NBA

Stuck In The Middle With You: Where Do The Feel-Good Thunder Go From Here?

The league's most pleasant surprise has retooled brilliantly, but is already facing choices which could define its future.

THERE ARE NO TROPHIES FOR 13TH PLACE. In a 30-team league with twelve consensus “good” teams and fourteen lottery spots, it can be easy to view 13th-best as the worst-case scenario. For a franchise which was one of the most successful and promising of the prior decade, this positioning within the league hierarchy could be an even more bitter pill to swallow.

So despite this descent into relative mediocrity, why does it feel like the Oklahoma City Thunder are sitting so pretty?

The Sonics/Thunder franchise hasn’t won a championship since 1979, but paradoxically, its story over the last fifteen years is the story of the league itself. The bad faith annexation of the team from Seattle laid bare the stark realities of the NBA’s business model. As the machinations of the move were playing out, a team which had recently won 52 games began selling off its parts and becoming purposely terrible for more bites at the draft apple. It was The Process before The Process, and it worked better than anyone could have ever imagined. Over the course of three drafts, they plucked Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden, nabbing three future MVPs and a young core the likes of which the league had never seen. They won an average of 55 games over a seven-year stretch from 2010 to 2016 — extrapolating the lockout-shortened ’11-’12 season to a full eighty-two, naturally — going toe-to-toe with powerhouses in Los Angeles, Dallas, San Antonio, and eventually Golden State. The Thunder made four Conference Finals in that span, but only reached the NBA Finals once, where they of course lost to the fully-weaponized Heatles.

As the decade progressed, they became an avatar for shrewd front office management, but also for promise unfulfilled and the sobering inability for a small market club to retain top talent in the player empowerment era. And as the 2010’s came to a close and the diaspora of superstars was complete — first Harden, then Durant, then Paul George, and finally franchise tent-pole Westbrook — it was easy for a cynic to shift his gaze from where they were in 2010 to the gaggle of wayward assets posing as a real basketball team they now possessed and think, “What the fuck happened?”

But a funny thing happened on the way to OKC’s next full-scale rebuild: the team GM Sam Presti piece-mealed together is actually kinda good. A roster which was meant to serve as a jumping-off point to whatever’s next (and Vegas pegged at approximately 32 wins before the season) has proven to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. [Apologies to Miami, Toronto, and Dallas.] The Purgatory Thunder moved to 21-16 on Tuesday night with a thrilling, OT road win over free-falling Brooklyn to further solidify the seventh spot in the West (now 4.5 games clear of eighth-place San Antonio) and as the best team in the league outside of the consensus top-12 contenders. They are now on pace for 47 wins and a likely first-round exit. Prima facie, such a result might not look too dissimilar from the last three seasons, but the realities of how they’re getting there, and more importantly, where they go from here, couldn’t be more different.

First, the on-court stuff. The second unit remains a major work in progress, but it turns out that doesn’t matter so much when you have five really good NBA players who can all share the floor at once. Sometimes-maligned head coach Billy Donovan has unlocked a cheat code by surrounding my beloved Dothraki son (Steven Adams) and a versatile scoring 4 (Danilo Gallinari) with a three-guard configuration of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and nominal reserve Dennis Schroder. [I wouldn’t go so far as to call Donovan “much-maligned.” That feels hyperbolic. He certainly has some maligners out there, but it’s not like they’re going around holding protests or burning him in effigy or anything. Anyhoo.] This five-man group has played 108 minutes together so far (small sample size alert!) and is a stratospheric +25.6 points per 100 possessions.

Digging down further, the three-guard combo of Paul, SGA, and Schroder is +25.2 per 100 in a more robust 233 minutes of court time, so it appears this unconventional look is responsible for a lot of the success. [OKC’s top three 3-man combinations by net rating all feature Paul and Schroder. The next three after that feature Schroder and SGA. Suffice it to say, Dennis Schroder is going to be HEAVILY involved in the Sixth Man of the Year debate.] Each of the three brings a different element to the table, and they all have the length and/or smarts to compete at the defensive end. Combined with a do-everything scorer like Gallo and the garbage man of all garbage men in Adams, there is simply no weak point in the lineup to attack.

