The Oklahoma City Thunder looked like a promising team at the beginning of the 2018-2019 season; however, they had a disappointing finish yet again. When Damian Lillard drained a 30 plus foot shot to end the series, it brought up a lot of uncertainly for the Thunder’s future. Should they give Russell Westbrook and Paul George a third chance, or should they completely rebuild?
It seemed they were heading for a rebuild when they traded George to the LA Clippers and then Westbrook to the Houston Rockets. However, with the players they received in the trades: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and the plethora of draft picks, the Thunder have set themselves up nicely for the future and to compete immediately as we’ve seen this season.
The driving factor behind this team has been Chris Paul. Despite all the claims of Paul being a terrible leader, his veteran presence and overall leadership has been a big boost to this team. He is the clutches player in the NBA by points scored in clutch time. Additionally, he’s been more efficient shooting the ball, and his tremendous basketball IQ has sparked a more efficient Thunder offense and growth in the younger players. Paul is also among the elite in the pick and roll game, and this, in turn, has made both Thunder centers more efficient in the paint.
Shai Gilgeous Alexander is the young guard who was traded from the Clippers, but he plays like a veteran. He’s seen a nine-point increase in scoring and is continuing to grow as a scorer while also racking up assists. Shai is another clutch player and is second in the league in field goal percentage in the clutch. Shai does need some work defensively as the Thunder do give up 109.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (This number drops to 100.5 without him), but the Thunder overall is 3.7 points better with him on the floor.
Shai’s scoring ability is elite for someone his age. The gaudy numbers might not be there, but he can get a bucket when he wants. Shai can pull up for a jumper or put a couple moves on in front of the defender. Additionally, he can finish in traffic too. In the post, Shai’s footwork is excellent. The defender has no idea where he’s going, as he either will turn for a fadeaway or pump fake and go up and under for a layup. Nevertheless, his game is very smooth and fluid.
On the other hand, the Thunder have had more reliable scoring options in Gallinari, Adams, and Schroeder. Gallinari has been a very consistent and dependable scorer who can score from anywhere. He provides the Thunder with spacing, which is something they lacked last season, opening up the paint more for Steven Adams. Speaking of Adams, he continues to be one of the more underappreciated centers in the league and is a great offensive rebounder and rim protector.
Dennis Schroeder has also become a more efficient scorer as well. His points per game are up almost 4.5 points, his field goal percentage is up 5.4 percent, and his three-point percentage is up 4 percent. Instead of being a volume scorer, Schroeder has blossomed into an elite six-man off the bench who can score at will and should be the Six Man of the Year Award winner.
What I believe was a crucial move by this Thunder team is signing Lugentz Dort. He’s not a great scorer, but he is a great defender. Lugentz has held his own against some of the best guards in the league. He held James Harden to 10 points on 3 of 14 shooting, and Harden shot 1 of 11 from the 3 point line. He held arguably one of the best scorers in the NBA to 21.4% from the field. That’s just crazy.
I have to give credit to Billy Donovan as well. He’s running a unique lineup in which it consists of three guards, a power forward and center. This spaces out the floor a lot and opens up more opportunities in the post-game and for isolation.
This offense is best to run in clutch time. A three-man lineup consisting of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroeder, and Shai Gilgeous Alexander is second in the league in net offensive rating and second in total net rating as well. This lineup is mainly running in the late second quarter and in clutch time as well. In the playoffs, having an elite closing lineup is essential, and the Thunder have one of the best.
Overall, this Thunder team is by no means a contender. However, I could see them doing some damage in the playoffs if they have the right matchup in the postseason. Regardless, they will be a tough first round for any team and maybe the biggest surprise of this season,