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  • Alec Liebsch

2019-20 Team Obituaries: Oklahoma City Thunder

In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing the "obituaries" for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been around for under two decades, but they've been relevant just about the whole time. Inheriting a young Kevin Durant makes building a good team much easier, but they've drafted quite a few other big names too.

Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Serge Ibaka. Reggie Jackson. Steven Adams. The lure gets even deeper when included players traded for, such as Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and so on.

Getting quality production from draft picks is rarely enough. But the Thunder have more of an impetus to hit on trades, because their prospects in the free agent market are always bleak. Durant's departure in 2016 was about more than Oklahoma City, but him going from the midwest to California is telling of their situation.

Flipping two distressed assets, Oladipo and Sabonis, for a year of Paul George was considered a stroke of brilliance at the time. The Indiana Pacers were desperate to get anything for their former franchise player, because he was going to leave the next season anyway.

George's partnership with Westbrook went so well that he committed to three more years with OKC, plus a player option for 2021-22. But a first round exit last spring changed the franchise's direction; they saw the writing on the wall, and so did their stars.

The Thunder didn't have to trade either George or Westbrook, but it made the most sense with their ceiling capped. The lack of urgency worked in their favor, as they were able to create leverage against teams that were desperate.

The Los Angeles Clippers were doing everything in their power to recruit Kawhi Leonard, an unrestricted free agent coming off a championship run with the Toronto Raptors. With that pursuit came the burden of bending to Leonard's will, i.e. signing or trading for whoever he wanted to play with.

That player was George, and OKC pushed all the right buttons to pull it off. It extracted every last asset out of LAC, effectively making them act as if they were trading for both George and Leonard. The return was a record-setting of players and picks, the likes of which the league hadn't seen since the Stepien Rule was implemented.

And once George was gone, it didn't make sense to keep Westbrook either. He deserved to be on a contender for the last few years of his prime; the only issue was finding a suitor for the four years and $170.7 million left on his contract.

Enter the Houston Rockets. Their pairing of Harden and Chris Paul was very good, and Houston was really the only team to give the fully healthy Warriors a fight, but the two didn't get along as people. Both have been part of notable conflicts with other players, and they butted heads when put together, particularly in their last playoff series as a dyad.

Paul was the obvious choice to move on from, but it would be difficult for any team, let alone a team looking to rebuild, to incur the three years and $124.1 million he was still owed. Houston had to fork over the last bit of draft capital it could legally trade away to make a Paul for Westbrook swap happen.

From those two deals, the Thunder came away stocked with a true treasure trove of assets: (1) Two of the best three 2021 first rounders between the Miami Heat, Rockets and themselves; (2) The Clippers' unprotected first in 2022; (3) Swap rights on the Clippers' first in 2023; (4) The Rockets' top-4 protected first in 2024; (5) Swap rights on the Clippers' or Rockets' first in 2025 (HOU's swap is top-10 protected); (6) The Rockets' top-4 protected first in 2026; (7) The Clippers' unprotected first in 2026; (8) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; (9) Danilo Gallinari; and (10) Chris Paul.

That's more stuff than most people would know what to do with. With so many picks coming their way that are not based on their own performance, one wonders if they even had to undergo a rebuild. Paul was stuck in OKC for at least one season (and still very good), Gilgeous-Alexander was coming off an excellent rookie campaign, and other solid players were holdovers from last season.

This version of OKC had the flexibility to do whatever it wanted. In the end, it did more than anyone could've bargained for.

The results

A starting lineup with Paul, Gallinari and Adams in it has enough firepower to compete. Add in a second year leap from SGA, good production off the bench from Dennis Schröder and a hell of a coaching effort by Billy Donovan, and you've got something brewing.

That something was good enough for the 5 seed in the West. With the Point God setting the tone and a bunch of guys who fit well together, the Thunder churned out a sneaky-good team that finished 44-28.

Paul set the tone. He's known for hunting the mid-range and being really good in it, so OKC's other two ball handler also hunted the mid-range—and were really good in it. He seldom turns the ball over, so OKC had the sixth-fewest turnovers per game. In addition Gallo, SGA and Schröder all shot the ball more often than CP3 (per possession).

Their closing lineup of the three guards, Gallinari and Adams had a net rating of plus-26.8 in 177 regular season minutes. That trio's ability to create and hit shots from anywhere always gave them an upper hand in close games.

When the playoffs rolled around, they were pitted against those same Rockets that they made the big trade with last offseason. Paul had already provided the Thunder enough to justify the trade, but Westbrook's season with the Rockets had been scintillating at best.

Despite seeming en route to be on divergent paths, their journeys led them to the same place: a first round playoff series in the Orlando Bubble. It also ended up being the most exciting series of the opening round, going a full seven games with no shortage of great moments.

OKC's X-factor wasn't a familiar name, but he became one on this stage. Rookie Luguentz Dort was tasked with guarding Harden in this series, and for the most part he did an excellent job. He not only stayed with Harden laterally, but he also had the tank-like strength to absorb contact without fouling, a key advantage against someone with Harden's propensities.

Despite Dort's efforts, Harden still got to the line 8.6 times a game and averaged 29.7 points on a 61.8% true shooting clip. But there's only so much you can do against him, especially as a rookie. That the Thunder not only got him as an undrafted free agent on a two-way contract, but were also able to extend him for three more years and only $2.3 million guaranteed, is an enormous win for their organization.

Dort's weakness was on the other end, where Houston refused to guard him outside the paint. It was an effective strategy, as he only went 13-of-50 (26.0%) from downtown. OKC as a team only made 32.8% of its 3s all series; Houston picked its battles well regarding 3-point defense.

And in the end, superior talent won out. OKC's strengths with ball security and crunch-time scoring were mitigated in Game 7, where they committed 21 turnovers and overall stalled as an offense down the stretch. Even a 30-point effort from Dort wasn't enough to take them to the second round, though him having that type of game at all in year one is indicative of a luminous future.

The outlook

After all, the prospects are what OKC has to look at. It had no business being in the West's playoff bracket, let alone forcing seven games against a team with title aspirations.

But it did. Paul turned himself from an aging veteran on an albatross contract back into the floor general we've come to know and love. Instead of being the return for a worse contract like Westbrook's, he may actually garner some assets from a contender.

Gallinari is a free agent this offseason, but the Thunder won't be hung out to dry there. The market for spending expects to be lukewarm with the league's financials relatively up in the air, and next offseason will see a lot of teams trying to spend. There is an avenue for Gallo to be re-signed to a one-year "why not?" deal like Kyle Lowry signed with the Toronto Raptors, or for the Thunder to get something back in a sign-and-trade.

Whatever the Thunder decide to do with these two will probably be in line with their next coaching hire. They agreed to part ways with Billy Donovan soon after the season ended, an eyebrow-raising move at the time because of how well he did with them this season. The two parties expect to go in different directions, and whatever type of coach the Thunder hire next will be emblematic of their roster moves.

As for the supporting cast, decisions on them will be based on the above choices. They can't really create cap space, meaning that all they can use is some portion of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. They can either sign a forward who helps the team stay competitive, or take a swing on a young, restricted free agent that some other team doesn't want to pay.

Knowing how the Thunder operate, it's likely that they shift into more of a rebuild heading into 2020-21. They have the luxury of not needing to "sh*t or get off the pot," but as always, due diligence will be done.

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