The Oklahoma City Thunder is one of the more consistent but yet enigmatic franchises. Since its earlier days as Seattle SuperSonics, the franchise had shown their ability to spot top talent, groom them and successfully assemble a decent team to make an annual Playoffs push.
Throughout the history of the franchise, from Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City Thunder, the team has had great success picking real talent, identifying diamonds in the rough. The owners were able to hire top-notch management staff, including excellent coaching staff that led to many well planned seasons of player development, trades, free agency, and deep Playoffs push.
The enigmatic side of the franchise is, few players end up staying long during their prime. The team faces regular talent drains and just when everything is clicking well, one or a few superstars may leave and the franchise hits the reset button.
The Seattle SuperSonics went through several milestone stages before arriving at its modern form as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team was born when two Los Angeles businessmen, Sam Schulman and Eugene V. Klein, were awarded the NBA franchise for the city of Seattle on 20 December 1966, which happened to be Seattle's first major league sports franchise as well. Its development was gradual but steady, culminating in the golden years of 1975 to 1983 when the SuperSonics won its coveted championship.
Throughout the early stages leading up to the trophy, the following superstar players arrived and left without finishing their entire career with the franchise. The fact that they left prematurely during their prime leaves room for imagination whether the franchise would have attained higher levels of success if it managed to retain its talents better.
Perhaps the greatest achievement the franchise had was the lone championship they won in 1979, led by Gus 'the Wizard' Williams. The six feet two inches point guard was selected in the second round of the 1975 NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors and the first round of the 1975 ABA draft by the Spirits of St. Louis. Gus chose to sign with the Warriors, spending two seasons there. The Seattle SuperSonics was able to attract Gus to sign with them for the 1977 / 1978 season.
However, right in his prime, Gus chose to sit out during the 1980 / 1981 season, mainly due to a contractual dispute. Gus eventually left for the Washington Bullets in 1984, marking a huge loss of a superstar for the franchise.
Leonard Randolph Wilkens
'Lenny' Wilkens played his most exciting basketball as a player with the Seattle SuperSonics. During his tenure from 1968 to 1972, Lenny was the Assists Champion for 1970 and the Most Valuable Player for the All-Star game of 1971.
The Sonics were unable to retain this six feet one inch, versatile and efficient point guard for the long term and Lenny eventually left to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers and later for the Portland Trail Blazers. The only redeeming point for the Sonics was that Lenny returned as the head coach and led them to win their only championships. But we could only wonder how far the Sonics could go if Lenny were to remain a player for them during his prime.
The six feet eight inches power forward was a pedigree import from the American Basketball Association (ABA). Spencer was a super rookie who had an unbelievable debut in the ABA. As a rookie in 1970 Spencer had a dazzling start.
In the same year, Spencer was selected into both the All-ABA First Team and All-Rookie First Team, became the Scoring Champion, became the Rebounds Champion, won Rookie of the Year, won All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, as well as clinch the ABA Most Valuable Player award. The SuperSonics were highly astute in being able to lure this instant superstar to sign with the franchise. It gave them several fantastic seasons of ticket selling attraction from 1970 to 1975.
Despite the early success, Spencer did not stay with the franchise. Seattle was not attractive enough in terms of financials and popularity. He eventually left for the bigger market of the New York Knicks. Thereafter, he spent a short stint at the former New Orleans Jazz, before ultimately winning his Championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980.
The six feet eleven inches center was drafted number eight in the first round by the SuperSonics. Jack was a classic big man with finesse. His moves were surgical and efficient, and he was one of the earlier players who combined height dominance with versatile skills repertoire. One trademark of Jack was his reverse pivot, step back behind-the-head jumper, coined as the 'Sikma move'. This is a lost legendary move that modern centers do not practice anymore.
Jack Sikma did deliver their only trophy during his tenure from 1977 to 1986. Following that, he left for the Milwaukee Bucks and retired as a Bucks star. His sudden exit kept die-hard fans fantasizing about the 'what if' and 'what could've' questions if only Jack were to keep it going with the SuperSonics.
Transition Into Oklahoma City Thunder
The metamorphosis of the franchise came from 2001 to 2006, when the Starbucks chairman emeritus, former president and chief executive officer, Howard Schultz, was the majority owner of the team.
On 18 July 2006, with the joint decision with 58 partners or minor owners, as part of the Basketball Club of Seattle LLP, Howard Schultz sold the SuperSonics and its sister team, the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA)'s Seattle Storm, to the Professional Basketball Club LLC (PBC), a group of businessmen from Oklahoma City for $350 million.
By 2008, a dark cloud overcast the franchise because the SuperSonics' negotiation talks with the City of Seattle for a new arena had broken down. Facing a dead-end, the franchise swung its headquarters from Seattle to Oklahoma City.
