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Five Questions for the 2020-21 Oklahoma City Thunder

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NBA: Preseason-Chicago Bulls at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Good heavens, look at the time - the NBA is back! Perhaps you didn’t notice, what with the holiday season, the ongoing global pandemic, and the fact that last year’s bizarre season only finished like two months ago. Yet here we are.

To prepare for a Thunder season that will be very different than the past several, here are five questions that OKC will look to answer this season.

  1. Can Shai-Gilgeous Alexander be a lead ballhandler?

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the primary reasons for the Thunder’s surprising success last season was the breakout of Shai Gigloeus-Alexander. Expectations were high for the sophomore guard when he arrived as the centerpiece of the Paul George trade, but he more than lived up to his billing, leading the Thunder in scoring and minutes.

He was comfortably the second-best player on a solid playoff team, behind only the rejuvenated Chris Paul (is the fountain of youth secretly located beneath Chesapeake Energy Arena? Or is getting away from Houston just that good for your health and mind?) - not bad for a 21-year-old.

Paul is gone, as is Dennis Schroder, which puts SGA in a new position - the face of the franchise, and also the lead ballhandler. While SGA played some point guard in college and with the Clippers as a rookie, he spent nearly all of last season alongside CP3 or Schroeder (or both).

That left SGA to mostly play like a “classic” shooting guard - mostly looking to create his own shot when he had the ball, and spending a good deal of his time off the ball, which he was obviously quite good at.

While SGA’s points per game nearly doubled from his rookie season to his sophomore season, his assists remained perfectly flat at 3.3 per game in both seasons.

That should change this season. While the Thunder figure to start George Hill as the nominal “point guard’,” Hill is not a classic lead ballhandler - in fact, his career average for assists is 3.2, nearly the same SGA’s.

While Hill will probably be charged with running more offense than he was during his stints in Cleveland and Milwaukee, he still won’t command the ball like Paul or even Schroder. That leaves SGA to pick up a lot more of the playmaking duties than last year.

Given this new reality, SGA’s raw assist totals are almost certain to increase. The question is if he can be efficient enough in his playmaking to profile as a long time lead, or at least co-lead, ballhandler for OKC.

It will be worth keeping an eye on his assists percentage, his assist to turnover ratio, as well as his potential assist numbers (OKC has, to put it mildly, a lot of guys who may struggle to actually score the ball even if given wide-open looks), as well as watching SGA’s ability to run the offense in the halfcourt.

There’s no shame if he fails in that role, by the way - it’s a rare player who averages 19 points per game on decent efficiency and plays good defense their second year in the league.

Even if he doesn’t improve his playmaking ability SGA will still be a 20+ PPG scorer who can guard well - the type of player who makes an all-star game or two in their prime. But if he becomes an above-average playmaker, he starts to become something more. He’ll be given plenty of opportunities to develop that skill set this season.

2. Are these the Forwards of the Future?

Here’s a quick fill in the blank quiz: Darius Bazley had the best rookie season in OKC since____? His season was better than the debuts of Hamidou Diallo, Deonte Burton, Abdel Nader, Terrance Ferguson, Dakari Johnson, PJ Dozier, Alex Abrines, or Semaj Christon, for one simple reason: Bazley looked like he belonged in the NBA as a rookie, which is more than you can say for the last few seasons of Thunder rookies.

Maybe that says more about OKC’s recent draft track record than it does about Bazley, but it was exciting to have a Thunder rookie earn a consistent spot in the rotation and show real flashes of skill during that time, particularly during the bubble. So it was doubly exciting when a second rookie, Luguentz Dort, emerged almost from nowhere to become first a starter and then a go-to playoff stopper against James Harden.

We’ve had months to digest it now, but it still bears repeating: the Thunder tasked an undrafted rookie with guarding James Harden in the playoffs- and it worked! Dort defended Harden one-on-one better than almost anyone we’ve seen and his ability to do so brought OKC to the precipice of an upset.

Dort and Bazley profile as the starting forwards for this year’s Thunder. At the moment, that’s the case as much because of their own accomplishments as it is because the Thunder lacks other options. This season is an opportunity for Dort and Bazley to prove they should be part of OKC’s long term future.

