A relatively unknown 24-year-old arrived in Oklahoma City right before the 2009 trade deadline, coming over for the final months of the Thunder’s inaugural season.
Thabo Sefolosha provided an 18-minute spark in that first game, backing up the ineffective Kyle Weaver in a 133-120 loss to the struggling Warriors.
Scott Brooks, apparently, had seen enough. Three nights later — on Feb. 24, 2009 — Sefolosha made his first Thunder start, tasked with slowing Kobe Bryant and the eventual NBA champion Lakers.
The third piece of the starting puzzle was in place. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were charter members. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins hadn’t arrived yet. But Sefolosha was in tow, soon to become a stalwart of an OKC lineup that would quickly lead a young franchise into the NBA’s elite.
Over the next five seasons, Sefolosha started all 377 of the games in which he appeared.
But that all changed this postseason.
Following a regular season littered with injuries and an extended shooting slump, Sefolosha’s struggles worsened in the playoffs. With his steady defense showing some decline, his continued offensive woes rendered him nearly unplayable.
So in Game 6 of the Memphis series, Brooks benched a healthy Sefolosha for the recently acquired Caron Butler, saying OKC needed an “offensive spark.” He didn’t play another minute in the series.
Sefolosha, though, did return against the Clippers and even had a solid Game 2 (14 points, three steals), but it didn’t last. After going scoreless on 0-of-9 shooting in the first two games against the Spurs, he was benched for good.
“It’s just tough,” Sefolosha said at his exit interview. “You’ve got a lot of questions, like: ‘Why and what is the thought process necessarily behind it?’ Things like that. You just stick with the plan, stick with your teammates. But definitely, it’s frustrating at times.”
In the final four games of the Spurs series, Sefolosha played briefly in mop-up duty. But he was out of the rotation, his season and, potentially, his Thunder career over.
Sefolosha hits unrestricted free agency for the first time this offseason. It already seemed unlikely the Thunder would bring him back. And his eroding playing time and that late benching, which seemed to irritate Sefolosha, only strengthened that narrative.
“It’s kind of hard to get into a rhythm when you get in and have to sit down for extended minutes like this and not really knowing if you’re going to get any shots or anything, any kind of rhythm,” Sefolosha said. “The system at that time and the way we play didn’t really favor for me to get the opportunity to get into some sort of groove.”
Sefolosha left the door open for a return in his exit interview, saying that, while playing time and opportunity matter: “I like winning.” But in all likelihood, that could be it for one of the longest-tenured Thunder players on the roster.
“It was a great time. The organization, the teammates, the friendships that I’ve built here with the guys,” Sefolosha reminisced. “It’s nothing but positive things. Looking back, we did some amazing things.”
But all good things come to an end.