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The X-Factors: Oklahoma City

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factor series with a look at the surprise of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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The groundwork has been laid out.

The NBA is another inch closer to resuming with a plan in place for 22 teams to congregate in Orlando. Disney World, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth” is set to be the location for the conclusion of the regular season, where each team will play eight games to determine the field of 16 that qualifies for the playoffs — and a play-in tournament between the ninth and eighth seed could happen as well if necessary.

With a “bubble” environment squared away and logistics being figured out, we’re about a month-and-a-half away from our first game action since mid-March. That’s why Basketball Insiders has been visiting each team that’s currently in the postseason picture by looking at potential x-factors surrounding them. We’ve knocked out quite a few to this point, so make sure to check those out.

Today, we’ll dive into the Oklahoma City Thunder’s chances to make some noise.

Firstly, it’s certainly worth mentioning that we may not be having this conversation if it weren’t for Chris Paul’s firsthand involvement. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne detailed how the talks started in the first place between Paul and Disney chairman Bob Iger. The veteran Paul is the president of the National Basketball Players Association and, in turn, great friends with Iger. The two mulled over the idea of the league coming back and how they could bridge the gap between the NBPA and the NBA Board of Governors.

Shifting to his work on the floor, Paul has played a primary role in putting the Thunder in position to make a run. His performances have uplifted his younger teammates and simultaneously proven that he is anything but over the hill. There were concerns about how much was left the tank after the Houston Rockets dealt him; they were very much misguided.

Paul’s true shooting percentage has dramatically increased, as has his efficiency with the ball in his hands. Playing alongside the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder in three-guard lineups, he has a great feel of where his teammates are going to be and knows where his shots are coming from. One of his best abilities is finding those crevices to pull up from the mid-range, which was the opposite of the Rockets’ philosophy. In Oklahoma City, he hasn’t been a square peg trying to fit in a round hole, and head coach Billy Donovan has allowed him to run the show and dominate in the pick-and-roll game.

Of course, being 35 years old now, it will be interesting to see how Paul rebounds from a few months off the hardwood. He’ll have to get himself back into game shape, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it took a week or two to do so. He’s the obvious first x-factor in all of this on the Thunder side of things.

Next up is Steven Adams. The mountain of a man in the middle, the 6-foot-11 Kiwi big is the king of the backtap. It’s a thorn in the side of every team that’s trying to secure a board and run the other way. Instead, extra possession after extra possession is the result, which gives out Oklahoma City a distinct advantage on the glass and chances to score a bucket. He also sets bone-crushing screens and can finish on the interior when they need him to. Centers like Adams don’t necessarily work best for those faster-paced teams, but the Thunder like to be methodical and slow things down in the half-court due to their defensive strengths.

That’s where Gilgeous-Alexander enters the picture. Though his second-year numbers are solid on the offensive end — nearly 20 points and 6 rebounds per game — the sophomore out of Kentucky pesters his opponents with frustrating length and in-your-shirt pressure. That leads to steals and forced turnovers quite a bit, which results in Oklahoma City being able to push it in the open floor with an advantage.

Of course, you have Dennis Schroder to pick the pace up when required. When Paul is out, he’s able to pack a powerful scoring and distributing punch off the bench. When Paul is in, he plays more off the ball and acts as a shooting guard. Schroder is taking five treys a game and knocking down 38 percent of those. He kind of cooled off post-All Star break – still, the Thunder boast enough playmaking and shooting to make up for it if he’s having an off night.

Danilo Gallinari might be having one of the most overlooked seasons just by playing the tertiary role on the squad. Over his last two years (so far), the Italian veteran’s produced to the tune of 19 points per game. He’s crashed the glass more on the defensive end as well, however, it’s the stroke that’s really been the weapon of choice. Gallinari is firing up a career-high seven triples on average. Playing the four is truly his sweet spot, stretching the floor and pulling bigger forwards out to the perimeter to make room for the speedy, lengthy guards to get into the paint.

Maybe the question on everyone’s mind right now is the status of Andre Roberson. It feels like forever since the top-tier defensive swingman has stepped foot on an NBA floor. That’s because it’s been since Jan. 27, 2018! He’s been recovering from a ruptured left patella tendon injury for over two years now. But now that we’re in June, Thunder general manager Sam Presti had some interesting comments to The Oklahoman surrounding his status.

Evidently, Roberson is healthy and progressing every day. The hesitancy to say he can make his return is based on the lack of on-court practice and reps. What makes it even tougher to assume this is who’s in front of him on the depth chart and rotations, too. Yet, if there’s even the slightest chance of him being cleared to play, it could be feasible for Roberson to at least play a stint or two in the games. Keep an eye on that situation because he is a game-changing defender, and the Thunder’s greatest strength is already on that end of the floor.

Oklahoma City’s second unit has a lot to offer as well. We’ve already mentioned Schroder, but it’s guys like Hamidou Diallo and Nerlens Noel that can flip the team’s pace in the snap of a finger. Rookie Lu Dort also received a ton of playing time after the break as a starter. It’s a really nice mix of youth and veterans that Donovan has to work with.

Based on the current standing, it’s conceivable that the Thunder could finish anywhere from third place to seventh. There is a giant logjam between the second-best team in the west and the final playoff seed. It’s impossible to predict the future on where they’ll be when all is said and done.

If you were to tell us that Oklahoma City would finish in that position before the season started, we’d have called you crazy — and that’s why Donovan and company should be proud of what they’ve already accomplished.

Now let’s see if the Thunder will be able to continue that momentum.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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