For Bazley, that means continuing to improve his offensive game. He was okay on 3’s last year, hitting 34.8% on 2.3 attempts per game. He’ll need to at least double his attempts this year. Despite his decent 3 point percentage, Bazley’s total field goal percentage was under 40%, because he, candidly, sucked at 2 pointers last year.

Bazley’s shooting profile was pretty good: 41% of his shots were from deep and 38% at the rim, per cleaning the glass, with the remaining 21% coming from the midrange. Bazley was absolutely putrid on midranges, hitting just 29% of them. He was also atrocious at finishing at the rim, converting 52% of his attempts there last season, which put him in the 7th percentile for his position, per cleaning the glass. Yuck.

Bazley looked better in the bubble - he seemed to have gained strength and weight, which will help his finishing at the rim. Rookies often stink at finishing the rim. If Bazley can get closer to league average at finishing at the rim, up to his volume of threes, and continue flashing his ability to create his own shot, he’ll start to be quite the nice offensive player. If he can’t get better at the rim - still the best place to score in basketball - he’ll struggle.

For Dort, his ability to defend alone should make him a lock to stick in the NBA. But to avoid becoming the next Andre Roberson, Dort will at the very least need to be able to hit open threes. His confidence is not lacking- the Rockets dared Dort to launch threes and Dort took 8 per game in the series.

He hit just 26% of them, but he never stopped shooting, which led to his 30 point game 7 where he drilled 6 threes on 12 attempts. That game was an aberration, of course, and the Rockets were right to cede those threes to Dort- it allowed them to key in on more dangerous offensive threats like SGA and CP3, and Dort couldn’t make them pay until he final game.

That will continue to be how defenses play Dort until the playoffs until he proves they shouldn’t. His confidence is where it needs to be - we’ll see if he can translate that into more makes this season.

3. How long are the veterans going to be on this roster?

NBA: Preseason-Chicago Bulls at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder are clearly entering a rebuild. The goal this year will not be to win the title, or even make the playoffs, but to give the young players on the roster the chance to develop and grow. That’s fine for the young players, who can be confident that better days will come in the future. But for the veteran players who found themselves on the Thunder’s roster once the whirlwind of summer translate

After the last two seasons of roster teardown, the Thunder find themselves composed almost entirely of young players who may not be ready to win yet, but ooze with potential. The goal for this season will mostly be to develop those players, with the wins and playoff runs to come in the future.

But a few veterans did wind up in OKC after the dust settled on this summer’s round of musical trades, and for them the calculus is different. George Hill, Al Horford, and Trevor Ariza have already peaked as NBA players, have little developing left to do, and face ticking clocks on their careers. These guys can help good teams win now - only they’re on a team that isn’t very good or particularly interested in winning.

Luckily for both parties, their short-term interests are aligned. OKC would be happy to trade all three guys for even more draft picks, and they’ll get a better return if those guys play well. Similarly, if those guys play well, teams will be more interested in trading for them, speeding up their exit.

The exception might be Ariza, who is away from the team indefinitely. His situation might more closely mirror Andre Igudola’s last year when Igudola never played a game for the Memphis Grizzlies until they moved him to the Heat at the deadline. Hill and Horford though, will likely start and feature prominently for OKC. Hill seems a lock to get moved by the deadline- his ability to hit shots, defend, and keep the ball moving to make him a good fit for contending teams, and he’s on a relatively cheap contract.

Horford might end up lasting the whole year for OKC. He’s coming off perhaps the worst season of his career as part of an ill-fitting Philadelphia 76ers roster, and he’s got an expensive contract that runs multiple years.

Horford will need to rehabilitate himself a bit before he can be traded, but he’ll have a good opportunity to do that. OKC fans are going to love this guy, assuming he isn’t completely washed. He’ll give them both a stretch element and a good passing/handoff game, and should be very good for SGA’s development. And while his defense slipped last year, he’ll be playing center instead of power forward again this season which should help (though the Sixers were merely average on defense when Horford played center last season - a mildly troubling sign).

Even athletically reduced, however, Horford remains a smart player who can quarterback a defense- an asset for an OKC team that features several talented but inexperienced defenders. Horford isn’t the greatest rebounder for a center and quietly rebounding might be a real weakness for this year’s team, but he’ll give OKC a capable defensive backline and his offensive game should help the young guys grow. Still, he’s the likeliest to last the whole season in OKC, and at this point, I’d predict he will.

