The Russell Westbrook trade came swift and heavy, just as the Paul George trade did before it. Gone were the two leading men of the Oklahoma City Thunder and with Russ in particular goes almost their entire identity. Ever since Kevin Durant left it’s been the Westbrook Show in all aspects. His whirlwind intensity and determination have continually lifted this team into the playoffs but it’s also capped their postseason potential at three straight first round exits. The relentless triple-double quest kinda gave the impression of a team sacrificing for its star rather than the other way around, whether that’s a fair impression or not.
But these are uncharted waters for the Thunder. They’ve never been without a superstar player since the Seattle Sonics drafted Kevin Durant. They’re not entirely without one now as long as Chris Paul remains on the roster but it’s a little different for a 34 year old with injury issues who has only just joined the team. Maybe the Thunder did need to change things up… but for once we really have no idea what to expect from this franchise heading into a new season.
Well, mostly. Because we do know one thing for sure and that’s that with the plethora of draft picks that they acquired in those two trades – which could see them with multiple first round picks for the next five years if things break right – this is a team that is ready to embrace a rebuild. The cupboard is stocked full. Now it’s just a matter of turning those assets into All Star players… either through the draft or by trading some of those picks around the place. But don’t get swept up in the rebuild thing because the Thunder aren’t in a position where they have to tank all of a sudden. They’ve got first rounders from Miami, LAC, Denver, and Houston on the way – including pick swaps – and they’ve got a half decent team already as it is so they can probably afford to have the best of both worlds here. Their own draft picks are hedged against the outside ones they’ve picked up hence they can try to remain as competitive as they can while also hoping things turn ugly in Miami and praying that Kawhi and PG dine and dash at the Clippers and that the Rockets lose their mojo by the middle of next decade. Their prospects are nicely spread out.
Plus OKC already have some funky youngsters who can be part of the vision for this team moving into the future. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is amongst the most promising guards in the league after a rookie campaign with the Clippers that saw him shooting 47.6% from the field and 36.7% from deep. His per-36 numbers had him at 14.7 points, 4.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals. He’s going to get a prominent role with the Thunder to grow upon that first impression. Surrounding him are players such as Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, and Darius Bazley who could all emerge from under Russell Westbrook’s shadow to do something interesting. Not sure it’s worth getting too invested in any of that trio but you never know.
This OKC starting five is pretty good. Chuck SGA at the two and pair him with a healthy (fingers crossed) Chris Paul and there’s an extremely useful backcourt with solid shooting and playmaking as well as a mix of youthful athleticism and veteran presence. Danilo Gallinari has had his own struggles with injuries in the past but the Italian was immense last season, dude was damn near at an All Star level as he scored a career-high 19.8 ppg while hitting at 43.4% from deep. At the Clippers his impact was buried by Tobias Harris and Lou Williams. Here he’ll get the chance to be a leading scorer.
If Andre Roberson were fit then he’d probably start and be the dude to guard the best player on the opposition each night but he’s not fit and banking on him to get back to his old self any time soon is starting to feel like a losing cause. So Terrance Ferguson probably starts and in that case he’d better be clicking as a shooter. He made small strides in his second season… whether or not he makes some more substantial steps this time could have a lot to do with where this team’s ceiling is. And then of course there’s Steven Adams, nothing else that needs saying there. He’ll probably get his own individual season preview in a few weeks.
That’s a starting five which has some shooters, which can play some defence, and which should have enough options to be able to do those two things consistently. The problem for Billy Donovan comes when those lads need a rest because this bench is… oh sweet jeezus this bench is bad. You’ve got Dennis Schröder as the ball handler. Him and his non-existent defence and sketchy jump shot. You’ve also got relatively limited big fellas in Nerlens Noel and Mike Muscala. And beyond that it’s guys with minimal NBA experience. The rookie Bazley might emerge as a contributor and that’d help things but yeah this Thunder team does not have the capabilities to go swimming at the deep end.
So is it enough to push for the playoffs? It could be. If things go right and Roberson is able to play a prominent role and Ferguson takes a big leap and Chris Paul stays healthy and a couple of the young bench guys are able to do some things then you never know, they could be a playoff team. But Russell Westbrook didn’t ask to be traded because he thought this roster was too good for him. Still, without his ball-dominant style it’s possible that a few of these lads are unleashed in the same way that Russ himself was unleashed post-Durant… probably nobody more than Steven Adams as he’ll now have permission to actually get some defensive rebounds and with more respected shooters around him, not to mention the psychic vision of Chris Paul as a passer, those scoring numbers might just zoom upwards for Kiwi Steve too. There’s a little bit of a feeling that perhaps he withholds his own game too much, that he could be a more influential player if he asserted himself more. We might be about to find out… although the best thing he could do would be to start making his free throws, let’s be honest.
There’s a lot of upside there, a lot of players who could make the necessary improvements to keep the Thunder nice and frisky. But that’s also a lot of things to hope go right for them. And in a stacked Western Conference, it’s doubtful that’s anywhere near enough.
Okay, so the Golden State Warriors are surely a lock for the playoffs even without Klay Thompson (or Kevin Durant for that matter). The Denver Nuggets haven’t gotten any worse and the Houston Rockets should be up there. The Clippers have retooled with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, lock them in too. Portland Trail Blazers? They whupped OKC in the playoffs last time – highly doubt they can repeat as third seed but they’re a better bet than the Thunder for the playoffs. The Utah Jazz have added Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanović to a group that already included Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Joe Ingles. Watch out for that lot. And say what you will about the San Antonio Spurs in their current incarnation but that franchise hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1997.
And those, dear friends, are just the buggers who made it last time. There’s also the LeBron James/Anthony Davis Lakers to consider. The Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis Mavericks too. The Minnesota Timberwolves can do some things. And don’t look now but the Luke Walton-coached Sacramento Kings could be rather decent themselves – they won 39 games last time and have only gotten better in free agency.
All of which adds up to suggest that the Thunder are going to need a bit of a blessed season if the playoffs are to be on the cards… and one thing that makes that even more unlikely is that it doesn’t really matter to them if they make it or not. Priorities are elsewhere at the moment and while that doesn’t mean they won’t be trying their best to win as many games as possible… it does mean that if they get on a losing streak they’re much more likely to become sellers at the trade deadline than buyers trying to push for the top eight. OKC have narrowly edged under the luxury tax and have no intentions of going back over and paying a repeater.
Schröder’s $15.5m for each of the next two seasons would be first on the list of offloads. Gallinari’s expiring $22.6m deal would be wonderful for a playoff team needing that extra hand… though matching the salaries makes it tricky - OKC have trade exceptions but they really only want to drop salary and there’s not a lot of cap room available around the league… maybe a cap dump paired with picks/prospects would work though. Chris Paul’s monster contract makes him almost untradeable so he might have to make a decision about whether the money’s more important than playing for a contender (he could always hang around and play a couple years on minimums after this contract expires, to be fair, depending on how his body holds up at age 37). Also not convinced that there’s a market for Steven Adams with the contract he’s on ($25.8m in 19-20 and $27.5m in 20-21), the big man market in free agency made that one clear enough. But if Andre Roberson comes back strong then an expiring ten mill will get some attention.
You never know what’s going to happen before it happens and that’s one of the beautiful things about the start of every season – there’s always that unfiltered hope and possibility regardless of what your realistic expectations may be. But the perspective has shifted for OKC over the last few months. The priority lies further down the horizon. And they’re probably not going to make the playoffs.
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