Welcome back to another edition of Basketball Insiders’ Now What? Series. Today, we’re focusing on the once-revered-now-rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have lost twice the amount of games that they won this season, which is pretty much right where we expected them to be. In spite of their immediate prospects as a team not looking good for the next couple of years, there may not be a young team whose future is brighter than OKC.
They already have the face of the franchise in the works. They have a few other intriguing young assets. They have barrels of first-round picks to use. Their record of 21-42 won’t impress anyone, but what’s there not like about where the Thunder are headed?
You can’t spell strength without S-G-A!
Okay, yes you can, but the point is, OKC already had its new face of the franchise before their rebuild even started when they traded for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Not many players can say that they averaged almost 24 points on 51/42/80 splits, but Gilgeous-Alexander can! Adding the 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds a game, and you’ve got a young superstar in the making! Oh and as an added bonus, Shai’s got some nice tutelage from Chris Paul last year and some gritty playoff experience from the last two postseasons, so when the Thunder start taking off, their new face of the franchise has got a good idea of what to expect in a playoff atmosphere.
He’s not the only bright spot in OKC. There is also Lu Dort. He’s followed up with a modest improvement in an increased role in Oklahoma City after a pretty solid performance in the bubble. 14.2 points a game is a pretty solid jump from 6.8, even if his shooting splits are not-so-modest at 40/35/75. Upon further review, Dort’s April numbers show that he might just have another gear or two to his game. 25.7 points and 5.7 rebounds with 47/46/72 splits in a seven-game span can make one wonder. Considering he hung 42 on the Utah Jazz, the winningest team in the NBA fighting tooth and nail to get homecourt advantage, Dort might be in the running for Most Improved Player next season.
Of course, there are other youthful prospects, like Moses Brown, Darius Bazley, and Keinrich Williams. They deserve a shout-out, but Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort. Those guys should be on OKC’s next playoff team.
When teams are rebuilding, it’s their full intention to be weak. That’s why it’s a little difficult to point out weaknesses in a team that doesn’t have much strength, to begin with. But can there be weaknesses in their rebuild? Let’s find out.
In spite of being one of the worst teams in the league, the Thunder can sleep well at night knowing that their future is in good hands. Sure their roster is weak, but they knew that all too well when they tore it all down in the offseason. It’s a small price to pay for what should be a great future ahead. They could not have played this any better. There is one loose end – Al Horford.
There’s no enjoyment in ragging on Horford because he’s had a nice bounceback year following the outright disaster he was in Philadelphia. By all indications, he still has enough left in the tank that by all accounts, he should be on a team that’s trying to win. It’s just that, nobody is going to want to pay almost $42 million (should he be waived in 2022) for a big approaching his mid-30s. The only way to trade someone like that is for a worse contract or if you’re planning on attaching assets to get him out.
The Thunder have publically declared their intentions of trading Horford this summer. Realistically, their options are either to wait out the contract until they can waive it, or waive it now and stretch the cap hit.
This section is probably what’s brought up the most by viewers who know anything about the Thunder these days. If there’s one thing OKC is knee-deep in, it’s opportunities. They own 17 first-round picks from now until 2026. Thanks to Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the Thunder have unprotected first-rounders that could be golden not too long from now or at could draw a disgruntled superstar in a trade. Other rebuilding teams would kill to be in a situation like that.
But there’s also something else they have on their hands. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort have deserved every last bit of praise thrown their way, but the one prospect that’s made everyone a bit curious is one Aleksej Pokusevski. Poku’s traditional stats won’t jump out at you in the slightest, but his slender frame, passing vision, and shooting stroke make him an unorthodoxly exciting prospect.
There may not be a player rawer in the league than Poku right now. For all we know, he could be a Giannis-type prospect or he could be another Perry Jones III. Either way, the tantalizing potential with Poku could very well be the deciding factor in if this new era of Thunder basketball being ushered in will be more fruitful in the playoffs than the last.
So, about those first-round picks. It’s never a bad idea to accumulate assets when you’re rebuilding. You just have to make sure you don’t go too overboard because one way or another, those assets are turning into players. This was a conundrum that Boston went through not too long ago. In the 2016 NBA Draft, the Celtics had eight picks. Five years later, the only one that has remained with the team is Jaylen Brown. Everyone else was traded away or waived in a couple of years. In other words, the assets were wasted.
OKC hopefully will do everything they can to not back themselves into a similar corner, but those 17 first-round picks over these next six years are going to be 17 human bodies one way or the other. The Thunder will have to choose carefully what they’re going to do with them. Luckily, Oklahoma City has all the time in the world to think up their next move, but this is something that they cannot brush to the side.
It’s saddening knowing that the Thunder had a decade-long window on their hands in the 2010s and only managed to get to the finals once. But, instead of moping around thinking about what could have been, they’ve been heads-on in their rebuilding approach. They now have the privilege of simply developing a fun and energetic product before it turns into something more meaningful.
But at some point or another, they’ll need to remember that they can’t go through a deja vu.
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