Six Octobers ago, Kevin Durant played his final BOK Center basketball game. In October 2019, Russell Westbrook made his final appearance in Tulsa’s downtown arena.
In October 2012, the star power of Durant and Westbrook was the reason why the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled a crowd of 18,233 to the BOK Center. At that time, it was the arena’s attendance record, and those people packed the place for an NBA preseason game. Essentially, for a scrimmage.
The Thunder roster no longer includes MVP-caliber players like the ones drafted by the organization in 2007 (Durant), in 2008 (Westbrook) and in 2009 (James Harden).
For every organization, a time comes when an extensive rebuild becomes necessary. For fans of every professional team in every sport, there are periods of depression. There is a season, or seasons, during which their favorite team isn’t very good.
For the Thunder, the rebuild began last season and continues in 2021-22.
Before a nasal swab last year, your medical professional might have said, “You’re about to feel a little discomfort.” As Thunder fans roll through the BOK Center turnstiles on Thursday (for OKC’s annual Tulsa preseason game) and into OKC’s Paycom Center on Oct. 24 (for the regular-season home opener against Philadelphia), the same sort of message would be applicable: “You’re about to feel a little discomfort — and it may last for about six months.”
As the Thunder prepares to start its 14th season in Oklahoma, the grim reality is that Oklahoma City may finish with the NBA’s worst record.
On its NBA over-or-under win-total propositions, the Caesars Sportsbook has OKC at a league-low 22½ — the same as a year ago.
If you were the holder of an over ticket, you felt good when the 2020-21 Thunder had 21 wins with 10 games remaining — and felt sick when the Thunder was 1-9 in those final 10.
After that OKC squad shifted into full tank mode, it lost 23 of its final 25 games, including setbacks of 57, 48, 39, 38 and 37 points. By the end of a 72-game regular season, Oklahoma City had more starting-lineup combinations (30) than wins (22).
Hope for something better is pinned to the development of young veterans like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Theo Maledon and Darius Bazley, and whether rookies Josh Giddey (the sixth pick overall) and Tre Mann (18th overall) are immediately viable and eventually can become difference-makers.
I bet Giddey winds up being one of the league’s five best rookies this season, but the 6-foot-8 Australian is young. His 19th birthday was this week.
General manager Sam Presti has collected an unbelievable stash of draft picks — 18 first-round picks over the next six NBA drafts — so there’s the hope that the Thunder can draft and develop talented winners. At some point, Presti may bundle a package of picks in an attempt to acquire an All-Star veteran.
There’s the potential, of course, that OKC may once again become competitive in the Western Conference, but when?
Presti: “We aren’t looking to short-term solutions to a long-term project.”
Second-year Thunder coach Mark Daigneault: “There are no shortcuts.”
What that means: The loyalty and patience of the Thunder fan base will be tested.
On Thursday, OKC faces Denver in the final game of its four preseason dates. It’s a back-to-back situation as the Thunder hosts Denver on Wednesday night at the Paycom Center (formerly known as Chesapeake Energy Arena) in Oklahoma City.
For the 12th time, the Thunder has a preseason game at the BOK Center. There was no Tulsa appearance in October 2011 (because a work stoppage resulted in a shortened regular season that didn’t begin until December) and in 2020 (because of COVID-19).
During a span of 11 seasons (2009-10 through 2019-20), the Thunder made 10 playoff appearances. In 2011-16, OKC drove to the Western Conference finals on four occasions. In 2012, Durant, Westbrook and Harden carried OKC to the Finals.
If not for perhaps the most infamous collapse in Oklahoma sports history, the 2016 Thunder would have returned to the Finals. Durant’s last OKC team had a 3-games-to-1 lead over 73-win Golden State, but the Warriors rallied for three wins. As a free agent, Durant responded by signing with the Warriors and winning two titles before moving on to Brooklyn.
Even after Durant departed, the Thunder was sustained as a playoff presence for four seasons. The 2019-20 season was expected to have been lousy, but the Chris Paul-captained Thunder was fun to watch and far more successful than expected.
When COVID-19 resulted in the stoppage of that regular season, Oklahoma City had prevailed in 19 of its previous 23 road games. If not for the stoppage, that Thunder team would have recorded an overall total of at least 50 wins.
As the sports world takes steps toward the restoration of our previous normal, the upcoming NBA regular season once again is an 82-game marathon.
There was no live attendance in OKC last season. This season, for the Tulsa game and for at least the first 12 regular-season home games in Oklahoma City, the gates are open to fans who can provide proof of a partial or full COVID vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of the game. Fans seated at courtside are required to wear face coverings.
While it’s impossible for Presti’s rebuild to be a quick process, tanking is a miserable experience. Please, please, please — no more tanking. If Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort and Giddey are healthy, they should play in no fewer than 65 games.
If a nice percentage of this season’s games are competitive and have a meaningful fourth quarter, then 2021-22 would be a hundred times better than the 2020-21 season.