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NBA RESTART: A glance at the Oklahoma City Thunder

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As the season returns from hiatus, it is time for a roster refresher

New York Knicks v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Before the season stopped, Oklahoma City was winning games handily. The Thunder looked like a quality team that had a real chance at home court in the playoffs. There were very few people who expected the Thunder to beat the odds in this manner. The roster seemed to be ill-fitting at the start of the season.

The roster did not make much sense. There were aging vets such as Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, who were expected to hang around to the trade deadline. The Thunder had promising young players who could lead the team in four or five years. OKC even had specialists that made little sense without Westbrook feeding them looks.

The roster looks much better now as the team sits in the fourth seed with a record of 40-24. This team has been a bricolage, a successful team built from a range of faulty parts. The imperfect roster has not hindered the Thunder; I would argue that this current team has engendered a sense of camaraderie.

There were so many factors that could have destabilized the Thunder’s chemistry. Trade rumors were hanging over Chris Paul since he arrived in Oklahoma. This Thunder team will likely not even survive until next season. These factors have not affected Oklahoma City. The intense chemistry has kept the team on the right track.

Chris Paul has been crucial in setting a tone and culture for his teammates to follow, but the same could be said for Steven Adams. Adams’ humor and willingness to work hard for the team encourages others to work in the same way. The ill-fitting roster has overcome its weaknesses to be a tough playoff team.

As the season restart approaches, I thought it would be a good idea to run through the roster and look at the questions that are currently hanging over the players.

Chris Paul:

There has been a lot written about Chris Paul this season. Paul has been a significant influence on the Thunder and is a crucial reason in Oklahoma City being a playoff team. Chris has been the team’s leader and chief scorer in clutch time situations.

Chris Paul has been essential in establishing the Thunder’s culture. In previous seasons, the Thunder roster seemed to be much more individual. Russell Westbrook did make an effort to be inclusive, but there did seem to be cliques that formed throughout the year.

Paul has approached his teammates differently. Chris has cultivated close relationships with everybody, most notably Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Chris has tried to get all of his teammates together and working as one.

With everyone buying in, the group is a collective rather than a hierarchy of players. Oklahoma City plays a brand of unselfish basketball where the ball moves around the court, and players make the extra pass. This statement would have been inconceivable a year ago.

The team’s mentality comes from Paul’s leadership on and off the court. Chris Paul is the archetypal floor general. Chris can get his shot whenever he wants, but he chooses to involve others in the offense. Paul looks to keep his teammates engaged in the flow of attack throughout the game.

This unselfishness is infectious. Players are willing to move the ball if they know that the ball will eventually come back to them. This collective approach is one of the reasons why the Thunder have been so successful. It is more challenging to stop five players than it is to prevent one.

Best Moment:

Paul was excellent in this game. Chris and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander put the Thunder on their back and carried Oklahoma City to a hard-fought win on the road in Toronto. Paul was a maestro on the court. He was the closer against a stingy Raptors’ defense; it is the perfect example of his role on the Thunder this season.

Question:

Chris Paul’s injury history is chequered. Paul has struggled with injury over the last five years, and he has missed a lot of time. He has played 63 games this season; this total is more than his previous four seasons.

The compressed schedule and the fast return to basketball will place a lot of strain upon Paul’s body. I worry whether Paul’s body will be able to hold up during a hectic part of the season. There are a lot of games to be played in a short amount of time. Injuries due to fatigue are probable.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has played incredibly well this season, and he is the Thunder’s rising star. SGA was acquired in the Paul George trade and became an essential part of the Thunder’s future. It would not surprise me to see Shai become an All-Star in the future.

There were a lot of questions attached to Shai at the start of the season. It was challenging to work out how Shai would fit into the offense. Gilgeous-Alexander played well on the Clippers, but he had a small role on a veteran-led team.

Shai has surpassed those expectations, and his performance levels have been high. There have been few nights this season where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has had an off night. For the most part, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been a steady scoring option for the Thunder.

SGA’s smooth style of play is pleasing on the eye and is incredibly useful. Gilgeous-Alexander leads the Thunder in points per game, and he can score from all three levels with reasonable efficiency.

DisneyWorld could be a massive opportunity for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to break out on a national stage. Thunder fans know how good SGA is, but I think that casual fans sleep on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A lot of people see his numbers and do not feel anything of Shai; those who have watched SGA know what he is capable of.

