The Thunder are going to be a problem

NOTHING BUT NET 44

When most people talk about the Thunder, the conversation inevitably goes to all the future draft picks they’ve hoarded. They actually had 4 1st round picks in 2023 (some conditional) before they traded 3 of those to acquire the 11th pick in this year’s draft and snag Ousmane Dieng. But they still have (including their own picks):
2023 – 1 1st, 2 2nds
2024 – 3 1sts, 3 2nds
2025 – 3 1sts, 3 2nds
2026 – 3 1sts, 2 2nds
2027 – 1 1st, 4 2nds
2028 – 1 1st, 2 2nds

So that’s 12 1st round picks and 16 2nd round picks over the next 6 years. Obviously the Thunder aren’t going to just sit back and make all of these selections, given the limited roster spots that will be available. But it does give them a lot of assets to cash in for difference-making players should the right one become available. And it does like every year 1-2 players of this caliber become available.

The real conversation to be had, however, is just how good the Thunder can be with the roster already in place.

PLAYOFFS?

It’s crazy to think about at first. The Thunder went 22-50 in 2020-21, the equivalent of being 25-57 overr a full 82-game slate, and then actually seemed to level off or even slightly regress in 2021-22 by going 24-58. But it’s wrong to just look at the record.

Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were the surprise team that everyone was fawning over. After seemingly running in place for the first 3 years of their rebuild they suddenly vaulted to the top of their conference, on pace for 50+ wins until their team was ravaged by injuries. Still, they ended up 44-38, ostensibly a 19 game improvement. While they missed the playoffs by losing both play-in games, consider that they were only 4 games behind 5th place Toronto and only 7 games behind 2nd place Boston despite their youth, inexperience, and injury-depleted roster.

The Thunder are just now hitting the same checkpoints that the Cavaliers did, which indicate that they weren’t as bad as their record indicated last year and that the combination of internal improvement by their young veterans, the talent they were able to add in the offseason, and the size/length advantage they’ll have over most teams has them poised for a similar leap.

MAN GAMES MISSED

The Thunder established 7 players as future building blocks last year, and all of them missed significant time:
– Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (age 23): 26 games missed
– Josh Giddey (age 19): 28 game missed
– Luguentz Dort (age 22): 31 games missed
– Darius Bazley (age 21): 13 games missed
– Tre Mann (age 20): 22 games missed
– Aleksej Pokusevski (age 20): 21 games missed
– Theo Maledon (age 20): 31 games missed

Those 7 players, despite their youth and inexperience, combined to average 90.1 points in 187.5 minutes per game. None of their injuries are a long-term concern.

Giddey was spectacular as a rookie; had he stayed healthy he would have been in strong consideration fo Rookie of the Year, no small feat in a class that includes Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley, and Cade Cunningham. And SGA had staked a legitimate claim for booth an All-Star spot and 3rd team all-NBA consideration with the way he was playing.

The team had 13% of their minutes played by guys who are unlikely to be in the league next year beyond a cup of coffee, guys like Olivier Sarr, Mamadi Diakite, and Lindy Waters III. Upgrading those minutes will translate to a more competitive team.

TALENT ADDED

Through the draft, the Thunder added 4 more players who should be considered building blocks, and who all are versatile skilled players with length:

  • #2 – Chet Holmgren, 7’1″ 195#, 20 yo
  • #11 – Ousmane Dieng, 6’10” 216#, 19yo
  • #12 – Jalen Williams, 6’6″ 195#, 21yo
  • #34 – Jaylin Williams, 6’10” 240#, 20yo

It should not be discounted that all of these players are actually stoked to be in Oklahoma City. Holmgren, a true unicorn of a prospect with no historical comp, reportedly tanked his workout with the Orlando Magic to ensure that they would bypass him with the #1 pick and he would slip to the Thunder. The two JW’s are already making Spiderman memes.

Dieng is the biggest project who may take a bit longe to develop, but he was highly sought after and was excited that the Thunder traded into the spot to take him instead of ending up with the Knicks or the Hornets, two teams whose coaches are notorious for burying young prospects.

Holmgren is the key. He could do for the Thunder exactly what Evan Mobley did for the Cavaliers. He can handle the 5 spot when other teams go small and but also slide to stretch 4, which will probably be his main spot long-term, when matchups dictate that. His defensive instincts are NBA-ready and his high basketball IQ makes him an ideal match for a passing savant like Giddey. He is adept at playing without the ball but knows what to do when he gets it.

Jalen Williams is a great fit for this team. For some teams, drafting him at #12 would have carried an expectation of developing into a more significant role like a consistent 2nd option. In OKC, he can be the 4th or 5th option who occasionally carries the load for stretches. Williams should flourish in that spot and given all of the tools in his toolbox, he should be able to fill a role regardless of with whom he shares the floor.

SIZE/LENGTH

All 11 of the Thunder’s young core are at least 6’3″ tall, and 6 of them are at least 6’8″ tall. The size, length, and versatility they’ll be able to throw out there with various lineup combos is scary. And now they have some depth, so if someone does have to sit out the cupboard is not quite so bare.

Having a point guard as tall as Giddey with such advanced passing skills is a huge advantage. His court vision makes him special. He can be paired with one of the smaller guards like Dort or Mann (if 6’3″ is small) if the opposing team has a quick small point guard that will create a matchup problem for him; this would neutralize any potential defensive shortcoming while still maintaining the offensive advantage.

The jokes about the slim towers, Poku and Holmgren, have already started, but the joke may really be on opposing teams. This duo functioning at their peak, with their ability to both shoot and handle the ball, could be devastating. It doesn’t hurt that both players are exceedingly confident in their abilities. The two could feasibly run the pick-and-roll, which has never really been seen before with two players of that size.

The team is missing bulk down low, but that only puts them at a disadvantage against a handful of teams as most teams have either gotten away from a traditional center or have one who can be exposed to an extent that it offsets whatever advantage he has.

OPTIONS

The ultimate trump card that the Thunder has are all extra future assets. Once you filled out the roster and young players get more experience, it becomes easier to identify that there is 1 major hole to fill, or maybe 2, rather than 4 or 5. Being able to narrow down and more clearly identify the gaps makes it easier to determine who to target in the market. The Thunder are in a position where they can outbid other suitors for the right player and even overpay if absolutely necessary. Maybe they make a play fo Bradley Beal. Or maybe something terrible happens in Minnesota and the Thunder pounce on the opportunity to steal Karl-Anthony Towns. There’s even a world where a Kevin Durant homecoming might make sense – the Thunder could make a huge offer to the Nets that doesn’t destroy the young core and still leaves a few future assets.

Give all of these factors, it wouldn’t be surprising in the lease for the Thunder to find themselves in that 35-40 win range, battling fo a play-in spot, and having the opportunity to play meaningful games after the All-Star break for the 1st time in 3 years. Players like Dort and SGA do have some playoff experience and showed that they can handle the pressure. If they can stay on the court for the whole season, things could get interesting. Having hit home runs with their last two high lottery picks in Holmgren and Giddey, the tanking is over. Teams like the Kings and the Spurs who were looking at the Thunder in their rearview mirror might all of a sudden be choking on a cloud of dust.

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn
Email