NBA returns: Thunder delayed rebuild is huge relief in light of return-to-play plan
Sitting in front of a screen dotted with Thunder logos, Sam Presti looked around the small room jammed with reporters and cameras.
Yes, sitting shoulder to shoulder was acceptable then, back in the good ol’ days of July 2019. Neither coronavirus nor social distancing were part of our lives, much less our lexicon back then.
Words that had become part of our vocabulary, though: reposition, replenish, rebuild.
Those were the buzz words coming out of Thunder HQ after Paul George, Russell Westbrook and all hope of having a competitive NBA team left town. Presti even wrote an op-ed for The Oklahoman saying as tough as those days seemed, there were harder ones ahead.
He reiterated that message in his press conference.
“Obviously, the most important season is the next season, and we want to maximize that season the best we can,” the Thunder general manager said. “But not at the expense of continually and aggressively making sure that we’re repositioning and replenishing the team so that we have a platform and a runway for the next great Thunder team to take shape.”
And that’s when you figured this season would be a tear-it-down, strip-it-bare disaster.
Now, that reality seems as long ago and far away as life without COVID-19.
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Oklahoma City ended up having a way better basketball team than any of us could’ve imagined late last summer. A team betting types predicted would eek out only 30 or 32 wins already has 40 wins — and it hasn’t even played the last 18 games of the regular season.
The Thunder isn’t going to get to, either.
We learned Thursday the NBA is going to have teams play only eight more games when it resumes later this summer. That’s one of the contractions and compromises in the league’s return-to-play plan.
But here’s an even bigger reduction: not all of the league’s teams will return to play.
The NBA settled on a plan that included the top eight teams in each conference plus any team six games or less behind the No. 8 seed. That means 22 teams are in, 13 from the Western Conference and nine from the Eastern.
But that also means eight teams are out. Charlotte. Chicago. New York. Detroit. Atlanta. Cleveland. Minnesota. Golden State.
Four of those teams — Hornets, Knicks, Pistons, Hawks — last played on March 11, the night the NBA suspended play. The other four last played on March 10.
If the start of the 2020-21 season goes as currently planned and next season tips off Dec. 1, it will be 265 or 266 days between games for those teams. They will go nearly nine months without playing a meaningful game.
It could be crippling.
For starters, those teams will struggle mightily to stay relevant in their cities and with their fans. Will fans want to buy or renew season tickets? Will businesses sign on to be sponsors or corporate partners?
With the downturn of the post-pandemic economy, every pro sports team is struggling with those issues right now, but going dark for more than eight months will make things even more difficult.
That is a long, long time.
And it could’ve been the reality facing the Thunder.
How many times during the first three-plus months of the year did we thank our lucky stars for how good this Thunder team turned out to be? We didn’t have to watch dreck for games. Didn’t have to wonder how long we’d be subjected to this torture. Didn’t have to look longingly at what was happening in Houston or Los Angeles or anywhere else.
I mean, the Thunder wasn’t a bunch of world beaters, but they were really fun to watch.
Really good, too. From the first of the year until the coronavirus shutdown, OKC won 22 of 31 games, including eight of its last 10. And those wins weren’t against a bunch of cupcakes; New Orleans, Denver, San Antonio and Boston were among the triumphs in those final weeks of play.
This iteration of the Thunder seemed like an unexpected gift for Oklahoma, a sweet treat amid the sourness of losing Russ and PG.
But this team’s success has become way more important than we could’ve ever imagined.
Had it won at the clip the pundits were expecting — a winning percentage of .390 if you go with the high prediction of 32 wins — the Thunder would’ve been close to making the restart field in Orlando. The Suns will be there with a winning percentage of 40.0 percent. But there would’ve been no guarantees for OKC.
The likelihood of the Thunder going dark for the better part of a year would’ve been a strong possibility. Maybe in big markets like Chicago and New York and the Bay Area, such things can be overcome. But for small-market franchises like Charlotte or Minneapolis? The pain will be magnified.
It would’ve been excruciating in OKC.
There has been talk about teams excluded from the restart having a summer league type of tournament. Games wouldn’t count for anything but would get the teams back on the court. That would be good for exposure and for development — losing the chance to bring along young players is another gut punch and would’ve been a serious blow for the Thunder — but it won’t be the same as high-stakes games.
Gloom and doom swirled around the Thunder before this season started. We seem as far removed from that as a world without coronavirus. The NBA will restart next month, and the Thunder will be there.
Reposition? Replenish? Rebuild?
For that, OKC should be relieved.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.