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A New Dawn: 10 Questions for the 2019-2020 Thunder

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NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a new dawn for Oklahoma City Basketball this year. And while certain crazy people will try to tell you about the beauty of watching the sunrise, most people wisely sleep through the dawn. why? Because dawn is actually pretty lame! It’s dark, it’s chilly, you can’t really see anything without squinting, and you’d rather stay in your nice warm bed.

But rise and face the new dawn we must, and there are interesting things to be seen at Dawn- you just have to know where to look. So here are 10 things to watch for as the next era of Thunder basketball begins.

How often does Shai Gilgeous-Alexander run things solo?

This is first because it is (in your humble writer’s opinion) the most important question of the season, and something Billy Donovan and Sam Presti have total control over. The Thunder have two other, more experienced point guards in roster, one of them a living legend, and all three point guards are among the six best players on the team. The temptation will be to always have two on the court.

But Shai needs to be given time to run the show himself, without having to lose possessions to Paul’s expert manipulation or to Schroeder’s community theater Westbrook impersonation. Shai is capable of playing well alongside other ball handlers, but the Thunder need to see what he can do solo. Both the team and Alexander will be well served by him getting 10-15 minutes a night as the only point guard on the floor

How productive (and healthy) are CP3 and Gallo in their new homes?

Chris Paul will retire as a top 10 point guard all time at worst. But he is also 34, coming off two consecutive seasons in which he missed 24 games, and looked a step slower last season, unable to blow by bigger guys off the dribble. The good news- he should be asked to do that less this season, now that he’s out of the “draw a switch and then iso” system that the Houston Rockets ran last year. Billy Donovan, coaching a Westbrook-free team for the first time, should be revitalized by his partnership with the pass-first Paul- the Thunder’s ball movement looked better than in preseason than it did for all of last year, partly because CP3 plays that way, but also because he’s sharing the floor with multiple ball handlers and creators who can ease the load on him. I would expect his field goal percentage to rebound from the career low it hit last season, while averaging around 17 and 8.

In contrast to CP3, Gallinari is coming off his best ever season, where he averaged nearly 20 points a game for the Clippers on a career high 63% true shooting, and stayed healthy (by his standards) appearing in 67 games. Can he do it again? Gallo’s career year was fueled by a huge spike in his 3 point accuracy (43% versus a career average of 37%), and it’s probably fair to expect that number to be closer in line to his career average. He still figures to be OKC’s leading scorer to start the season and an above average starter, but I wouldn’t expect the near All-Star level he played at last season

Expect these guys to miss a combined 35 games at least given their history.

What does a career year for Steven Adams look like?

Barring injury, there is no question in my mind that Steven Adams posts his best ever statistical season this year. Russell Westbrook was aided in his eternal quest for the triple double by Adams’ dominance as a box-out artist. While there was a strategic reason for that beyond stat-hunting (Westbrook could immediately initiate the fastbreak, creating transition opportunities where they wouldn’t seem to exist), the fact remains that Adams is now free to just grab the rebound himself (and, if he’s feeling feisty, throw an outlet pass or even dribble it up the court himself. As his former teammate would say, WHY NOT?) Adams should crack 12 rebounds per game with ease. His scoring could take a jump too- CP3 will not take as many shots as Westbrook, and Gallo will not take as many shots as Paul George. Shots will be there for Adams, who averaged 16 points per game in just 22 minutes a game in the preseason AND expanded his range beyond the 3 point line, unleashing a laser guided precision jumper. How often will that shot go in when the games count, and how often will the Thunder be willing to let him shoot it (taking a 3 prevents him from getting any offensive boards, which will still be his signature)? Unclear. But even with other mouths to feed, Adams should be able to average at least 16 points per game thanks to the presence of multiple pick and roll partners in the starting lineup and his ability to create second chance points.

Can Terrence Ferguson do more than shoot?

T-Ferg excelled in his role last year, shooting 36% from 3 on about 4 attempts per game. That was just about all he did on offense, as he averaged less than 2 non 3 point attempts per game, most of those being dunks and layups in transition. That’s fine for a low usage role player, but if T-Ferg ever wants to be more than that, this is chance. He’ll be sharing the court with 2 talented distributors in Paul and SGA, and the Thunder actually ran a couple plays for him in the preseason. He’ll still probably get the fewest shots of anyone in the starting lineup, but the Thunder’s more democratic offense this year could lead to opportunities for T-Ferg to expand his game. He doesn’t need to be able to bring the ball down the court and run pick and roll, but if T-ferg is able to catch the ball coming off a screen and drive the lane or flash the ability to pump fake and drive when guys close out on him in the corner, he’ll be a far more dangerous player. This is the year to try it.

