In the twelve years the Thunder have been in Oklahoma City, there have been some truly memorable teams. Players have come and gone, the competitive NBA landscape has changed, style of play has evolved, but the one constant has been OKC being right in the middle of it all. While everyone has their own personal favorite players, teams, moments, and experiences in Thunder history, the particular squads below are the ones I kept hearing the most about when I asked what people’s favorite teams were and why. In chronological order, I will regale you with tales from the Thunder’s storied past, and sing the praises of the current team, which has quickly won the hearts of the fanbase.
2009-2010: The arrival
Coming off a brutal inaugural season that saw the Thunder lose way more games than they won, expectations were justifiably low. Having drafted James Harden with the 3rd pick in the 2009 draft, many expected the Thunder to take another trip to the high lottery as they embarked on a significant rebuild. That never happened.
Instead, something incredible occurred. The young and fiery Thunder won more than double the previous year’s total of games, Head Coach Scott Brooks was awarded Coach of the Year, and the team made the playoffs. Matched up against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, many expected a quick and easy out for LA. They were sorely mistaken. The Thunder were relentless and refused to surrender, giving the Lakers all they could handle. OKC was a buzzer beating Pau Gasol tip-in away from forcing a Game 7 in LA.
After the final buzzer, the crowd gave the team a standing ovation, and Kobe told them they had his respect; OKC had officially arrived.
2011-2012: Knockin’ on heaven’s door
In the NBA Lockout shortened season, OKC was given its first Christmas Day game, a battle against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. Featuring a schedule that included back to back to backs–something not yet repeated in the NBA–the Thunder’s young legs proved invaluable. Oklahoma City’s squad was truly special this season, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook headlining, James Harden and his distinguished beard as Sixth Man of the Year, Serge Ibaka as the shot swatting extraordinaire, scowling Kendrick Perkins as the defensive anchor in the middle, reliable Thabo Sefolosha as the 3 and D specialist, and Nick Collison as the charge taking, plus-minus king off the bench.
While previous teams in OKC had exceeded expectations, this one shattered them, all the way to the NBA Finals. Thunder fandom in the state, steadily increasing in passion year by year, reached its zenith in 2012. All of Oklahoma was now “all in” on the Thunder, rocking fake beards, red lens-less glasses, and making giant spiders, while cheering them on against the Miami Heat on the biggest stage in the NBA: the Finals! Although the Thunder lost the series to the Heat, there was this feeling that this was just the first appearance for the Thunder and, surely, they would be back.
Coming off their first NBA Finals appearance, expectations were very high heading into this season. However, things took a hit just before the season, as GM Sam Presti made the toughest move of his career, trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The two sides had reached an impasse on contract negotiations, resulting in Presti trading OKC’s bearded wonder.
While it was a massive gut-punch to the team and fanbase, they all rallied around the squad and cheered them on. Kevin Martin proved a more than capable fill-in for Harden as the super sub sixth man, and the team ran roughshod over the league. They posted eye-popping margins of victory on their way to the number 1 overall seed.
OKC seemed poised to return to the Finals and present a better challenge for Miami this time. But Patrick Beverly, on a completely unnecessary, reckless play, changed the course of NBA history. During Game 2 of their first round series, Russell Westbrook was slowly dribbling up the court to the sideline. Right as he was (clearly) about to call a timeout, Beverly made a reckless steal attempt, crashing into Westbrook’s knee, and tearing his meniscus.
With Russ sidelined, OKC was able to finish off the Rockets in six games, but were bounced in the second round by the Memphis Grizzlies. To this day, many believe that the Thunder would have won the NBA Title this season if it had not been for Russ’s injury.
In the wake of Durant’s July 4th departure for the Golden State Warriors, the end seemed nigh for basketball relevance in OKC. Many expected that Westbrook might request a trade, and that Presti would be forced to “blow it up” and go full rebuild.
But yet again, something special happened. Russ decided to plant his flag in OKC and become the sole face of the franchise. He signed a contract extension, giving everyone in Oklahoma a moment to catch their breath and regroup after Kevin’s defection. The entire season became a lovefest for Russ, a full embodiment of his entire persona. Veiled and unveiled shots at KD and the Warriors were ever present, a general air of defiance and standing against all odds was the theme for the season. It was truly a Russ’ “Now I Do What I Want” world tour.
