With the All-Star Break, the unofficial halfway mark of the season, underway, the Thunder are off for a week. OKC has been one of the biggest surprises this season with how well they have played. Many thought they would be playing for lottery balls not for playoff seeding around this time in the season. Instead, the Thunder sit at 33-22 and the sixth seed.
The extended break provides the perfect time to sit back and reflect on how fun this season has been. I’m going to play the role of teacher and hand out grades to each significant Thunder player and their performance through the first 55 games of the season.
For this exercise, I plan on grading the players who have played a decent amount of minutes so far. So players like Andre Roberson, Justin Patton, Devon Hall, Kevin Hervey and Isaiah Roby will not be graded. Let’s start!
Chris Paul: A+
Not even the most optimistic Thunder fans saw this coming. Paul has been everything the Thunder could’ve hoped for, and then some. Paul could’ve easily taken the Andre Iguodala route and sat out this season until the Thunder found a trade partner. But nope, that’s not how Paul thinks. He told Sam Presti soon after the blockbuster trade that he is two feet in, instead of one foot being out the door, and he has backed that statement up all season long.
On the court, Paul’s traditional stats aren’t that impressive, averaging a career low in APG and a middle of the road scoring season for him. But his advanced analytics and per possession stats absolutely love Paul this season. Paul currently sits at 12th in total WS and 14th in VORP despite just a 22.8 USG%, which could also explain why he has relatively tamed per game averages. Paul has been an elite P&R ball handler and spot up shooter this season, landing in the 94.9 and 96.8 percentiles in each.
But what has made Paul get so much credit for a career resurrection has been his play in clutch situations. Paul leads the league in total clutch points this season at 128 points on 54.5 FG%. What’s funny about all of this is you could really make a case that Paul is more valuable in today’s NBA than Russell Westbrook is. According to 538’s RAPTOR, Paul has 5.7 WAR while Westbrook has a 1.9 WAR this season. The RAPTOR model really values what makes a good player in today’s NBA with heavily favoring things such as floor spacing, defense and shot creation.
Off the court, Paul has really embraced the leadership role and has fully embraced this team. You can just tell how much pride Paul takes in being The Guy on this team and there have been multiple examples of him watching out for his guys like when he bought the entire team custom suits or him standing up for Terrance Ferguson’s recent sabbatical. The NBA has noticed this too and Paul was rewarded by earning his first All-Star berth since 2016.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: A
Much like Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander has over delivered on expectations. Gilgeous-Alexander took a significant leap this season that many people saw coming now that he has the responsibilities of a #2. Paul has done a great job at taking a step back and letting Gilgeous-Alexander learn through experience.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s statistics, both traditional and advanced, have improved across the board from his rookie season. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging nearly 20 PPG as a 21 year old. The biggest reasons why he has an A instead of an A+ is the lack of play making skills he has developed this season, Gilgeous-Alexander’s AST% has decreased from last season despite a 5.6% increase with his USG%.
From what I’ve seen in games, it seems like Gilgeous-Alexander is a microsecond short on his passes, and sometimes goes blind when an open teammates is right there. That’s one of those things that he’ll get better with in time and hopefully his play making skills get better when his responsibilities increase once Presti blows this team up this summer.
My other big concern for the rest of the season is that Gilgeous-Alexander may develop tired legs when the playoffs begin due to all the heavy minutes he has played this season. Billy Donovan needs to be mindful and not overplay his second-year guard, who is currently 2nd in the league in total minutes. Don’t get caught up in the immediate future that it could hurt the long term future. But overall, Gilgeous-Alexander has been great this season and he looks like the type of player who would be a great 2nd/3rd option on a championship contender. Gilgeous-Alexander is the first big piece of a bigger puzzle for this franchise.
Dennis Schroder: A
Schroder has had a career season and should the favorite for 6MOTY. The usual inefficient guard is shooting a career high in FG% (47.2), 3P% (38.7 on a career high 5.2 attempts a game), eFG% (53.8), and TS% (57.6).
What makes this super efficient season from Schroder even more impressive is he’s done it on mostly jumpers outside of the paint, averaging a career high average distance 14.9 feet with his FGAs. You keep thinking that Schroder will eventually regress to the mean with his consistent shooting but the season is 67% and nothing. Schroder leads the team in both On Court Rating (6.0) and On-Off Rating (10.8), which mean the team has been significantly better with him on the floor.
My only complaint is that Schroder leads the team in USG% on a team when he should really be 3rd or 4th.
Danilo Gallinari: A
Gallinari has been as good as advertised this season. If there was a “fits on any team” lineup, Gallinari would own one of the F spots. Gallinari is averaging 19.3 PPG on a super efficient 61.7 TS%. Gallinari is having his best three point shooting season in his career, being elite in both efficiency (40.7%) and volume (7.3 attempts a game).
Everybody knows about how great of a scorer and floor spacer he is, but Gallinari has also been elite in the post. Gallinari is in the 85.9 percentile in post scoring per possession, averaging 1.07 PPP despite just 2.4 possessions a game in the post. Gallinari is 2nd on team in OWS (3.8), WS (5.2), OBPM (3.7) despite missing eight games. This has been just another typical super efficient scoring seasons for one of the more underrated players of this generation. I can only dream of the things he could’ve done on this team if he was in OKC a few more seasons early with the KD-Russ-PG teams.
