The return of the NBA has been long anticipated by fans. There have been no NBA games for almost four months. The hiatus has been uncertain, there were concerns that the NBA would not return at all. Those concerns still exist but as the restart date approaches, it seems probable that basketball will be played in Orlando.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the biggest storylines in the league this season. The Thunder were expected to be nowhere after the seismic trades of Russell Westbrook and Paul George in July of last year. It seemed likely that Paul and Gallinari would be dealt for draft picks and the rebuild would start in earnest.
Those expectations went out of the window when the Thunder put together an excellent run of victories in late December. During that period of time, the Thunder showed that the team wanted to fight for the playoffs. Oklahoma City toppled contending teams and came back from huge deficits to win games.
There should be no mistake made, the Thunder will be a competitive team in the playoffs. Oklahoma City are well-equipped to beat a team like Utah or Houston in the first round. The Thunder have the right combination of talent and mental strength to win games when it matters most.
The staff here at ‘Welcome to Loud City’ thought it would be a good idea to produce a list of things that you must know about the Thunder before the season restarts. This list is a refresher course of the Thunder’s season before the lockdown.
Chris Paul’s Renaissance:
The Russell Westbrook trade was huge for Oklahoma City. Westbrook was the cornerstone of the Thunder. The trade with the Houston Rockets shipped out a beloved son of Oklahoma for an ageing point guard who came with a lot of questions.
In his final season with the Houston Rockets, Paul was seen to be an injury-prone, washed up former star. Paul did not play well in Houston. Paul’s scoring efficiency fell off a cliff and his movement on the court was slow. Paul was not the All-Star who had helped lead Houston to the Western Conference Finals in 2018.
Paul has played excellently this season and his strong play is a key reason in the Thunder’s overachievement. Paul has looked like the floor general that he was during the prime of his career. Chris Paul is the guy the Thunder turn to when the game gets tight down the stretch. Paul has played the closer role well over the course of the season.
Paul’s statistics do not pop off the page but his play has been exceptional. It has been a joy to watch Paul orchestrate the Thunder’s offense. Chris navigates through actions with the same sort of precision and planning that a surgeon employs during heart surgery.
It has been brilliant to watch Chris Paul take on a leadership role with the Thunder. When the trade was made, there was a feeling that Paul did not want to be in Oklahoma. Paul is at the stage of his career where he wants to be contending titles. Oklahoma City are not a team challenging for the Larry O’Brien trophy at the moment.
However, Paul did not demand a trade. Instead, Paul got to work and started building bonds with his teammates. Paul’s constant communication has kept the Thunder on an even keel during games; the Thunder have not been prone to moments of madness this season. It is Paul who calls people out when they do not make the right rotation on defense.
Chris has also played an important role in mentoring the young players on the Thunder. Paul has worked closely with SGA on his game and treats Shai like a little brother. It is a similar story with Darius Bazley, Paul has made a point of building close ties with young players.
The influence of vets is important on younger players. A good vet will teach young guys how to eat, train and survive in the league. Paul’s mentorship is crucial in the development of SGA and Darius Bazley.
Schroder for Sixth Man of the Year:
Dennis Schroder has emerged as the leading candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award this season. Schroder has been an important scoring threat off the bench and a crucial part of the ‘Three Amigos’ lineup.
Schroder was an inefficient scorer last season. Dennis did not look comfortable within his role, the spark plug role off the bench was ill-fitting for Schroder. This season has been a totally different story. Schroder has scored efficiently from all three levels and has played energetic, aggressive defense.
Schroder’s defense has grown immensely over the course of the season. One of my favourite moments from the season was at the end of the Boston game. Schroder and Paul worked in tandem to trap Kemba Walker and steal the ball. That steal led to a game-winning bucket for Schroder.
Dennis’ overall impact on the Thunder warrants award. Dennis Schroder should win Sixth Man of the Year. Montrezl Harrell and Derrick Rose have both played very well this season but Schroder’s candidacy is just stronger. Dennis has the statistical advantage over these two players and his value to the Thunder has been greater than Harrell or Rose to their respective teams.
OKC like to win close games:
The Thunder have been very good at winning close games this season. Oklahoma City have won fourteen games by a margin of five points or less. OKC have displayed an ability to get stops or score crucial buckets when it matters.
It is has become normal to see the Thunder grinding out wins against good teams. Oklahoma City's games this season have often been thrilling and tense in crunch time. The Thunder have not had many blowout victories this year.