4. What are the Thunder’s rookies?

If you have 20 first-round picks amassed, as Sam Presti now do, you might as well swing for the fences on them - after all, if you miss, you’ve got another 19 picks to burn. That’s the logic behind OKC drafting Aleksej Pokuševski, who spent the preseason alternating from looking like a future All-NBA player and looking like someone who’d never played basketball before, occasionally on consecutive possessions.

I have absolutely no idea what Poku is going to be as an NBA player and have no clue how likely he is to succeed or fail. One thing I’m comfortable predicting: he’s going to be entertaining to watch this year.

Then there’s Theo Maledon, OKC’s second-round pick from France. Maledon will compete with new arrivals Frank Jackson and Ty Jerome for minutes, but he’s big enough to play some two-guard alongside one of those guys. If he’s good enough to secure a spot in the rotation, the Thunder need to try him out alongside SGA at points as well.

We don’t know anything about how these guys will function at an NBA level yet, and we won’t have a full answer by season’s end either- but in a year where OKC’s bench unit might be quite depressing some nights, watching these two will a least give OKC fans something to look forward to.

5. Just how bad is this team going to be?

The Thunder, from an organizational perspective, is not trying to win this season. The players and coaches are going to be competing and trying to win every night, but the front office purposefully shipped out veteran players for future draft picks and replaced them with young players high on potential and short on experience. The Thunder lacks the high-level talent necessary to make the playoffs in the NBA.

But will they be the worst team in the league? Hmm. OKC’s starting five should be pretty good on defense - SGA, Hill, and Dort are one of the stronger trios in terms of perimeter defense, and Horford should provide some rim protection and smarts on the back end. Of course, someone is actually going to have to grab a rebound once the opponent misses, but the starters should be able to be right around league average on defense overall.

Offensively, as mentioned, they’ll be relying on SGA’s ability to create for others at a level he hasn’t yet been asked to do, and Dort and Bazley will need to hit enough threes to keep their opponents honest.

They can scrounge points in other ways- Horford’s handoffs and post passing, and perhaps first-time coach Mark Daigneault, with no superstar level players to cater to, can create the kind of “system buckets” off play designs and cuts that OKC hasn’t really had in past years. Even so, points will be hard to come by unless SGA makes an enormous leap.

Even if the starters are solid overall, there are two problems. First, Hill figures to get moved at some point, and possibly Horford as well. Second, even if those guys play all year, the bench units will probably be a mess.

Mike Muscala looks like the only experienced backup center on the roster, and he can’t protect the rim at all - OKC’s only option would be to turn to the unproven Moses Brown or an undersized option like Poku or Isaiah Roby. Bazley might end up playing some backup 5 out of necessity.

New arrivals Ty Jerome and Frank Jackson will get chances at backup guard despite not being particularly impressive in previous seasons, as will Maledon. At forward, Hamidou Diallo will still be around to occasionally throw down huge dunks, but can he do anything else? Kenrich Williams, Justin Jackson, and Darius Miller don’t appear to be anything more than back of the bench guys.

Maybe OKC can get something from one of them, but all in all, this bench is going to struggle both to score and to get stops.

Between the average-ish starting unit that could get worse with trades and the less than an inspiring bench, OKC will be in the mix for the league’s worst record and top odds at the #1 pick in next year’s draft.

There are some other very bad teams out there, like the Cleveland Cavaliers (free Kevin Love), the New York Knicks (please put literally any shooters around RJ Barrett), the Detroit Pistons (I love Jerami Grant, but he is not the offensive player the Pistons are paying him to be).

And while seemingly every Western Conference team except OKC is gunning for the playoffs, someone (*cough* Kings *cough* Wolves *cough*) is going to have their hopes dashed early, accept the inevitable, and lean into the skid. It happens every year.

Still, OKC should finish with one of the four or five worst records in the league. That’s new ground for OKC, which is why the focus needs to be on the overall record than on the growth of SGA, Dort, Bazley, Poku, Maledon, and anyone else who can prove themselves worthy of this year.

And the Thunder should be an enjoyably bad team- unlike the process era Sixers, for instance, OKC already has an exciting young star, and just enough competent skill around him to make a watchable offense and defense.

Feel free to take a longer than usual snack break when the bench unit is in, focus on the spectacular things the young guys can do, and when things are at their worst, remember how many drafts picks the Thunder have come.