Season Preview: It's a new start for the Oklahoma City Thunder
No one knew.
Russell Westbrook had a chance to put the Oklahoma City Thunder ahead in the final moments of Game 6 of their Western Conference first-round series against Portland. He tried a layup with 18 seconds left. It missed.
No one knew that was the 17,350th and final shot he would take as a Thunder player, the last time he would touch the ball in an Oklahoma City uniform, the end of an storied 11-year run that — when factoring in both regular-season and postseason games — saw him score more points than anyone else in franchise history.
A new day has arrived in Oklahoma City. The Thunder — one of only two teams to have a better-than-.500 record in each of the last 10 seasons, San Antonio being the other — have pushed the reset button. Westbrook is gone to rejoin James Harden in Houston, Paul George has taken his still-unfulfilled pursuit of a championship to the Los Angeles Clippers, and Oklahoma City is thinking about the future.
"We're still 100 percent focused on building the most sustainable path for an elite team in Oklahoma City, realizing that that's something that eventually we're going to embark on, but we're not at that point yet," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. "And we think that this season is one that we should really dive into and experience."
The cupboard is far from bare. Chris Paul — whose first NBA "home" game was 14 years ago in Oklahoma City, back when the New Orleans Hornets had to temporarily relocate there in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — is back in the city, just now as part of the Thunder. He was the big piece the Thunder got back in the trade that sent Westbrook to the Rockets.
Paul was the subject of more trade speculation after the deal between the Rockets and Thunder went down. But he insisted that he's happy to be back in Oklahoma City.
"I think that's the thing that fuels me is competition and always trying to get better, always trying to pay attention, seeing how I can improve," Paul said. "I've got an unbelievable team around me, people who try to help me day in and day out."
That night against Portland in April, Westbrook missed the go-ahead layup, and Damian Lillard made a 37-footer at the buzzer to give the Trail Blazers a 118-115 win — ending the Thunder's season, ultimately ending Westbrook's tenure with the team as well.
"I think our focus right now is on the team that we have," Presti said. "It's going to be a different iteration of Thunder team than we've seen over the last several years. But I would just say that we're going to take a very long view to make sure that we're putting ourselves in position to have a long run of success in Oklahoma City as we possibly can and not shortcut that process."
Here are some things to know about the Thunder this season:
Paul will likely be joined Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari, two of the pieces in the George trade to the Los Angeles Clippers, as new starters for Oklahoma City. The faces will change, but the team's mission will not, said returning center Steven Adams. "The one thing this organization does really well is you keep consistent with the values. Doesn't really matter who the players are," Adams said.
The first Thunder win this season will be a milestone for coach Billy Donovan. He enters the year 199-129 in his four seasons with the club. In Donovan's first 25 seasons as a head coach — counting his college stints at Marshall and Florida — he's finished with a winning record 22 times.
For Gallinari, this era of pace-and-space NBA basketball seems to work wonders. He set career bests last season for points per game (19.8) and in field-goal percentage (46.3. He likely would have set another career high for 3-pointers made in a season if he had more appearances; he had 161 3s in 68 games last season, 25 shy of his personal-best 186 in 81 games for New York in 2009-10.
The Thunder won't have to wait long before facing Westbrook as an opponent for the first time — Oklahoma City goes to Houston on Oct. 28. But the Rockets and Thunder play only three times this season, and that means Houston's trip to OKC on Jan. 9 will be Westbrook's lone appearance as a visitor on his former home floor during the 2019-20 campaign.
The Thunder are revamped, but certainly didn't bring in a bunch of inexperience. The three oldest players on their roster this season — the 34-year-old Paul, 31-year-old Gallinari and 28-year-old Mike Muscala — are all newly acquired.