to just about any team — signing him after he went undrafted in 2019. Now, he’s locked up through the 2025-26 season. They’ve also found contributors in Jalen and Jaylin Williams, both rookies who have played meaningful minutes for the squad throughout. The former Williams — the team’s 2022 first-round draft pick — has been especially impressive lately, posting averages of 18.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 45.1% from three.

And don’t sleep on Pokusevski, or Poku, as the team and fans like to call him. The 2020 first-rounder is seven feet with creation skills to boot.

Eventually, the team will have decisions to make, as many of these players are still on rookie deals. Ownership will have to open up its wallet to keep the right players on the roster. This brings us to…

Team Salary Cap

Outside of SGA and Dort, this team is essentially compiled of rookie salaries and veteran minimums. Gilgeous-Alexander is in the first year of a much-deserved designated rookie extension to the tune of five years and $179,299,750, while Dort also signed a contract extension last summer (five years, $82,500,000). The rest of the team makes the following:

All figures via Spotrac.

  • Chet Holmgren: $9,891,240
  • Dario Saric (aka The Homie, 76ers fans know what I’m talking about): $9,240,000
  • Josh Giddey: $6,287,400
  • Ousmane Dieng: $4,569,840
  • Jalen Williams: $4,341,480
  • Aleksej Pokusevski: $3,261,480
  • Tre Mann: $3,046,200
  • Jeremiah Robinson-Earl: $2,000,000
  • Kenrich Williams: $2,000,000
  • Jaylin Williams: $2,000,000
  • Lindy Waters III: $1,927,896
  • Isaiah Joe: $1,836,090
  • Aaron Wiggins: $1,563,518

While the Thunder will have to choose which players they’d like to pay down the line, the team will boast a decent chunk of cap space this summer, should it want to go after one of the available free agents. It’s an uninspiring list for this upcoming class, so don’t expect them to be aggressive in pursuit of any one player — but the option is there. And it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to grab a second-tier free agent while already boasting a star in SGA and a budding one in Giddey.

Should they want to spend this offseason, there’s a chance OKC could have anywhere between $28-35 million in cap space, depending on if they decide to waive certain players on non-guaranteed deals. With four such contracts on the books, should they waive them all, the team’s cap space projects to be on the higher end of that spectrum.

The Picks

If you watched Wednesday night’s play-in game, you likely saw how many times the broadcast mentioned the hoard of picks Sam Presti and the Thunder have for the next five NBA Drafts — 15, to be exact.

  • 2023: 2
  • 2024: 4
  • 2025: 4
  • 2026: 3
  • 2027: 2
Sam Presti Thunder
Bryan Terry / The Oklahoman / USA TODAY Network

Presti and Co. compiled most of these via trades after sending superstar players Paul George and Russell Westbrook out of OKC following the 2018-19 season. And while the team was too good this year to boast realistic odds to garner the No. 1 pick and the chance to draft Wemby, it’ll still be within the lottery of what many are deeming an extremely deep NBA Draft class. Additionally, if the front office wanted to, it could attempt to package its many picks — and maybe a player or two — to move up the draft order.

Moving Forward

Whether the team decides to package picks/players to move up in this year’s draft or perhaps swing big with a similar (or better) package to trade for a star player to expedite this rebuild while players are still on cheap salaries, OKC is sitting pretty. Shoot, it could stand pat with the current roster and, in theory, be even better next season as long as the young guys continue to develop. But with only a certain number of roster spots and an eventual money crunch, that’s unlikely.

The most important thing for Presti and the Thunder is that they have options. They’re not handcuffed by bad contracts or a lack of assets. How they handle it from here will set the tone moving forward. Will they take advantage and maximize the potential that exists within? Or will this be another “what-if” moment for the franchise that once boasted another young core in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook?

We’ll see if lightning strikes twice in OKC, but the Thunder are set to take the league by storm.