Who gets minutes on the wing?

With Andre Roberson’s health status still a mystery, the Thunder only have 2 veteran wings- Ferguson and Gallo- on roster. There’s minutes to go around, and the Thunder have two young guys who should get a chance to take those minutes- reigning dunk contest champion and 2019 first rounder Darius Bazley.

Diallo looked raw as a rookie even as he impressed with the occasion monster dunk and received a few spot starts and here and there. Bazley didn’t play any college basketball, instead taking a yearlong internship with New Balance as he prepared for the draft, but looked more polished than I expected in preseason. Both guys will benefit if Billy Donovan can bring the pass happy ethos glimpsed in preseason to the bench unit, rather than just spacing around Dennis Schroder-Nerlens Noel pick and rolls and waiting for catch and shoot 3’s. Ideally we’ll get a chance to see both of them play alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Shai + bench lineups. If these two, especially Bazley, are able to get consistent rotation minutes, then OKC’s core might be bigger than just SGA. If they lose out on minutes to Abdul Nader...not so much.

How does the three-headed monster look?

We already know that Billy Donovan plans to play all 3 of his point guards together at points- in fact, he started all 3 of them in the preseason opener. That is a fascinating lineup. On the defensive side of the ball, it means Shai is likely to be tasked with defending the opponent’s best wings, including small forwards, which is a good test for him. Offensively, it could open the team up to run a lot of interesting concepts with two of the guards in motion while the third handles, hopefully leading to someone catching the ball with a bit of a head start. Since all 3 are capable downhill attackers, any crack that appears in the defense can be quickly exploited. That should create a lot of open 3’s, and that’s where this unit will sink or swim- Paul is a deadly on the catch and shoot, but Schroeder is the other kind of deadly (deadly to his own team’s chances) and Shai was a good but reticent shooter his rookie season. He was far more bombs away in the preseason (over 4 attempts in just 22 minutes per game), and if he connects at a decent clip on higher volume this unit will thrive. Even if he doesn’t, there’s enough combined smarts and playmaking form these 3 guards to make it work on offense. The real question: is will they be able to stop anybody?

Can OKC survive a brutal start?

Here is the Thunder’s first schedule through the first two months of the season:

At Utah

Vs Washington

Vs Golden State

At Houston

Vs Portland

Vs New Orleans

Vs Orlando

At San Antonio

Vs Golden State

Vs Milwaukee

At Indiana

Vs Philadelphia

At LA Clippers

At LA Lakers

Vs Lakers

At Golden State

At Portland

Vs New Orleans

If OKC manages to go .500 over that stretch they should be absolutely thrilled- that is a brutal opening stretch. If OKC simply splits those first 18 games, they’ll have proven themselves in the conversation for the playoffs even in the loaded West. And if they do, then by all means they should push for that spot- it probably means the team is in someway notably better than anticipated. However, OKC could easily start the season something like 6-12. If that happens, and especially if OKC doesn’t quickly rebound against a much softer December Schedule, the team could quickly pivot into full rebuilding mode. There’s no chance for this team to find their footing- it’s straight into the fire.

Who gets traded?

OKC has 4 guys who could be of interest to other teams looking to chase the playoffs or even reach true contender status. A potential deal for each of them:

Danilo Gallinari to Portland for Hassan Whiteside and Portland’s 2021 First Rounder, lottery protected.

Portland will be a tad thin with guys like Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood playing at the 3. They could really use a guy who’s big enough to defend opposing wings (even if he’s not a true stopper) while spacing the floor on offense. Gallo fits, and his ability to create his own shots could help the team when Dame Lillard or CJ McCollum rests (or are just going through cold spells). The Blazers will be good and a threat to make the playoffs for as long as Dame Lillard is in his prime killing teams (RIP Westbrook-era Thunder), but they feel short of true contender status right now. The biggest impediment to this deal is Portland finding the guy they need from someone else - but Gallo would fill a lot of their needs and could probably be had for only one first round pick.

Steven Adams and Andre Roberson to Boston for Gordon Hayward, Milwaukee’s 2020 First Round Pick, and Boston’s 2021 first round pick, Lottery Protected

Boston has a roster full of talented guards and wings. What they lack at the moment is rim protection protector and rebounding. No top level team would benefit more from the Big Kiwi than Boston. To make the money work, Roberson also has to go - if he’s healthy, Boston could actually make good use of him against teams like Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and if he’s not, he’s an expiring contract and Boston doesn’t lack for wings even without Hayward. OKC gets two first rounders- one for losing Adams, one for taking on the final year of Hayward’s massive contract. If the teams can agree on one of Boston’s rookies instead of a pick that works too.

