Early Overreactions: Are the Thunder...good?
For a second straight season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been counted out of the playoff picture. And for a second straight season, they may defy the odds.
Heading into last season, the Thunder had exchanged Paul George and Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a boatload of picks. The George package was immense, but not expected to help them win in the short term. Westbrook-for-Paul was generally considered the right move for the impending rebuild, but not one that helped them win immediately. Gallinari was an expiring contract, and expected to be flipped at the trade deadline when OKC initiated the tank.
The tanks were never deployed though, because Paul revived his career and everyone else benefitted. Gilgeous-Alexander built off his stellar rookie season, Gallinari was more potent as a full-time power forward, and Dennis Schroder fit right in as the third guard. Suddenly the Thunder had a great closing quintet, one which torched the league by 26 points per 100 possessions.
They finished 44-28 in a loaded Western Conference, good enough for 5th place and a bout with the all-in Houston Rockets in the playoffs. They didn't win that series, but they made it the best clash of the entire first round by taking it the full seven games. Their best player in that final joust hasn't even been mentioned: rookie Luguentz Dort, who dropped 30 points while guarding James Harden full-time.
Entering this season, OKC once again got worse. Paul, Schroder and Steven Adams were traded for short-term contracts, young players and assets, and then some of those contracts were flipped for more good stuff. Gallinari departed in free agency.
After all the dust settled, the Thunder were left with a bunch of good veterans to support their young core: George Hill fits just about anywhere, Al Horford is a great utility big even if overpaid, and Trevor Ariza makes sense in a lot of lineups. The rest of the roster is almost entirely players on rookie contracts, but some of them are already good.
Gilgeous-Alexander has already embraced the spotlight. Both of OKC's games have come down to the wire, and he's been tasked with taking the last shot in both. He's 1-for-2, as are the Thunder.
Making his life easier is a hidden gem of a closing lineup: Hill defends his position well and hits 3s at a great clip, Dort is a defensive dog whose 3-ball can't be ignored, Darius Bazley has the tools to stick on defense and encouraging signs on offense, and Horford is a plus defender and shooter at the 5.
There's no defensive weakness to target in this group, and easy offense can be created out of an SGA-Horford pick play. Gilgeous-Alexander is so crafty with the ball and can hit a shot from all three levels, and Horford can either pop out of the pick or roll and make a play with his excellent passing vision. Everyone else is either firing away or attacking a closeout. The result is a plus-16 Net Rating (point differential per-100 possessions) in 45 minutes together.
After those five, it gets bleak. Theo Maledon, Hamidou Diallo, Kenrich Williams, Mike Muscala and Aleksej Pokusevski make up the bench unit through two games, with Ariza and Ty Jerome also candidates for regular minutes when they return. When your third ball handler and big are each rookies from overseas, things probably aren't going to go well. The numbers back this up, as OKC's bench unit has been absolutely torched by 47 points per 100 possessions (in only 11 minutes, but still).
The bench unit probably makes Thunder fans and brass happy. Tanking has been discussed quite a bit around this organization, especially after all the moves the front office made to offload good players in exchange for inferior ones. It would surprise absolutely no one if they were bad by midseason, traded the veterans, and bottomed out for a top pick in a loaded draft class.
But there's also a solid team in there right now. Gilgeous-Alexander is really good already, Dort is a starter on a ridiculously cheap contract, Bazley is on an upward trajectory, and basic probability dictates that someone from their bench unit is going to stick. Horford and Hill raise the team's floor as long as they don blue and orange.
Problem is, "solid" isn't good enough this year—especially not in the West. SGA is making great strides, but he can't be the only offensive fulcrum. He needs a partner in crime for OKC to be competitive all season. No one else on the roster is remotely close to that right now, which is probably by design.
Then again, if SGA can handle that big of a workload, and someone pops off from the glut of youngsters, they have a real team in place that can defy expectations once again.