The Oklahoma City Thunder have some new toys to play with. Thanks to a trade deadline deal that saw Sam Presti bring in Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott (& a 2nd round draft pick) from the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow. If you want to read more about that deal – check out this piece.
But what does this mean for OKC and the young roster they have been building since day 1 this season?
The new-look Thunder are only a few games into “their” season together. So far Gibson & McDermott have looked to be quite handy additions, but it’s a small sample size (and with Victor Oladipo missing due to back spasms, we still haven’t seen the full complement of talent). Moving forward, with just over 20 games left of the regular season and a post-season tilt on the cards, just how has the move impacted the Thunder in the interim but also longer term? Let me break it down for you.
We are still not sure how Billy Donovan wants this to play out. As the new guys become more familiar with the team and the sets, I am sure his rotations and line-ups may change, but for now Gibson is playing his all-too-familiar role as back-up extraordinaire. Taj is accustomed to coming off the bench and he has been a very handy player for the Chicago Bulls during his tenure there. He has no ego, is a workhorse and puts the team first – never complaining about shot numbers or role on the team. He grabs his hard hat and lunch bucket and goes to work. But the Thunder might have to look at giving him a starting spot.
Sabonis has done a serviceable job, thrust into the frontcourt for the Thunder purely out of necessity. He has terrific pedigree and basketball IQ and is going to develop into a really good NBA player. However, since Christmas he has seen a decline in his output (many associate this with the “rookie wall”) and might actually benefit from a change in role and the addition of a mentor such as Gibson. The future is certainly bright for Sabonis and I’d suggest he is a big part of the Thunder’s plans moving forward, but for long term gain, he might be best taking a backward step.
If Billy Donovan decides to start Taj, he immediately improves the Thunder team defense without hurting them on offense. That’s a huge positive, and a nice respite from past teams who have always seemed to have to choose between one-way players who are either strong on offense or defense, but seldom both. The other benefit in that scenario is Sabonis gets to log the majority of his minutes against the opposition’s second units. For someone who has battled the starting PF against 29 other teams, this could be a welcome change. Sabonis has all the tools to be a quality NBA player, but his rookie season has so far been all about progress and learning the pace of the NBA game. Coming off the bench will ease the burden on him and allow him an intermediate level if you like, before being ready to commence his sophomore season as a starter.
Should Donovan decide that Gibson’s role is better suited to take advantage of the opposing teams’ reserves, there are still plenty of positives for Sabonis and the Thunder on that front too. For instance, Gibson is a much better defender and rim protector than either Sabonis or Enes Kanter. Playing him on the second unit alongside Kanter would – in theory – not see Oklahoma City fall away when the reserves take the floor. In that situation, Sabonis would still get exposure to the starting spot and will continue his development against the best in the business. He will also get to keep building on the chemistry that he has already established with Steven Adams and Russell Westbrook.
Either way, the trade for Taj Gibson helps Domantas Sabonis.
I’m talking all about the intangibles. The experience, the big game poise, the play off exposure, the veteran savvy. Sabonis as a young man in his first NBA season is now going to be able to form a relationship with one of the league’s most productive role players. And Gibson is the perfect mentor; while not blessed with all the athleticism of modern guys, Gibson has made a career out of footwork, smarts and effort. He is efficient and effective and plays within himself and the system he finds himself in. He has a bit of range on the jump shot, gets good position inside, and is crafty in his finishing ability. Sabonis should pull up a seat right next to him at every opportunity.
As a player, I am sure it’s a little worrying when your team drafts or trades for a player that plays your position. It’s only natural to have some fear over job security, role and ability for growth and development. However, in this case, I feel it’s a great win-win scenario for all involved. Gibson is a veteran nearing the end of his NBA career while Sabonis is just starting to carve out his own after watching his father deliver a very successful one.
It’s the perfect “succession plan.”