During the transformation into Oklahoma City Thunder, the team front office hired perhaps one of the best young business and basketball minds in Sam Presti to take stewardship of the organization. This began the second wave of the franchise's ascent.
Sam Presti had previously served in various capacities in incrementally significant positions for the San Antonio Spurs after working for them as an intern. Sam chanced upon their general manager R. C. Buford at a basketball camp in Aspen, Colorado. A brilliant thinker and quick learner, Sam is given much of the credit for encouraging the Spurs to draft their important first foreign talent, a French point guard called Tony Parker, in 2001. That move helped the Spurs build a dynasty that yielded multiple championships.
At a tender youthful age of 31, Sam was hired to join the transforming Seattle SuperSonics team. His debut move as general manager of the SuperSonics was to trade multiple-time All-Star Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics, a move that helped the Celtics win the championship in 2008. In return, Sam yielded a bounty that included the draft rights to Jeff Green, who only became a bench role. Sam then traded All-Star Rashard Lewis to the Orlando Magic for a second-round draft pick, creating a $9 million trade exception which was leveraged to land Kurt Thomas and two first-round draft picks from the Phoenix Suns.
Sam Presti would continue his style of astute selections and trade formulation that frequently led to a change in the roster of the team that kept them competitive to support their superstars. That being said, Sam was still unable to prevent the trend of talent loss that plagued the franchise since its inception.
Touted as the best offensive player that the game has ever seen since Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Kobe Bryant, James Harden is a six feet five inches point guard/shooting guard, drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder with the third pick in the 2009 draft.
His stocky, powerful frame, coupled with his red hot shooting rhythm and insanely crafty foul-drawing tactics, makes him a nightly match-up nightmare for any opponent team.
Despite his meteoric ascent as a premier sixth man option and a budding superstar with huge potential in his first three seasons, the front office was reluctant to give James Harden the pay rise that he was looking for. James wanted to stay in Thunder but Sam Presti was unwilling to compromise on the bigger contract demand.
James' contract was originally worth $52 million and he wanted to push it up to $60 million after showing that he could step up to become a superstar. However, the Thunder was only willing to entertain a smaller pay rise to $54 million. The outcome of the deadlock was that 'the Beard' got traded to Houston before the 2012–13 season. That move proved to be a painful loss because James went on to become an Assists champion in 2017, a three-time scoring champion from 2018 to 2020, and the Most Valuable Player in 2018.
Drafted at number two in 2007 by the Seattle SuperSonics before its transformation, Kevin Durant was a bright spark for the evolving franchise. As the only teenager since LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to average 20 points for an entire rookie season, Kevin was an instant ticket seller. The highly skilled small forward / power forward has a full arsenal of tricks in his offensive toolbag, allowing him to dominate as the scoring champion from 2010 to 2012, as well as 2014. Kevin was the biggest reason why the Thunder quickly rose to become a Western Conference heavyweight. Throughout his tenure, the Thunder progressively gained more traction in the postseason.
In 2009 / 2010, they lost 2-4 in the first round to the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2010 / 2011, they lost 1-4 in the Conference Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. In 2011 / 2012 lost 1-4 in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat. In 2012 / 2013, they lost 2-4 in the Conference Semi-Finals to the Memphis Grizzlies. In 2013 / 2014, they lost 2-4 in the Conference Finals to the San Antonio Spurs. In 2014 / 2015, they missed the Playoffs due to Kevin Durant's Jones fracture. In 2015 / 2016, they went on an epic 3-1 lead against the defending champions but lost 3-4 in Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors.
After years of failing to get past the hump, the 2014 season Most Valuable Player decided to leave OKC and announced his intentions to sign with the Warriors in The Players' Tribune on 4 July 2016. That marked the first major letdown of the modern Thunder franchise in losing a superstar. The loss was gigantic because Kevin Durant eventually went on to clinch two Finals Most Valuable Player awards and two championships with the Warriors in 2017 and 2018. The loss of Kevin Durant meant the Thunder lost the main driving force behind their ascent.
'Mr. Feathery' is a dynamic two-way player who brings leadership and playmaking on a nightly basis. The 2013 second overall pick stands at six feet four inches. As a combo point guard/shooting guard, Victor started his career with the Orlando Magic. He was traded to the Thunder in 2016 as part of the package that included Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and rights to Domantas Sabonis, in exchange for the Thunder's solid center, Serge Ibaka. However, Victor was never in the Thunder's long-term plans and they quickly flipped him in 2017 again to the Indiana Pacers.
Oklahoma City lost a good superstar because Victor quickly proved that the Thunder should have used more patience with the young trending star. Upon his trade to the Indiana Pacers, Victor took yet another leap in his game and achieved four accolades within the same year of 2018, bagging the Most Improved Player award, became the steals champion, made it to All-NBA Third Team, as well as made it into the All-Defensive First Team.
