The Oklahoma City Thunder have not been great at shooting (24th in effective field-goal percentage), passing (25th in assist rate) or rebounding (26th in rebounding percentage) the basketball, and yet here they are, a shade below .500 after the NBA season’s midway mark and squarely in the play-in tournament mix.
That is as ringing an endorsement as you will find for Mark Daigneault’s Coach of the Year candidacy, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s All-NBA campaign and the Thunder’s prospects as a perennial contender on the rise.
Daigneault, 37, assumed responsibilities from his mentor, Billy Donovan, in 2020, shortly after Chris Paul led the Thunder on a surprising run to a fifth seed in the Western Conference. They traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook for a boatload of draft picks the summer before, and general manager Sam Presti further deconstructed the roster, shedding veteran starters Paul, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams.
They were trying to lose, and lose they did, logging the league’s fourth-worst record each of the past two seasons. The Thunder served as an infirmary ward for distressed contracts, routinely rested their best players for long stretches and fielded 65 different starting lineups. Nobody on the five-man unit who started the final four games of last season is currently in an NBA rotation. Three of them are not even in the league.
The NBA reportedly pushed Sam Hinkie from his front-office post on the Philadelphia 76ers for trusting the same years-long Process, before the fruits of his tanking (namely Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) ever played together. Presti has free rein to see his plan through, if he does not bolt for a bigger market, and it is bearing fruit already, largely because Daigneault has fostered a competitive culture in a losing atmosphere.
Conventional wisdom pegged Gilgeous-Alexander as the next NBA malcontent. He was the best player most fans never got a chance to see, mired in Oklahoma City, where they preferred he not impact winning down the stretch of a regular season. It was enough for any player to reconsider the direction of his career.
The Thunder might have considered dealing Gilgeous-Alexander, too. He was due a $179 million maximum rookie extension, and there was no guarantee they would be any good by the time it was through in 2027.
Only, a funny thing happened between the…