The focus was simultaneously on and off the basketball court at all times, not wanting to miss anything that Russ would do, say, or wear. From a purely basketball standpoint, it was an exhilarating ride, as Russ often seemed to single-handedly will the team to victory, in historic and record-breaking fashion. There were the clutch performances, triple double barrages, snarling dunks, high flying rebounds; everything was pedal to the medal.
Russ had only one mode: all in.
No game captured this better than the season finale against Denver, where Russ hit a game winner, giving him a 50-point triple double, breaking Oscar Robertson’s triple double record, all while eliminating the Nuggets from postseason eligibility. The fact that an opposing arena was chanting MVP for him after he did all this showed that this was truly the Year of Russ, and that he was the people’s champion. Fast forward a few months later, and Russ would be crowned MVP of the NBA, giving OKC its second MVP winner (KD won the first in 2014).
2019-2020: Fun times
Heading into this past summer, the expectation was to run back the Russ and Paul George tandem for one more shot at a title, while making a few roster changes around the margins. But once again, someone else had other plans.
Kawhi Leonard convinced George to request a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers. Yet again, Presti was faced with a surprise defection. But, unlike the KD departure, OKC had all the leverage. Presti used this to the fullest, requiring a king’s ransom from the Clippers in exchange for George: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, and a war chest of first round picks and pick swaps.
Later that summer, Presti faced saying goodbye and thank you to Russell Westbrook, sending him to Houston to reunite with James Harden. In return for the Russell trade, OKC received Chris Paul, two first round picks, and two pick swaps. OKC had lost its icon and hero, but was reunited with their first NBA love, Chris Paul.1
With a reshuffled roster featuring a host of newcomers, a looming cloud of dread hovered over the start of the season. Where OKC was once a staple of primetime NBA scheduling, they had been cast off, no longer viewed as a glamour squad. Many outsiders believed that the team was full of guys who wouldn’t be on the team come the trade deadline. Vegas had set the over/under win total at around 31.5 wins, so outside expectations were not so great for the team. Fans had been bracing for the start of a lengthy rebuild, or as Presti had termed it “repositioning and replenishing.”
But as fate would have it, the Thunder once again far exceeded expectations.
With a 33-22 record at the All-Star Break, the Thunder are currently the 6th seed in the Western Conference, sitting 1.5 games back from the 5th seed, and 3.5 games out of 4th seed. If, before the season, someone had predicted that the Thunder would be making the playoffs this year, it would have been laughed off as ridiculous. To say that they’d be not only firmly in the playoffs, but within striking distance of a homecourt seed at this juncture, you would have been labeled insane. But here we are, having the time of our lives watching this merry band march along.
There is just something wholesome, endearing, and captivating about this current Thunder squad. They may not have the peak superstar powers of previous teams, but this team does have several things of which we never dreamed. Gone are the days of predictable offense and “your turn, my turn” ball-watching from the superstars. Here today is the ball moving on a string, a team with an amazing bond, an ironclad confidence to never surrender in close games, and a pick-your-poison offense. On any given night, five players can score in double figures, or one player can score thirty.
It’s clear from watching the team both on and off the court, that they have a “Three Musketeers” persona, an all-for-one, one-for-all creed. (This is by no means an indictment of previous teams; this team, in particular just feels different.)
With the season just a little over half-way complete, the whole story has yet to be written. Presti’s decision to let this squad play it out for the remainder of the season ensures that there will be no what ifs. It has truly been a pleasure watching Paul lead the team, mentoring Gilgeous-Alexander and the younger players. Other joyful sights: SGA taking a leap and flashing his superstar potential, Gallinari providing instant offense, Schröder taking over games as OKC looks to add him to its collection of Sixth Man of the Year winners, Adams providing toughness and reliability, Nerlens Noel as a stabilizing presence off the bench, and Lu Dort becoming a cult hero as an undrafted two-way player.
The book has yet to be fully written on this team, and I eagerly await the possibilities. We asked fans to tell us why they found this iteration of the Thunder special:
Quite the ride
Oklahoma City has been truly blessed with incredible basketball since its inception in 2008. We’ve been to the NBA Finals, four Western Conference Finals, had two MVPs, eleven straight years with a roster featuring an All Star, and had six Hall of Fame players suit up for the Thunder (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, George, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul.
With the present fun and full of promise, the future looks even brighter. SGA is poised to become the face of the franchise, an heir apparent superstar and icon to go along with a ludicrous number of draft assets acquired by Presti. OKC is set up beautifully to continue its successful NBA adventure.