The six feet eight inches, former Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks superstar was the biggest All-Star in recent memory to join the team as a mid-career trade. The former number three pick of the 2003 draft was the centerpiece of the blockbuster trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder, in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a future draft pick.
But alas, the individualistic styles of play of the ball-dominant Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook did not pan out well. Although Paul George was a versatile third wheel that committed to both elite defense and top-notch offense, the trio could never find a balance on the court. Without a clear alpha leader, the three resorted to a "musical chair" of taking turns to be the main scorer. However, that does not serve well in basketball strategy and the Thunder often took a beating when opponents capitalized on this weakness.
Poor ball movement and stagnant plays were big enough concerns that plagued this team for Sam Presti to decide to press the reset button. Carmelo's lone season with the Thunder marked an uneventful stint that left fans disappointed and perplexed at the underwhelming performance of the star power.
If Kevin Durant is the main driving force of the Thunder's ascent, then Russell Westbrook must be the heart and soul of the Thunder's spirit. Often seen playing at 110% effort, full-blown intensity, and blistering explosiveness, Russell is the epitome of leaving it all out there on the court. He was a nightly sensation to watch for Thunder fans. The six feet three inches point guard was drafted at number four in 2008. Russell is a versatile point guard. He was the scoring champion in 2015 and 2017. He led the league as the assists champion in 2018 and 2019.
Russell was instrumental as a dynamic tag team for Kevin Durant. As an athletic point guard, he shared the offensive load with Kevin and helped orchestrate the plays for the team. His defensive intensity helped his frontcourt players jostle better for rebounds, blocks, and box-outs. His full-court pursuits and blazing transition play kept the Thunder's pace going every season. Following the exit of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook had to carry the bulk of the load, leading, scoring, and playmaking for the team. During that period, Russell's electric plays and triple-double seasons were a thing of legends. That 2016 / 2017 season, he won the Most Valuable Player.
With the management looking to reboot the roster and rebuild for a younger core, Russell was traded in 2020. That marked the complete end to the Oklahoma City Thunder's original 'Big Three', the only trio which any NBA team groomed right from the beginning of the Draft process.
The Indiana Pacers' meteoric rising star brought the team back to relevance with his blistering offensive pace and suffocating perimeter defensive intensity. After hitting the wall and unable to come through the Eastern Conference, Paul George demanded a trade and landed in Oklahoma City. Paul was the tenth pick of the 2010 draft. He made six All-Star selections, five All-NBA teams as well as four All-Defensive teams. He was the Most Improved Player in 2013 and became the steals champion in 2019.
Together with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, they formed the new 'Big Three' in a post-Durant era when the trio-stars-combination was in vogue around the league. The experiment quickly faltered as the trio were unable to see any breakthrough beyond the first round of the Playoffs in the Western Conference. Paul George was only good individually for his elite defensive showings and scoring outbursts but was unable to help lead the team to progress to become a real contender.
The only bright spot for his two-season stint at the Thunder was that Paul signed a four-year $136 million maximum contract that secured his future paydays. Seeing that the chemistry and roster don't produce results, Paul and his two superstar teammates agreed to mutually part ways for greener pastures.
The 'Point God' arrived in Oklahoma City as part of a mammoth trade. The Thunder sent Russell Westbrook to Houston Rockets and received Chris Paul, both protected first to fourth picks for 2024 and 2026, the first to 20th protected pick swap for 2025, as well as the first to fourth protected pick swap for 2021, with a Clippers pick or Heat pick.
In his lone season, the Thunder were underdogs without any expectations to make the Playoffs. However, in classic basketball savant style and under Chris' premier leadership, the Thunder surged into the fifth seed of the Playoffs. That gave fans a spark and glimmer of hope in this period of Thunder doldrums. Despite not pushing deep in the postseason, the Thunder made superb progress with their newly assembled crew and the young core flourished under the development of Chris Paul. But alas, all is not meant to last and Chris was traded to the Phoenix Suns after just one season wearing the Thunder jersey, and fans were left guessing what the trajectory would have been if he stayed.
After analyzing the long list of superstars that the Seattle SuperSonics / Oklahoma City Thunder had uncovered, developed, and lost, it is indeed humbling and enlightening to realize how challenging it is to run an NBA franchise with perpetual success. Extremely high levels of commitment, resources, expertise, and faith are required to endure the unending torrents of influence from various fronts that threaten to pull apart a successful roster.
With the passing of yet another era of Thunder basketball, the future is anything but set in stone. With the plethora of draft picks that Sam Presti has so brilliantly collected over the years, the Thunder have sufficient ammunition to embark on yet another quest of assembling their perfect roster to make a future push for their enigmatic success and second championship.