Having an elite five will make them a tough out in the playoffs, but depth does matter as well. After those top five guys (plus backup center Nerlens Noel, who we’ll get to), the roster falls off a cliff, and fast. The fifth “starter” is swingman Terrance “Turd” Ferguson. He could certainly develop further — amazingly, he’s still only 21 years old — but as it stands right now, he is just not the sort of NBA player who should be averaging almost 27 minutes a night. If you squint, you can see the vague outline of an athletic, 3-and-D wing in Ferguson, except for the fact that he doesn’t shoot or defend particularly well (32.2% from deep on almost four tries a game and a 113 individual Defensive Rating). Rookie Darius Bazley is further along than originally thought (particularly on defense), but he isn’t ready for the bright lights yet, and has a looooong way to go on offense. Abdel Nader, Mike Muscala, Hamadou Diallo, and Deonte Burton are all varying shades of ‘meh.’

The pleasant surprise has been Noel. After enduring myriad injuries, hyper-erratic play, and a contractual snafu early in his career, the 25-year-old Kentucky product is finally getting healthy (though he’s currently out with an ankle injury), becoming more mature, and looking like the elite defensive stopper he was projected to be out of college. He’s gradually reined in his spasmodic gambles and frequent brain farts, and what’s left is one of the most dominant defensive big men in basketball. [He’s averaging 5.1 steals + blocks per-36 minutes, and his Defensive BPM of 5.6 would lead the league if he met the minutes threshold.] On offense, Noel is still mostly a roller and dunker (almost 42% of his field goal attempts are dunks), but he’s effective in the role, and he hits his free throws (81% on 73 attempts). Noel will become a free agent again at season’s end, and could begin to make up for all that lost cash from a few years back.

As a team, a major driver of their success has been productivity in close-and-late situations, with CP3 doing most of the heavy lifting. The Point God is 34 and has entered a different stage of his career, but he remains damn effective in his first season in OKC. His assists are down — in part because of the more democratic offense touched on earlier — but otherwise, his numbers look fairly similar to what we would consider a “standard” Paul season. [It’s been three full seasons since he was named to an All-Star team, but the buzz for him as a Western reserve is beginning to pick up steam. I’m not quite there yet, but if they keep playing so well for the next two weeks, it will be tough not to give anyone from this team the nod, and CP3’s the most likely candidate.] Above all, Paul has thrived in “clutch” situations (under five minutes in regulation/OT and the score within five points), shooting almost 55% and ranking among the league leaders in fourth quarter scoring. Against Brooklyn, he got to the spot he wanted (primarily the right elbow) almost effortlessly on every trip down and canned jumper after jumper to keep the Thunder close enough to force OT and steal a win.

Left for dead after the sudden departures of George and Westbrook, the Thunder are instead the feel-good story of the season. They are a virtual lock to make the playoffs. Paul is rejuvenated and having a vintage season as the league’s best crunch-time assassin. SGA, the top prize from the PG trade, looks the part of a future star. Schroder, Adams, and Gallinari are thriving within the proper roles. And on top of it all, Sam Presti has amassed an unprecedented war chest of draft picks, with a chance to end up with as many as FIFTEEN first-rounders between 2020 and 2026. A year ago, they were a dead-end also-ran with an untenable financial situation, and now, they are a fun, vibrant, juggernaut-in-waiting, the bee’s knees in the NBA cycle of contention.