Steven Adams: B+
Adams has had quite the up and down season for him, with most of those downs having to do with his health. I’m not the type to make excuses for players when they play poorly, but I can’t help but notice how most, if not all, of Adams’ bad games this season he has looked hobbled and hurt. His box scores numbers aren’t that impressive, averaging just 10.7 PPG and 9.3 RPG, but Adams has been valuable on the court when he’s healthy. Adams is 2nd on the team in DRTG at 106, VORP at 2.1, DBPM at 3.3. While he is 3rd in other value based analytics such as OWS at 3.0, DWS at 2.0, WS at 5.0, BPM at 4.3.
Watching Adams play throughout the years have been super frustrating because of how passive he is with scoring. People hoped now that guys like Westbrook and George are gone that would result in a more aggressive Adams but nope, it’s been more of the same with his team-first approach.
I do enjoy the fact that they have finally let Adams do more on offense besides doing the dirty work and cleaning up the boards with being more involved in the passing game this season. Adams is averaging career highs in APG and passes per game because of that and has been more involved in setting up plays at the top of the key and showed flashes of brilliant passing abilities that have been sadly under utilized all these years. Just please quit letting him play through injuries; if he’s hurting let him rest.
Nerlens Noel: B+
Noel has been great this season as the backup big and is having his best season since 2017 due to that. Noel is your typically dunks-and-blocks big who ends up on a lot of highlight reels due to his “go big or go home” mindset on the court. It’s also funny seeing how much advanced analytics loves Noel despite his limited role.
Nonetheless, Noel has been great this season and is a big time bargain for a guy making just $2M this season
Luguentz Dort: B+
Out of all the big surprises this season for the Thunder, Dort becoming a serviceable NBA starter for a playoff team has got to be up there.
After starting the season as an undrafted rookie in the G League, Dort has started in 12 of his 20 NBA games. Dort has provided some stability to the SG position with his pesky defense and his willingness to shoot the ball. The biggest question going forward will be if Dort can become a good enough outside shooter where NBA defenses have to respect him on open looks. But the defensive talent is there for sure, fighting through screens and hounding his guy all game long. The fouling needs to calm down a bit, but that’s expected with a rookie.
It’s only a matter of time before OKC gives Dort that prestigious full time NBA contract as he will need one to be eligible to play in the playoffs.
Darius Bazley: B
Bazley has been a nice surprise this season for a guy a lot of people thought would spend most of the season in the G-League to work out some of the raw talent. Bazley has shown glimpses of how good of a player he can be, specifically using his length and athleticism to finish some impressive drives and his confidence to take threes. But the rookie is still super raw as expected since he was seen as a long term project during the draft. Hopefully Bazley can return before the regular season ends since the Thunder lack any depth on the wings behind him.
Terrance Ferguson: C-
Ferguson has taken a major step back this season in his development. He has been more hesitant in shooting the ball and has missed a ton of time with both injuries and personal reasons.
First off, I hope everything in Ferguson’s life settles down and gets better. But Ferguson has gone from a zero on offense to a negative. On defense, he has shown he can still be an elite perimeter defender but he hasn’t shown it enough to where it justifies him playing significant minutes. Ferguson has got to take threes when he can, he can’t pass them up or else your just handicapping your team.
Hopefully the last 27 games are kinder to Ferguson than the first 55 gave been.
Hamidou Diallo: C-
Diallo started the season off great, and then he shattered his elbow and it has been downhill ever since. Diallo looks like the same player he was last season and being super athletic and super energized can only earn you so many minutes. Diallo still can’t shoot, and that has hurt him a lot this season. Diallo needs to work on improving some of his half court skills if he wants to be part of the rotation and if he can improve that would be such a huge benefit for OKC as Diallo is such a weapon in transition with his elite speed and athleticism.
Abdel Nader: D
Nader looks like the same Nader from last season. When given the opportunity, Nader can provide decent shooting and can score on his own at times. The issue with Nader is how often he gets tunnel vision when he touches the ball and how many bad shots are in result of that. Overall, Nader offers decent depth but that’s about it.
Mike Muscala: D
Muscala started off the year horrendous from three (25.0% in first 20 games) but has been better recently (35.7% in last 37 games). But when the only value that you bring to an NBA team is your shooting and ability to stretch the floor, you can’t afford to be inconsistent.
Muscala is basically this season’s Patrick Patterson and he’s another decent depth piece for this team. Muscala has stepped up in certain games when his number was called due to other players missing games though, so give him some credit for that.
Deonte Burton: F
Burton been pretty bad this season and he went from the fanbase’s darling to an insignificant player in span of one year. Burton’s inability to shoot from three has really hurt him to stay on the floor. If the Thunder make a move to get under the luxury tax or need to create space to give Dort a full NBA contract, Burton will most likely be the causality, as his salary is just enough to get underneath that line.
At 26 years old, Burton really doesn’t fit this team’s timeline, and when the highlight of your season has been you getting suspended for team conduct detrimental, then maybe getting sent back down to the G League to get consistent minutes or getting released to sign with another NBA team instead of rotting on the bench would be the better career move.