As a fan, I have loved watching the Thunder play basketball this season because it feels like every single game has meaning. In the past, the regular season felt like a necessary evil. It was eighty two games of basketball that did not mean all that much. All that mattered for the Thunder during the Westbrook Era was postseason success.
The regular season means more this year. Oklahoma City are battling for seeding and a favourable opponent in the playoffs. The Thunder winning close games against good teams is incredibly satisfying to watch.
The Fight for Third:
Oklahoma City are currently the fourth seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder have surprised everybody; I do not think many people believed the Thunder would be in the mix for home-court advantage. There was nobody who expected the Thunder to be in a battle for the third seed.
Oklahoma City have a real chance at chasing Denver down and securing the third seed in the Western Conference. The Nuggets are only 1.5 games ahead of the Thunder in the standings. The gap is relatively small and the Denver Nuggets have a tough remaining schedule.
The Nuggets have the hardest remaining schedule out of the Thunder, Jazz, Rockets and Nuggets grouping that currently occupy seeds 3-6 in the Western Conference. It is possible that the Thunder will be able to jump Denver in the standings.
Oklahoma City will play the Nuggets on August 3rd, a game which will be crucial in deciding seeding. The Thunder are evenly matched with the Nuggets in terms of talent and it is a winnable game for Oklahoma City.
The Thunder are looking towards the future as a franchise. Sam Presti has spoken on numerous occasions about positioning the Thunder for success down the line. Two players have emerged as people who could be important for Oklahoma City in the future.
Darius Bazley was drafted by the Thunder in the 2019 NBA Draft. Bazley did not take a traditional route to the NBA. Bazley spent a year training with Mike Miller, a former NBA player. During that year, Bazley worked as an intern at New Balance.
When Bazley was taken in the Draft, it was expected that Darius would be a long-term project who would be developed carefully by the coaching staff. The decision did not make sense to a lot of Thunder fans. At the time, Oklahoma City did not need another raw, young player. OKC needed polished role players who could support Westbrook and George.
Bazley was not expected to play much during his rookie season even with George and Westbrook being traded elsewhere. Billy Donovan did not pay attention to the expectations and put Bazley in his rotation from the first day of the season.
Darius has unfinished edges to his game but he has performed well for the Thunder. Bazley’s energy and hustle means that he is a surprisingly good player on defense. Bazley has displayed flashes of brilliance during his rookie season so far, it is not difficult to see his potential as a basketball player.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the centrepiece of the Paul George trade. Shai had a very good season with the Clippers last season in the scoring guard role but it was unknown how Gilgeous-Alexander would work in Oklahoma City. On the Clippers, Shai was a third or fourth option. In Oklahoma, Gilgeous-Alexander is the first or second option depending on who is on the court.
Shai has flourished in Oklahoma City. SGA is the team’s leading scorer and Gilgeous-Alexander can be relied upon to contribute a steady amount of buckets on a nightly basis. Gilgeous-Alexander has the potential to be a future All-Star in the NBA. I really do believe that he can achieve great things in the future.
Shai’s game is so smooth and it is beautiful to watch. Gilgeous-Alexander’s footwork when driving towards the bucket is polished; Shai plays with a maturity that a lot of young players do not have.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to create has been important in the Thunder achieving success this season. Gilgeous-Alexander has had a few outstanding moments this season, the 20/20/10 triple double comes to mind as an example of his excellent play. Shai’s influence was everywhere in the game, the Timberwolves could not stop SGA from scoring. Shai was truly dominant against Minnesota.
The starting small forward spot was an interesting question at the start of the season, Coach Donovan did not have a single player who could play the role effectively. Billy Donovan trialled a few different players at the position but nobody was able to make the spot their own. Luguentz Dort is the only player who shown enough ability for Billy Donovan to trust him with the starting job.
Dort came from nowhere and is now starting games for a playoff team. Dort’s journey over the course of a single year has been hugely impressive. It was only a year ago that Luguentz Dort went undrafted and signed a contract with the Thunder.
Sam Presti found a diamond in the rough in Dort. Dort’s tenacious defense has made life hell for some of the league’s premier scorers. Coach Donovan has stuck Dort on James Harden, Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell. On all occasions, Dort came away with flying colors.
Dort’s impact is hard to quantify using numbers. Luguentz Dort is a poor outside shooter and defensive impact can be difficult to measure accurately but there are a few telling statistics. Oklahoma City have gone 16-5 with Dort in the lineup. That winning percentage is contending team level pace.
