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Surprise Contenders in NBA’s Western Conference?

Not so long ago the Oklahoma City Thunder were one of the best young teams in the NBA, seemingly destined for dynastic greatness. The core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden made quick work of the 2011-12 NBA Playoffs, sweeping the Dallas Mavericks and then making quick work of the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs before ultimately falling to the Dwyane Wade/LeBron James/Chris Bosh Miami HEAT in the Finals. Despite the loss, OKC looked like a team destined for greatness.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out. The following summer, James Harden’s contract became a huge distraction and led to him being traded to the Houston Rockets. Westbrook tore his meniscus in the first round and the Thunder lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round without him. Westbrook came back with a vengeance in 2013-14 and the team made it to the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Spurs. Injuries, particularly to Durant, derailed them the following season and cost them head coach Scott Brooks. New head coach Billy Donovan guided them back to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors and then Durant left for that same Warriors team. The promising core was no more and they have been rebuilding ever since.

Throughout the process, GM Sam Presti hoarded draft picks and bided his time. Now it looks like the time has finally arrived for Thunder fans.

The first reason for such optimism is the play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who just dropped 31 points, 12 assists and six rebounds in Canada’s FIBA win over a collection of his NBA brethren from Team USA. A few days earlier he also scored 31 points and grabbed 10 boards in a win over Luka Doncic and Team Slovenia, a game that had Doncic so frustrated that he was tossed.

“Congratulations to Canada, they played great,” Doncic said after the loss. “They have one of the best players in the world and it was really tough to guard him.”

“We play together, we play fast, we play tough, we’re pretty hard to beat,” Gilgeous-Alexander said to Sportsnet’s Arash Madani after the win. “We’ve just gotta keep imposing our will, imposing our identity on teams for 40 minutes and we’ll be alright.”

SGA’s play also has the attention of retired NBA All-Star point guard and Canadian Steve Nash.

“He has the game, the feel, the understanding of his responsibility in the moment,” Nash said after the win over Team USA. “It’s just a beautiful thing when you have a player like that in your arsenal.”

The Thunder’s rebuilding process has not been painless, but it could have been a lot worse. After all, they’ve only missed the playoffs for the past three seasons, and every step of the way measurable progress was made. Last season they were arguably one SGA abdominal strain away from making the playoffs as Josh Giddey, Lu Dort and Jalen Williams all took steps forward and helped the team make it into the play-in tournament. Now they have Chet Holmgren set to join the fray along with 2023 10th overall draft pick Carson Wallace, pieces who look like excellent additions to the existing core.

Make no mistake about it, the Thunder are for real, and with so many teams in the Western Conference faltering there’s every reason to believe they can contend this season. The Golden State Warriors have too many older guards and very little front court depth, the Los Angeles Clippers continue to rely on a critically flawed core, the Phoenix Suns undermined their own success when they acquired Kevin Durant, and the Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t figured out that Rudy Gobert and Karl Anthony-Towns aren’t an effective duo. All of those teams finished ahead of OKC last season and are unlikely to do so again this year.

The Los Angeles Lakers may have had the best offseason of any team in the West, while the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets didn’t need any big tweaks. The Memphis Grizzlies have to figure out what’s going on with Ja Morant, but by acquiring Marcus Smart they do have insurance against catastrophe. Expect that to be the company Sam Presti’s squad is keeping in the standings by mid-season.

“Anything you put your mind to, you can do if you work hard enough,” said Gilgeous-Alexander after Canada’s win over Team USA. “That’s pretty much been my mindset all my life.”

That mindset might just be the difference between the Thunder being classified as a rebuilding team and them gaining respect as legitimate contenders in 2023-24.


From The Hardwood Huddle:

The Boston Celtics made a big splash by signing Jaylen Brown to an historic contract over the summer. It’s a move they almost had to make, despite the fact that the duo of Jayson Tatum and Brown has failed to yield a championship for the team. Facing another season of doing the same things and expecting a different result has the Celtics Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

When Philadelphia 76ers GM Daryl Morey brought James Harden back into the fold, he invited his new team down the same path that led to him stepping down from his last one. Now The James Harden Train Wreck Has Left the Station, and it may cost the Sixers Joel Embiid and Morey his job.

The Dallas Mavericks’ front office continues to build a team that even Mavs Fans For Life (MFFL) will have a hard time loving. Only an unprecedented season from the enigmatic Kyrie Irving can save them. Dallas Mavericks Betting on Kyrie Cryptocurrency.

Throughout the rebuilding process, New Orleans Pelicans GM David Griffin has made all the right moves. Nonetheless, the team is set to face another long season of disappointment. From the front office to the coaching staff, the players and the fans, the Pelicans Do Not Deserve Their Fate.

Bill Ingram is Executive Editor for The Hardwood Huddle, a new website coming to soon from the creators of Back Sports Page. He has been covering the NBA for more than 20 years.


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