By Michael Kinney
Christopher Thomas wouldn’t classify himself as a normal Oklahoma City Thunder fan. The Louisiana native has lived in Oklahoma for the past decade but didn’t join the Thunder bandwagon until last year.
It took some pleading from his six-year-old son, who is a die-hard fan, for Thomas to start wearing Oklahoma City colors and call them his new team.
However, when Thomas and his son showed up on April 3 to see the Thunder take on the Phoenix Suns, what they saw was the Thunder in name only. Fans got to see Oklahoma City upset the Western Conference-leading Suns, but they did it without seven of their top players who were in street clothes at the end of the bench.
According to the Thunder injury report, each of the players is dealing with some type of injury. However, fans believe the franchise is benching players to increase their shot at a top draft pick.
“I think it’s a problem as a fan. I would like to see them play,” Thomas said. “It’s just the way I was raised. You play all the games. If we have these guys we are fighting for the sixth, seventh the way through the season. That sitting stuff is kind of a new thing. I would love to see them play. Especially for my son. I would love to see them play out the full season instead of them being bench.”
Unfortunately for fans, that is not going to be the case this season. The Thunder (24-55) played their final home game of the season Tuesday when they beat the Portland Trailblazers. The starting lineup consisted of Zavier Simpson, Jaylen Hoard, Georgious Kalaitzakis, Isaiah Roby and Vit Krejci.
Some of the players have seen time on Oklahoma City’s G-League squad while Simpson and Kalaitzakis both were signed 10-day contracts that afternoon and three hours were in the starting lineup.
This is not a new predicament for fans of the Thunder. For the past two seasons watching their team rack up losses as their best players sit on the sideline has become the norm.
Despite that, many Thunder fans still enter the Paycom Center each game night with hope for a brighter future.
“It was a long season. We have a lot of young guys,” said Luke Lowery from Aurora (Mo.) “There is not a lot of things we can do about it. We just got a lot of young guys who need to develop more. Got a lot of picks upcoming too.”
Oklahoma City’s best player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, signed a five-year, $172 million maximum rookie contract extension before the season began. When he has been on the court, Gilgeous-Alexander has put up the numbers. The 23-year old leads the team in scoring (24.5), assists (5.9) field goal percentage (45.3%), free throw percentage (81.0%) and steals (1.3).
However, by the time the season comes to an end, Gilgeous-Alexander will have played in only 56 games. The last time fans saw him in uniform was March 18th.
The same goes for rookie Josh Giddey. After racking up rookie of the month honors in the first four months of the season, the Thunder shut him down in late February.
“The season has been as expected,” said longtime Thunder fan Jay Thomas. “They kind of started shutting people down during the middle of the season. It was exactly the way they did it last year. Except they did it with younger players this year instead of older players.”
While fans like Jay Thomas said they understand the position the team is in, they do question whether benching key players for the sake of a draft pick instead of letting them play together is the right strategy.
“If we have these guys we are fighting for the sixth, seventh eighth seed probably,” Jay Thomas said. “Just because of how good they are and how much they want to hustle. But it is what it is. We’re trying to get a better place at the No. 1 pick. They are trying to build through the draft. So, we are just going to the games to have fun. Looking at it as a social outing instead of looking for wins. We’re still going to support them. Just didn’t have a winning season this year.”
While winning their final two home games seems to go against the overall plan, playing the draft gamble allowed Oklahoma City to not only draft Giddey, but they were able to pick up Tre Mann as well. But they will need even more to turn around a team that has been on the slide since making the playoffs in 2020.
“I did have more expectations on us coming in having a better season,” said Christopher Thomas. “Chris Paul is probably my favorite player. Losing him and his leadership, you can see that in these past two seasons. But I think we’re on the up and up.”
Through various trades over the past few years, Oklahoma City has racked up 36 draft picks through the next five seasons. That includes 19 first-rounders, two of which will come in the upcoming draft this summer.
After a decade of living in the postseason and being title contenders, watching their beloved franchise seemingly tank for two straight seasons is enough for many fans. No matter what happens in the draft or free agency, they’re hoping to see Thunder return in 2022-23 looking to do just one thing.
“Next season I want to see wins,” Jay Thomas said. “Don’t sit people. Stop sitting players that are not hurt. We have one, maybe two guys that are really hurt. Just keep winning. I hope we draft Jabari Smith from Auburn or (Paola) Banchero from Duke. We get one of those guys, plug them in and let’s go win.”
Story & Photo: Michael Kinney Media