Dort’s play has garnered support from fans. Fans have latched on Dort and turned him into a cult figure. Dort is loved by Thunder fans for his commitment to defense.
Dort fully deserves the contract which he has received from the Thunder organisation in the last few days. Dort has earned his way into the league and it will be interesting to see how he progresses over the next few years.
The Three Amigos:
At the start of the season, Billy Donovan took a bold decision with his closing lineup. Donovan embraced small ball and chose to run a three guard unit. Donovan's choice put three playmakers on the floor and spread the floor out.
It was a brilliant decision by Coach Donovan, the ‘Three Amigos’ lineup has dissected opposing defenses throughout the season. The three guard lineup has a net rating of +28.6 which is second in the league among all three man units.
The three guard lineup has been fantastic to watch. The floor spacing means that the lead ball-handler can go downhill without help defenders crowding their path. The ‘Three Amigos’ lineup stretches out the opposing team’s defense; it is difficult for a defense to make good defensive rotations two or three times in one possession.
The common issue with small ball lineups is that the team’s defense can be suspect. This is not the case with the ‘Three Amigos’ lineup. The three guard lineup has been surprisingly stout. Schroder and Paul have been very good at defending wings and forcing mistakes from the other team.
The Thunder’s wing rotation was thin at the start of the season. Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo were the two primary options for the small forward spot. Luguentz Dort emerged as a valuable contributor and the same could be said for Abdel Nader.
Nader did not play well during his first season in Oklahoma City. Nader struggled with his shot selection and it was common to see Abdel taking bad looks. Abdel Nader was shot-happy which did not always benefit the Thunder offence. I thought Nader would ride the pine and be a fringe rotation piece.
The opposite happened, Abdel Nader has become a valuable player off the bench. Nader put a lot of work into his game over the summer and it has paid off. Abdel Nader has been effective on defense and his scoring efficiency has improved.
There have been times when Billy Donovan has had to dig deep into his rotation and rely on rotation players to assume bigger roles. When the Thunder has needed Nader, Abdel has answered the call and played productively.
Oklahoma City have come back from double digits to win games on a few different occasions this season. The Thunder have been very good at fighting through adversity and chopping down the challenges in front of them. The comeback victories are a testament to OKC’s heart and resilience.
This mental strength and willingness to fight against the odds feels different to previous Thunder teams. I have seen players such as Paul George throw in the towel during the regular season when Oklahoma City were down by twenty points. This Thunder side never says die even when the chance of victory is slim.
The best example of the Thunder’s resilience was the game against the Chicago Bulls in December. The Bulls got out to an early lead and Oklahoma City were down by twenty one points by the first quarter. The heads of the players did not drop.
The willingness to play hard meant that Oklahoma City came back from a huge deficit and won the game. The Thunder showed fortitude against the Bulls, this fortitude has been a defining trait of the Thunder throughout the season.
In previous years, the Thunder were not always a great team to watch. Russell Westbrook was a great person to watch on a nightly basis but strong individual performances do not always equal entertaining team play.
Oklahoma City used to run the game through Russell Westbrook and Paul George. It was an isolation heavy system; the Thunder’s offense this season is totally different. Coach Donovan has made full use of his playmakers by installing a motion offense. Oklahoma City have numerous players who are comfortable handling the ball and creating for teammates.
The benefit of Oklahoma City having multiple ball-handlers on the floor is that the ball shifts around the court quickly and precisely. Oklahoma City do not attempt to overwhelm teams with pace and athleticism. The Thunder use smart, incisive passing to dissect defenses and create easy scoring opportunities.
Oklahoma City have played a selfless brand of basketball this season. It is common to see a player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pass up a good look in favour of a great look for a teammate.
Russell Returns Home:
The last point on this list was one of the greatest moments from this season. Russell Westbrook’s return to Oklahoma City was eagerly anticipated by all fans. His return met all of those expectations. There was an outpouring of love from the Thunder fans to Westbrook. It was a moment in which Oklahomans recognised Westbrook as a son of the State regardless of his current team.
It was a beautiful and emotional moment to watch. I have to admit my eyes welled up when I saw Russell back at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. I will always be grateful to Russell Westbrook for his entertaining style of play and his loyalty to the Thunder. Westbrook stayed when it was easy to leave. Westbrook embraced Oklahoma like it was home.