At this time a year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder fashioned themselves as title contenders.
They'd just pulled off perhaps the greatest coup in franchise history, convincing Paul George to re-sign in OKC rather than coming home to Los Angeles. Ownership was finally giving general manager Sam Presti the financial wherewithal to go for it.
One first-round exit later, the Thunder are embarking on a full-scale rebuild.
George started the dominoes, requesting a trade back home so he could team with Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers. Russell Westbrook was gone weeks later, as his 11-year tenure with the franchise ended in a trade to Houston. The Westbrook deal brought back Chris Paul, who it appears will be on the roster opening night.
The Thunder's haul essentially amounts to draft picks and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a promising second-year player who probably lacks superstar potential.
The darkest days in Thunder basketball are ahead; there's no way around it. When the franchise arrived from Seattle, it had a young superstar in Kevin Durant, a future MVP in Russell Westbrook and another MVP coming a year later in James Harden. The city has seen exactly two missed postseasons since the move; this will be the beginning of a real test of Oklahoma City as a long-term basketball market.
With the schedule released Monday, here's a look at how things should shake out for the Thunder next season.
2019-20 Season Details
Season Opener: at Utah Jazz (Oct. 23)
Championship Odds: +50000 (Caesars)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
vs. Houston Rockets (Jan. 9)
There will be many returns this season that feature a high level of vitriol. Kyrie Irving is going to get booed out of Boston. Anthony Davis will have the scorn of New Orleans upon him, unless they're already tired from booing him last season.
Russell Westbrook? Polar opposite.
Russ is the one who stayed until it no longer made sense for him to do so. He's the most beloved figure in Thunder history, and his trade to Houston was understood and welcomed with open arms after George forced his way to the Clippers.
Westbrook said on Instagram following the trade:
"You have supported me through all of the ups and the downs, and stood by me through the good times, and tough times. For that I am eternally grateful to you. I've met so many amazing people who have helped shape me into the man that I am today. I hope I have impacted the Oklahoma community as much as Oklahoma has made an impact on me and my family. I'm leaving Oklahoma with so many friends and so much gratitude. I could never thank you all enough for sticking with me. It's been a dream and a whirlwind."
On the other hand, odds are Paul won't be feeling warm and fuzzy going against Harden and his former teammates. Paul's rocky relationship with Harden is no doubt a large part why he's in a $124 million basketball purgatory at the moment.
The Thunder's season will be dependent on how long Paul remains on their roster. If he's around the full season, this is a borderline playoff team. Paul, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Roberson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, Dennis Schroder...these are actual basketball players and the pieces of a pretty strong rotation.
But every veteran on this roster knows his time is limited. Gallinari is on an expiring contract and is a really good player who can help out a ton of playoff teams; it would be a genuine shock if he were in OKC beyond the deadline. Roberson is likewise an impending free agent who will spend the first few months of the season auditioning for playoff teams that need wing defensive help.
Paul and the Thunder know he's doing little but attempting to increase his trade value so teams see him as more than a bloated contract. It's a weird and impossible-to-predict team. OKC could win 48 games and wind up a better team than it was a year ago, or Paul could get hurt early on and things could quickly deteriorate into a tankathon.
Record Prediction: 41-41