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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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Bulls’ guard Zach LaVine desires respect for new contract

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According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine wants the respect he deserves for his contract extension. On Monday morning before Team USA’s practice to prepare for Tuesday’s match against Spain, the 26-year-old guard said to reporters, “I just want my respect, that’s the main thing. I outplayed my contract. I’ve been very loyal to Chicago. I like Chicago. I just want my respect. If that’s now or later, it’s something we’ve got to work out internally.” In the 2020-21 season, in 58 games played, LaVine averaged 27.4 points, five rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. He also shot 50.7 percent from the field and was selected to his first NBA All-Star Game.

Regarding the “outplayed my contract” comment, his argument his fair. Last season, with 200 three-point field goals made, he ranked ninth overall in the league. Despite the Bulls finishing 31-41 (.431) last season, he led the team in points and assists. Per ESPN, they are also reporting that Chicago is trying to work out a four-year, $105 million contract extension for their star guard. Though, this deal is expected to fall below his market value. In terms of signing available free agents this offseason, some Bulls fans are speculating the organization will pursue either Knicks’ shooting guard/small forward Reggie Bullock, Lakers’ power forward/center Markieff Morris or Pelicans’ point guard Lonzo Ball.

On July 13, 2018, the 2014 13th pick of the draft signed a four-year, $78 million contract with the Bulls. LaVine earned $19,500,000 last season, and he is set to earn $19,500,000 in the upcoming season. It is not urgent for Chicago to extend LaVine’s contract this offseason. The organization will have the full rights to re-sign him to a new deal for next season in 2022.

However, the guard will also become an unrestricted free agent next year, so the Bulls should work towards fixing their salary cap issues right now. Referencing Spotrac, center Nikola Vucevic has a cap figure of $24 million. Of this amount, his future guaranteed cash is $22 million. One notable 2021-22 cap hold is Lauri Markkanen. His qualifying offer is $9,026,952, and his cap figure is $20,194,524. On March 2, 2020, Markkanen was recalled from the Windy City Bulls of the G League.

Furthermore, on March 25, 2021, center Nikola Vucevic and forward Al-Farouq Aminu were traded by the Orlando Magic to the Bulls in exchange for Otto Porter, Wendell Carter Jr., a 2021 first-round pick and a 2023 first-round pick. This is quite the gamble for the Bulls organization, considering they traded away two future first-round picks. Vucevic is set to earn $24 million for the 2021-22 season. Chicago has $56,679,846 available in cap space. Their current luxury tax space is $29,405746.

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Rockets decline Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option

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First reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets are declining Avery Bradley’s team option for the 2021-22 NBA season. On November 23, 2020, the 30-year-old guard signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He signed a two-year, $11.6 million deal. On March 25, 2021, the Heat traded Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a 2022 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for two-time NBA All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The 2022 first-round pick is an option to trade for a potential Heat or Nets pick. Plus, Houston received a trade exception, too.

Moreover, Bradley earned $5,635,000 this previous season; the Rockets declined his 2021-22 team option of $5,916,750 for next season. In other words, both sides have mutually agreed to part ways, so the six-foot-three guard is now an unrestricted free agent. In early February, it was first reported that the Washington native would miss three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Before this injury, he averaged 8.5 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game for Miami. Furthermore, he also shot a career-high percentage of 42.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Though, Bradley disappointed both of his teams last season, leading to the Rockets finishing 17-55 (.236), ranking 15th overall in the Western Conference. Last season was the first time since the 1982-83 season that Houston failed to win at least 20 games. Since the 2011-12 season, it was the first time the Rockets had failed to qualify for the playoffs. In only 27 games played, the 11-year NBA veteran averaged 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. He shot 37.4 percent from the field as well.

Likewise, the Miami Heat finished 40-32 (.556) last season, regressing from the team’s 44-29 (.603) record and sixth NBA Finals appearance from the 2019-20 season. Fans across social media are already speculating that the 2010 19th overall pick will end up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. If this happens, he would join the team’s newly established big three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.

After Bradley signed with the Lakers for the 2019-20 season, he joined the list of players in the league’s history who played for both the Celtics and Lakers. The list includes Brian Shaw, Clyde Lovellette, Mel Counts, Rick Fox, Don Nelson, Bob McAdoo, Isaiah Thomas, Charlie Scott, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal and Rajon Rondo. According to Bleacher Report, the Lakers are also interested in signing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.

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Mavericks will pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers.

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