However, the Thunder are 9.5 games back of where they prefer to be—a top-three spot in the conference. Getting back there this season probably isn’t realistic because the first step back to conference-heavyweight status is acquiring another star to pair with Russell Westbrook.
Finding the right one and having the right assets on hand is very tricky.
According to recent reports, a few stars could be available prior to the February 23 trade deadline. The Atlanta Hawks have reportedly been listening to offers for All-Star forward Paul Millsap, and Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher reported the Chicago Bulls have been shopping star swingman Jimmy Butler.
The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski has since reported that Millsap is no longer on the trading block, but that Atlanta could "change course ... and return Millsap to the marketplace" over the next few weeks.
Could either of those players be in the Thunder’s future?
Millsap would undeniably make Oklahoma City better in the short term. The veteran power forward—averaging 17.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this season—would add a much-needed scoring punch and would fit in seamlessly defensively.
But there are two major hurdles: Millsap's age—he turns 32 in February—and a contract he reportedly plans to opt out of this summer, according to ESPN's Chris Haynes.
Oklahoma City has never made a habit of pursuing veterans of Millsap’s age for long-term purposes, rather prioritizing young players under contracts that lead to restricted free agency. It’s part of an overall organizational plan that frustrated Kevin Durant (warning: strong language) and was a factor in his departure to Golden State.
Trading for Millsap would be a sudden deviation from the status quo.
Admittedly, Oklahoma City’s long-rumored interest in trading for Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay, per the Oklahoman's Erik Horne, would also cut against the grain. Sources familiar with the front office's thinking indicate those talks have been off and on since July.
"Part of the identity of the Thunder has been athletic, physical and really putting a premium on the defensive end of the floor," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said back in September. "I really don't see that changing. We think those are core tenets to having a successful team, whether you're playing in the NBA, the Euroleague or the Catholic league here."
Also consider that, as a 10-year veteran, Millsap’s next contract could start at over $36 million per year. He could command up to five years and $209 million from whatever team he ends the season with. That could mean earning as much as $47 million when he is 37 years old.
Finances aside, the more pressing concern might be if Millsap left Oklahoma City in free agency. Assuming they had the goods to acquire him, the Thunder would have no real means to replace him if he left. That could make for an expensive rental that doesn’t move the needle much this season or beyond.
As for Butler, the Thunder would likely have to fight through a very long line of suitors to get Chicago’s attention.
Royce Young @royceyoung
Don't know what the Thunder are doing with Ibaka, but I doubt it's to get into the draft. Like everyone else, they fancy Jimmy Butler.2016-6-23 19:50:30
The Bulls star—who was sick and held to a single point scored during Monday night's contest against the Thunder—would check a number of boxes for Oklahoma City. He’s a 27-year-old All-NBA player and elite perimeter defender. The two-time All-Star is under contract for at least two more seasons at bargain rates since his maximum-salary contract was signed prior to the 2016 cap spike.
However, those factors make it unlikely the Bulls ultimately trade Butler. Another reason: the CBA that takes effect in July encourages star players to stick with their current teams. Those same perks make it equally unlikely that the Indiana Pacers deal star forward Paul George or the New Orleans Pelicans part with Anthony Davis.
So if neither Millsap nor Butler is a realistic option, who might be?
If the past is any indication, Oklahoma City could be on the hunt for an up-and-coming player in his fourth NBA season or less. Sources within the team believe the benefit of restricted free agency is too great to pass up: Unrestricted free agency creates for volatility and uncertainty. Restricted free agency at least gives the team a chance to match offers from other franchises.
Oklahoma City could always deviate from its player-acquisition model in light of Westbrook’s situation, however.
He turned 28 in November and remains in the prime of his career. Even though the Thunder could extend a rich contract extension to him this summer, Westbrook might want to see certain signs before committing. That could shift plans toward acquiring players who can make an immediate impact.
Presti has a history of aggressively pursuing trades. He’s made a number of in-season trades over the years to re-shape the team. As trade talks heat up over the next several weeks, expect the Thunder to be in the thick of it.
THUNDER INSIDER'S NOTES
Cam Payne Returns
Second-year guard Cam Payne played his first game of the season for the Thunder in Saturday night's 121-106 win over the Denver Nuggets. He had played two games for the D-League Oklahoma City Blue early last week as part of a rehab assignment. He hit three of four shots from the field in 13 minutes against the Nuggets, but missed all six of his shots Monday night.
Payne was the subject of offseason trade rumors—he's been connected to the Rudy Gay talks mentioned above—but he's not letting it affect him.
"I heard it, but it really doesn't matter," Payne said in his first media availability since the preseason. "I still gotta come in every day and work. It don't matter."
"There's really nothing holding him back right now," Coach Billy Donovan said. "He worked really hard to try and change his body, to get into the weight room, to help him get prepared to play."
Hit the Glass
The Thunder went 0-3 on a recent road trip and were competitive in all three. But there seems to be a theme among the losses, according to coach Donovan:
"One area that stood out to me as a negative is we have to get better at, for the most part, we've been (over the) last 10 games, in the top five in defensive rebounding. We've really been consistent and we've done a good job.
"I thought in the three games, inside of six minutes, we really got hurt on the offensive glass. We gave up too many second-chance opportunities and too many second-chance points. We've gotta do a better job of controlling the backboard late (in games)."
The Thunder rank seventh in the league in defensive rebounding percentage at 77.9, per NBA.com. The Rockets managed to grab four offensive caroms late in their 118-116 victory last Thursday, but only one of those led to second-chance points.
Donovan spoke of how his team is evolving as the season progresses. One area has been more emphasis on getting the ball into the post, where Enes Kanter has become the offensive focal point of the second unit. The team also ran several post plays for rookie Domantas Sabonis early in the Denver game.
"Establishing the low post has helped us offensively. It's helped generate offense for our post guys and our perimeter guys. We need to continue to do that."
Sabonis got five free-throw attempts against the Nuggets thanks to the low-block looks; He had shot just seven free-throws total all season going into the game.
Oklahoma City needs to keep finding ways to get players other than Westbrook to the free-throw line consistently; it's a way to both diversify the scoring load and give him a quick on-court breather.
Middle of the Middle
As of Sunday night's games, Oklahoma City has played 21 teams that are currently .500 or worse. They are 16-5 against those opponents with a margin of victory of 6.48.
Beating up on bad teams is good; It shows the Thunder don't belong with the dregs of the league.
On the other hand, they are 7-11 versus teams that are better than .500, and OKC is losing by an average of 3.4 points per game. That number is further skewed by the fact Oklahoma City beat a depleted Clippers team by 26 points on New Year's Eve.
The Thunder look like they are in the middle class of the league at the moment. Given the significant changes over the summer, that's impressive.