The future is now, and it’s a blast. But when you’re sitting on SGA, a bunch of monster contracts, and all the picks in the known universe, the future is also the future, and where Presti goes from here is what really matters. Despite the unexpected success, many fans (and the NBA Twitterati) still seem invested in the idea of blowing up this version of the roster with even more of an eye toward league domination at some indeterminate date. Paul has played well enough (and more importantly, stayed healthy enough) to perhaps make his albatross contract just the slightest bit movable, but now it’s reasonable to ask if the return — ostensibly, salary relief and even more picks — is worth disrupting the vibe. Yes, CP3 is owed another $85+ million over the next two seasons, and that’s scary for a guy with his combination of age, size, and injury history. At the same time, he’s a really good NBA player. While hoarding more draft lottery tickets is normally a good strategy to mitigate risk, at a certain point there are diminishing returns as those picks turn into actual humans (whether by draft or trade) who then require roster spots, money, minutes, and development. In team building, there are no “Get Out of Jail Free” cards. You just move to a better or worse cell block, depending on your choices.

The same idea, to a lesser extent, goes for Gallinari and Schroder as well. Both contracts seemed exorbitant when they were signed (Gallo is in the final year of a 3-year/$65 million deal with the Clippers and Schroder is in Year 3 of a 4-year/$70 million contract he signed with the Hawks), but now could be enticing to contenders looking to add valuable pieces around the margins. And OKC could likely get a decent return for either guy, but again, at some point, is it better just to have good players? Sure, they could lose Gallo for nothing over the summer, but the cap landscape this year is pretty grim. Presti might be in position to either re-sign Gallinari using his Bird Rights, or to extract a sign-and-trade from a capped-out team. Either outcome might be better than taking a deadline deal just to take one, and without making the current team worse in the process.

The flip side of this is perhaps more interesting: what if the Thunder want to be BUYERS at the deadline? They have Andre Roberson’s expiring contract ($10.7M) to help match salaries, Bazley as a young asset with upside, and all of the aforementioned picks. If they really wanted to, they could get aggressive. We don’t know yet if any truly big names are going to shake loose before the deadline (Aldridge? Love? Simmons?? KAT???), but if it happens, no one this side of New Orleans is in better position to jump into the fray.

Should Presti decide he wants to keep the current core intact while also chasing something bigger than the 7-seed — remember, a course of action which would have seemed insane three months ago but is now totally reasonable — the obvious targets would be upgrades on those Ferguson/Nader/Diallo wing minutes. Robert Covington makes a ton of sense for a slew of teams, but OKC could trump nearly any offer if they so chose. Reggie Bullock could probably be had from the Knicks for a song. Thaddeus Young is a proven role player, but he has struggled with his offense and his fit on the Bulls. Chicago might be happy to get a mulligan on his contract. Malik Beasley is set to be a restricted free agent and could see his role usurped by Michael Porter, Jr in Denver, so he may be available at a discount. Memphis has suddenly won six of nine and is locked in a battle for the 8-seed in the West, but if OKC comes knocking with a semi-juicy future asset for either Andre Iguodala or Jae Crowder, the Grizz would be foolish not to hear them out. Bogdan Bogdanovic could be pried away from the baffling Kings, though it’s unclear if Presti would have much interest in shelling out for Double Bogey in restricted free agency this summer. Point is, if OKC thinks they can climb up to the Denver/Houston/Utah/Dallas tier right away, they have plenty of ammo (and targets) to make incremental change, or even go big-game hunting.

Is this all too much knob-slobbing for the 13th-best team in the league? Perhaps. Are we foolish for investing all this emotional energy in a team with two injury-prone stars, a 180-pound face of the franchise who can barely buy a beer, and the GM who thought it was prudent to trade away James Harden? Maybe. But history repeats itself, and even as the past fifteen years continually hurled wild bullshit at this franchise (much of its own making, much not), it kept coming out the other side with compelling, competitive teams and innovative solutions to new problems. If anyone can navigate this promising but uncertain future, it’s the Oklahoma City Thunder. No matter what, we know it’ll be fun watching them try.

Top Photo Credit: The Athletic

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