Why OKC Thunder is unlikely to match speed of Seattle SuperSonics rebuild
The time was right to rebuild.
So Sam Presti traded an aging hall-of-fame guard, and less than two weeks later the team moved on from a 27-year-old fan favorite who had grown up in the organization.
“We don’t want our championship to be making the playoffs,” Presti said. “We want sustained success.”
That was the summer of 2007, and Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were the SuperSonics on the move under the watch of Presti, Seattle’s new 30-year-old general manager. More than a decade later, the Thunder departures of Chris Paul and Steven Adams fit a similar description.
“We're not looking for half measures around here,” Presti said this offseason, echoing his message from 2007. “We want to strive to see if we can be great. We're willing to take the paths that require extreme competitiveness to do that.”
The trade of Allen and the sign-and-trade of Lewis jumpstarted Seattle’s rebuild. The vision for Oklahoma City’s rebuild was born last summer after the trades of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but the teardown didn’t start until the exits of Paul, Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schröder this offseason.
After 10 years of remarkable success for the Thunder — ranking only behind the Spurs in winning percentage since 2010 — it’s easy to forget Presti and the organization have been here before at the start of something new.
It looked simple enough the last time. The SuperSonics/Thunder had three bad years, obtaining three top-four picks which turned into three MVPs: Kevin Durant, Westbrook and James Harden.
- Related to this story
- Article: Long for days of OKC Thunder past? Here's where some favorite alums are now
- Article: Tramel: OKC Thunder fans facing a new reality with unfamiliar faces, unfamiliar results
- Article: Carlson: OKC Thunder has only one Jackson now — and other things you need to know
- Article: OKC Thunder: Get to know Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley and 2020-21 roster
- Article: OKC Thunder finalizes roster by waiving Frank Jackson
- Article: How to watch OKC Thunder games in 2020-21 NBA season
- Article: Want to wow your friends, Thunder fans? Here's how you pronounce Aleksej Pokusevsk
- Article: Will the Thunder have the NBA's worst record? It's possible
- Article: OKC Thunder: Theo Maledon, Ty Jerome out for season opener at Rockets
- Article: OKC Thunder at Houston Rockets: Lineups, tip-off time, how to watch
- Article: Carlson: Night moves by the Thunder aren't always kind on deadline
- Article: OKC Thunder: Mark Daigneault expects Lu Dort to make offensive jump in Year 2
- Video: Thunder Update: Presti on roster changes and new season
But as Presti and the Thunder front office embark on another rebuild, they’re not looking at what happened in Seattle as a realistic model to repeat.
The 2004-05 SuperSonics won 52 games under Nate McMillan. Allen and Lewis were both All Stars, averaging better than 20 points per game. Nick Collison was a rookie on that team, which lost to the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs.
Then Seattle underachieved. The Sonics went 35-47 in 2005-06 and 31-51 in 2006-07, the first season under a new Oklahoma City ownership group led by Clay Bennett.
The Sonics weren’t trying to earn a top pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. They were just unintentionally and fortuitously bad.
Rick Sund was removed as general manager in April 2007, and Presti was hired away from San Antonio in June 2007 to become Seattle’s new general manager.
The SuperSonics were projected to pick fifth in the 2007 draft, but they landed the No. 2 selection in the lottery behind the Trail Blazers.
Portland selected Ohio State center Greg Oden with the No. 1 pick, making Durant the obvious selection for Seattle. That pick changed the course of NBA history and Oklahoma City history.
But just before the pick was announced came news that Allen had been traded from Seattle to Boston. The SuperSonics received Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and the rights to Jeff Green, the No. 5 pick in the draft.
Later that offseason, Lewis headed to Orlando as part of a sign-and-trade with the Magic. It ended his nine-year tenure in Seattle.
The Sonics, without their star duo of Allen and Lewis, went 20-62 in Durant’s rookie season and Year 1 of the rebuild.
The Sonics were projected to pick second in the 2008 draft, but this time they fell to fourth, selecting Westbrook in what was then seen as a reach. Presti then picked Serge Ibaka at No. 24 — a pick the Sonics received from the Suns for taking on Kurt Thomas’ contract.
The young core of Durant, Westbrook and Green — suddenly sporting Thunder blue — went 23-59 in their debut 2008-09 season in Oklahoma City.
Presti, for the third consecutive year, would pick in the top four.
Sooner star Blake Griffin was the top pick in the 2009 draft and UConn center Hasheem Thabeet went second.
The Thunder selected James Harden third, and the rapid rebuild was complete.
The Thunder improved from 23 wins, to 50 wins, to 55 wins. Then a conference finals appearance in 2010-11 and the NBA Finals in 2012.
Durant, Westbrook and Harden became superstars in Oklahoma City and beyond.
That path doesn’t exist this time.
First, the Thunder’s starting point for a rebuild is different.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander might very well develop into an All-NBA player, but he’s not Durant, a generational talent. OKC has cleared the path for Gilgeous-Alexander much like Seattle did for Durant, but Durant accelerated the Thunder’s rebuild in ways that will be difficult to match.
Second, the league landscape has changed since Presti took over in 2007. Two new collective bargaining agreements have been passed since then. Player movement is more common and teams are smarter and more analytically driven.
Flattened lottery odds have made building through the draft more unpredictable, but it’s still the best route to contention for small-market teams like the Thunder that won’t attract star free agents.
Before 2019, the team with the worst regular-season record had a 25% chance of winning the lottery. The second-worst team had a 19.9% chance and third-worst a 15.6% chance.
Today the three-worst teams all have a 14% chance of winning the lottery.
The Thunder owns 18 first-round picks through 2027 thanks to Presti’s trades of the past two years. The Thunder has given itself more chances at top picks and more flexibility to bundle picks together to move up the board.
But landing even one player at the level of a Durant, Westbrook or Harden would be a win.
Now it comes down to luck repeating.
“You look to the past for inspiration,” Presti said, “but you're certainly having to create something new going forward. I think that's kind of the exciting thing about sports in general. It's always evolving.”