A decade has passed between these two chapters of separate organizations, but it’s hard to deny how similar the rebuilding processes are.
The 2008-09 season was the Thunder’s first year in their new confines of Oklahoma City following the controversial move from Seattle by owner Clay Bennett. However, it was hard to deny the talent that was present, which was spearheaded by a young Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Following a horrific start, OKC fired P.J. Carlesimo and went to Scott Brooks. Little did they know that small change, plus natural progression from their young stars, would ignite the fire of a rapid ascent less than four years later.
Oklahoma City began their first season under Brooks in the dumps with a 3-25 record, but ended up finishing 20-34 on the way to a 23-59 final record.
The following summer, OKC landed another top pick at No. 3 overall. They ended up selecting Arizona State’s James Harden, who would thrive immediately within his super sub role throughout his tenure there. General Manager Sam Presti then made some sneaky good and cheap veteran acquisitions.
All of a sudden, the Thunder jumped from a laughingstock to an up-and-coming juggernaut overnight. An extra year of seasoning for players like Durant and Westbrook made a gigantic difference. Also, non-lottery draft picks like Serge Ibaka paid off in spades. Another year of experience led to a plus-27 win difference and their first playoff appearance since they were still in Seattle.
I can hear it now: “Evan, woah, slow down.”
The thing is, I don’t think it’s a crazy comparison to make. Even if the Suns weren’t winners of three straight games, I would still lean in this direction. Former General Manager Ryan McDonough alluded to studying rebuilds like Oklahoma City on multiple occasions before his surprising firing nine days before the regular season.
Just look at where the Suns sit right now. If we compare both teams at the 28-game mark, OKC was 3-25 while Phoenix was 4-24 before rattling off this current winning streak.
Both teams have a young, but uber-talented scorer with Durant and Devin Booker. As we all know, Durant began to quickly blossom into one of the best scorers in league history, averaging close to 30 points per game if he wanted to. Right now, it’s not out of the question to say that Booker could win multiple scoring titles during his career. Especially when you see a fully healthy Booker — who admitted to Bright Side Of The Sun earlier this month that he had yet to play a game at 100 percent health before re-aggravating his hamstring injury — the sky is the limit with how crafty a finisher he is from all levels of the floor.
Meanwhile, Westbrook struggled early but gained significantly more confidence by the end of his rookie season. It seems like we’re witnessing deja vu happen right now with Deandre Ayton. During the first quarter of the season, Ayton seemed to be overthinking things, but now he’s playing more and more like the big man who was taken No. 1 overall over the past few weeks.
And who knows, if the Suns do finish around the mid-20s win mark like OKC, they could still add in a top college prospect who could change their fortunes. One of Duke’s Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, or Cam Reddish have the possibility of qualifying as Phoenix’s version of the third young piece. Add whoever it is alongside what the Suns already have in under-23 talent — Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, and Elie Okobo — then it’s becoming an even more promising core.
What I’m saying is the Suns don’t have a blank canvas to work with. They are eerily mimicking the rapid ascent of the Thunder, but they have to play this upcoming offseason correctly. There are definitely parallels that can be made between the two, but Phoenix’s front office could stymie their progress if one wrong move is made.
Below, I outlined the timeline of how Oklahoma City rose up. Where Phoenix is now, they could follow this if they continue to see internal growth while also making the correct outside moves over the next 6-to-12 months.
2008-09: 23 wins
2009-10: 50 wins; first round exit (Harden’s rookie season)
2010-11: 55 wins; Western Conference Finals exit
2011-12: 58 wins if stretched over an 82-game season (lockout year); Finals loss
Let’s be clear here: I’m not suggesting to book your tickets to the 2022 NBA Finals, but the blueprint is there if they choose to follow it.
Missing the playoffs for what will now be nine years in a row allows you to stockpile so boom-or-bust talent. The draft can be a crapshoot, but it’s paramount that teams hit on it so their rebuilding process doesn’t stagnate. Selecting the likes of Alex Len, Dragan Bender, and Marquese Chriss accomplished that, but, luckily, the Suns might have avoided a major issue with selecting Ayton, Bridges, Okobo, and trading for Melton at the end of August using Brandon Knight’s contract.
Another factor not talked about enough is how the Suns are slowly biding their time while the likes of Golden State, Houston, Portland, Memphis, San Antonio, and New Orleans will either age out or implode soon enough within the deep Western Conference. Whether it’s selecting another top pick, or trading it for a win-now piece (maybe Kyle Lowry if Kawhi Leonard dips Toronto for Los Angles in July?), Phoenix is setting themselves up to make a meteoric rise quicker than many seem to realize.
The next calendar year will decide if this model can be successfully followed by Phoenix, based on how they attack the 2019 offseason, but they seem to finally be on the right track after years of going around in circles like a hamster running on a wheel.