Could the Rebuilding Thunder Actually Be a Playoff Team?
When the Thunder shipped out Russell Westbrook and Paul George this summer, the organization accumulated a slew of draft picks, and a couple promising prospects, as well as an intriguing crop of veterans. It was expected that a full rebuild was to follow in Oklahoma City.
At the time of this writing, however, OKC is positioned in the seven spot in the Western Conference standings with an 11-12 record. Is this Thunder squad in position to compete for the postseason?
First, let’s figure out how many spots will ultimately be available. The top five spots will presumably fall to the teams in Los Angeles, Houston, Denver, and Dallas. Utah has some issues that need to be worked out, but the Jazz will more than likely have a better record than OKC as well. That leaves two postseason spots.
Oklahoma City will have to battle Phoenix, Sacramento, Minnesota, Portland, and San Antonio for those final two slots in the standings..
San Antonio is in a bizarre state of uncertainty; the Spurs made the playoffs as the 7th seed last year, but have seemingly taken a step back in 2019-20. DeMar Derozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and company keep the squad competitive, but there are far too many holes on the roster. The deadly duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum make the Trailblazers a threat, but injury woes might doom Portland’s season.
Sacramento and Phoenix are two teams that have been rebuilding for some time, and both are solidly in the hunt. Even without De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have been able to string together some impressive victories (road wins in Dallas and Houston). Buddy Hield has taken his game to the next level while players like Harrison Barnes and Bogdan Bogdanovic have stepped into key roles as well. Meanwhile, the Suns have gotten significant contribution by committee. Phoenix has seven double-digit scorers, and DeAndre Ayton has yet to make any real impact.
Even with Andrew Wiggins’ quality start to the season, the Timberwolves hold a lackluster 10-13 record. Karl Anthony Towns is averaging 26.1 PPG on 42.4 percent perimeter shooting, and 11.7 RPG. The teams depth is underwhelming, though.
At the end of the day,Oklahoma City has the best starting five out of any of the others in contention. Leading the team with 18.8 points per game, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has taken a big step forward in his second season. Chris Paul (despite that horrific contract) is still pouring in 16 points as well. Danilo Gallinari has quietly put together an impressive season as a three-level scoring stretch-forward. And Steven Adams is having a career year on the defensive glass with Russell Westbrook out of the mix..
The Thunder bench is where the Thunder’s future becomes unclear. Dennis Schroder has been a quality contributor off the pine, averaging 16.7 points per contest, and bringing elite quickness to the court. Nerlens Noel and Hamidou Diallo have been serviceable, but the rest of the OKC reserves have had minimal impact this season. The absence of Andre Roberson is still being felt.
Beyond Roberson, health will be a critical factor for the Thunder. Paul and Gallinari have been known for missing extended parts of time frequently.
All told, the Thunder seem to be firmly in the mix, with more than enough assets for general manager Sam Presti to improve the team. If Oklahoma City can stay healthy, a return to the postseason seems likely for this improbable Thunder team.