Over the course of the first week of the season, the Thunder have looked competitive in the games that the team has played. Oklahoma City have not been outplayed and have been a team that plays competent basketball. At this moment in time, the Thunder are in a difficult position.
The Thunder as presently constructed are too good to tank; the starting five just knows what to do on the court. Every player knows how a good offense should run and there is a commitment to consistently producing high-quality looks. Players like Al Horford and George Hill are valuable when it comes to winning games; they are less valuable to a team that wants to be at the top of lottery at the end of the season.
The bench unit is fairly thin when compared to other teams in the league. Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski have a lot of potential but this potential will not be realised overnight. It will take time for both of these rookies to grow into being quality NBA players.
Coach Mark Daigneault has been able to mask some of these weaknesses by designing a rotation that ensures that a veteran player is on the court at all times. Oklahoma City have always had two playmakers on the floor as well. Daigneault’s work on this front has been very good; Coach has integrated two rookies into his rotation without much disruption.
The Thunder are not good enough to beat contending teams such as the Nuggets or Lakers, there is simply not enough talent on the roster. However, Oklahoma City are more than capable of beating bad and mediocre teams. A team like the New York Knicks would not be much of a challenge for the Thunder.
I would argue that the Thunder’s play is not just a product of small sample size. In a regular season, the argument could be made that the Thunder’s strong performances are an aberration; a peak before regression to the mean.
The short preseason and a relentless schedule means that a team has to play well every single night to put wins away and edge closer to a playoff berth. There is not time for a feeling-out process where a team works out what it is. This is especially true in a Western Conference where it seems like every single team has a chance at making the playoffs.
The shortened season will also mean that the Thunder do not have the luxury of time when it comes to making decisions about the roster. It is widely assumed that Al Horford and George Hill will be dealt; the only question is when will Sam Presti pull the trigger on a trade?
Both veterans hanging around until the deadline in March could mean that the Thunder remain competitive for too long and there is not enough time to tank adequately. A trade earlier in the season will make the tank more successful but a rushed trade may mean the return on the trade is not as good as it could be.
Hill’s contract stands at $9.5m for the current season; he will be relatively easy to trade to a contender. Horford’s contract is more difficult to move as there are few teams who could absorb his deal without sending back two or three players. $27.5m is difficult to match in season for the majority of teams in the league.
Horford staying until the next offseason seems fairly likely given the size of his contract and Hill being dealt during the season is probable. However, are these trades enough to get the Thunder a high pick in the 2021 NBA Draft?
There is another option to be considered and it is very similar to what the Thunder did last season with Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari. Horford and Hill both play out the season and the Thunder’s tank is delayed for another year. Delaying the tank may seem foolish but there are benefits to this approach.
Winning games is the perfect way to promote and enhance the reputations of veteran players. Paul was viewed as an albatross with attitude issues before he landed in OKC; Chris ended up being one of the most desirable players of the 2020 offseason.
The same outcome can be achieved with Horford and Hill. This approach may increase the return that each player can realise in the trade market. Oklahoma City may end up getting back a first and a second for Hill instead of just a protected first round pick.
The other clear benefit is that winning is conducive to the development of young players. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort will all grow immeasurably if they end up playing meaningful games late into the season. A full season of mentorship with two good veterans should also not be ignored.
The criticism of this approach is that the Thunder will fail to get a high pick in the 2021 NBA Draft; the chance to get a blue-chip prospect will be lost. However, this criticism does not hold much weight when the Thunder’s asset cupboard is considered.
Oklahoma City have acquired so many draft picks for the purpose of building a strong team that can compete in the long-term. Oklahoma City did not get these picks so that they could take prospects in four or five years time. The Thunder could use these future draft picks to move up in the 2021 NBA Draft and get the player that they want.
This sort of deal would cost draft capital but the Thunder would be in the position to get a guy like Cade while ensuring that the young core has ample time to grow as players in a good environment. Oklahoma City would be able to balance development and building for the future.
Sam Presti does not have an easy decision to make when it comes to the Thunder roster. Quick, decisive action will be needed to ensure that the Thunder meet their goals for the season. Whatever Presti decides, his choice will need to come quickly.