Dennis Schroder for...anything.

Okay, fine.

Dennis Schroder to Dallas for Courtney Lee and two second round picks.

Some team on the edge of the playoffs could probably make use of Schroeder as a 6th or even 7th man. OKC probably wouldn’t get much in return. In this deal, they get off the last year of Schroder’s deal (Lee is expiring this year) and get a couple second rounders for their trouble, plus they free up more time to run things solo for SGA. Dallas gets an extra ballhandler on the second unit if they don’t trust Jalen Brunson or JJ Barea (or maybe Rick Carlisle just runs a 4 guard lineup). Bonus: Schroder is the best German in the league now that Dirk has retired. Nobody is really happy with this deal but some team out there will talk themselves into Schroder if they’re in danger of missing the playoffs, and OKC will talk itself into getting at least something back for him. The art of the deal!

Chris Paul and Denver’s 2020 First to Miami for DION WAITERS, Meyers Leonard and Justise Winslow

This deal probably doesn’t happen in season, but if it does come to pass, or if it has to wait until the offseason, OKC should absolutely be willing to throw in an asset alongside Paul to get Winslow back as part of the deal instead of just taking on mostly dead salary (Dion, listen man, I’m trying to negotiate from a position of strength here. You know that I know how valuable you are. You’re gonna win MVP when you come back to OKC!). Winslow is good- he’s big, he has the vision and feel to play some at the 1 and thus would make an intriguing fit next to SGA in a jumbo backcourt, eh can defend multiple positions, and he can shoot it a little, and he’s the kind of “young veteran” who can help OKC stay afloat for a rebuild and still be valuable when the Thunder return to contention. Paul, unless he really falls off a cliff, can and will help the Heat win games, and is the main asset in this trade. But the heat will be loathe to give up Winslow, and OKC should be equally loathe to move Paul without Winslow being part of the haul. The Denver pick gives Miami an extra asset to balance things out.

Who’s tanking?

If OKC is out of it by the trade deadline and ships out some or all of their veterans, then the last two months of the season figure to be devoted to “developing younger players”. Or as you and I call it: tanking!! Thanks to the NBA’s lottery reform, there’s far less of a statistical advantage to having the worst overall record as opposed to the 4th worst record or even the 7th worst record. The Pelicans won the lottery last year with that 7th worst record. And finishing with about the 7th worst record should be in OKC’s grasp, since nearly every team in the West (because the 6th-13th teams are all pretty good ) and nearly every team in the East (because the 6th-13th teams are all pretty bad) can talk themselves in to making a run for the playoffs. The only teams who are absolute locks to miss:

  • The Charlotte Hornets (replaced Kemba Walker, 2nd team all NBA Point Guard, with Terry Rozier, 2nd worst starting point guard in the NBA)
  • New York Knicks (drafted RJ Barret, a controversial prospect whose talent was undercut by Duke’s lack of spacing in college, and somehow gave him even worse spacing than he had at Duke. They will also be the only team with a worse starting Point Guard than Terry Rozier- no matter which of their 3 bad point guards they start!)
  • Phoenix Suns (look actually their offseason wasn’t terrible, but their defense is still going to be terrible despite Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio won’t improve their offense enough to get them into the playoff picture in a loaded West)
  • Memphis Grizzlies: (Ja Morant is my pick for Rookie of the Year, but he’s not going to be good enough right away to lift Memphis into the playoffs).
  • Cleveland Cavaliers (Big year for Collin Sexton. Does he build on the impressive second half of the season he had last year, or does he stumble, elevating Terry Rozier to third worst starting Point Guard in the NBA?)

I would bet on those 5 teams to finish with a worse record than OKC, even if things go bad early for OKC. I would guess fellow playoff longshots Minnesota, Washington & Atlanta also see the writing on the wall by the trade deadline and head into tank mode down the stretch, leaving OKC somewhere in the mix for 6th-9th worst record. The race is on!

What is OKC’s final record?

33-49; after a rough start in those brutal 18 games, OKC stabilizes a bit in December. But the writing is clearly on the wall about the playoffs by January, and Gallo and Schroder re shipped out by the deadline. Adams and Paul hang around, as Sam Presti is unimpressed by the deals offered for those guys. But Paul does miss plenty of time down the stretch, and the Thunder let the young guys run free for the last two months of the season. They end with the 7th worst record in the league praying for good lottery luck, and a very impressive sophomore season from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander softens the blow from the first non-playoff season in 5 years.

We back!