Best Moment:

Oklahoma City has seen a lot of triple-doubles over the last few years. Russell Westbrook was known for accumulating these statistical feats with ease. Surprisingly, the triple-double was devalued by Westbrook, consistently achieving this mark.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s triple-double against the Minnesota Timberwolves was brilliant to watch. Shai influenced every single aspect of the game and put a hurting on the Minnesota defense. Gilgeous-Alexander was relentless as he repeatedly scored inside and found his teammates for good looks.

Question:

Shai’s scoring has been a steady tool in the Thunder’s arsenal this season; Gilgeous-Alexander has been counted on to score 19.3 points per game. However, defense in the regular season and security in the playoffs are two different animals. The intensity and physicality are cranked up to eleven in the playoffs.

Shai played well with the Clippers’ last season, but these playoffs will be very different for him. Gilgeous-Alexander is a primary option for the Thunder, and defenses will be designed to make him inefficient. How does Shai deal with this increased defensive pressure?

Luguentz Dort:

Luguentz Dort starts for the Thunder at small forward. It was a year ago that Dort played point guard for Arizona State. Dort has earned a starting spot for the Thunder due to his intense, physical defense. It has been an epic rise for Dort; the surge has resulted in a new contract from the Thunder.

Dort has made his money on defense this year. Billy Donovan has stuck Dort on players such as Damian Lillard and James Harden. In both examples, Dort performed well. Dort’s relentless energy on defense fatigues opposing players and draws them into inefficient shooting nights.

Dort has not just been a basketball player; Luguentz Dort has become a fan favorite throughout the season. Fans love Dort’s style of play, and he became an internet phenomenon. It is pretty common to see people commenting ‘Down to Dort’ on every single Twitter post.

Best Moment:

Luguentz Dort’s defense has been outstanding, but he has also flashed potential on offense. Lu was efficient from the field and disruptive on defense against the San Antonio Spurs. His energy set the tone, and Oklahoma ran up the score against the Spurs.

Question:

Dort has shown a willingness to take deep shots; Luguentz is not afraid when the ball lands in his hands. However, Dort is inefficient from downtown. Lu shoots 30.1% from outside. In a playoff series, this is a weakness that can be exploited by the opposing teams.

Opposing teams will sit off Dort if they realize that he cannot knock down a deep ball. Luguentz Dort has to prove that his shooting can hold up in a playoff series. His value on offense comes from the spacing that he provides. Without that respect from the defense, Dort’s impact on the game is significantly worse.

Danilo Gallinari:

For years, I have thought that Danilo Gallinari would have been a good fit for the Thunder next to Russell Westbrook. Gallinari’s efficient scoring from the field and his ability to make plays with the ball would have been an excellent complement to Westbrook. Russell needed shooters; Gallinari shoots 40% from deep. Gallo would have been a brilliant partner.

I was happy when the Thunder got Gallinari even though it looked like Gallinari would only be in Oklahoma until the trade deadline. Danilo Gallinari is a valuable expiring contract; it made sense for the front office to deal with the contract and get assets back.

The Miami Heat came close to adding Gallinari to Pat Riley’s final stand. However, Sam Presti did not like the assets he would receive for Gallo. Presti would not deal with a player for a poor return. Sam hung onto Gallinari, which has helped fuel an improbable season.

Gallinari has been everything that I expected him to be. He’s been a marksman from deep, and he’s created space inside for the ‘Three Amigos’ to work. It is rare to get a player who is so efficient on long bombs while taking a decent volume of looks from deep. Gallinari’s work from outside kept the offense ticking over when the offense was stagnant.

Moreover, Gallinari’s game has been more than just deep shooting. Gallinari’s versatile scoring has produced buckets for the Thunder against all types of defense. Gallinari will take threes, but he is equally comfortable putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim.

Best Moment:

There have been a lot of good games for Gallinari this year, but his performance against the Rockets was excellent. Gallinari torched the defense from deep and could not be stopped by Houston. Danilo displayed every aspect of his scoring arsenal as he backed defenders down and dropped in mid-range jumpers.

Question:

Gallinari had a mixed playoff last year. Gallinari performed well in the final two games of the series, but he struggled to score consistently early on against the Golden State Warriors. The Clippers needed Gallinari to score reliably to have any chance of beating Golden State. Gallo was not able to deliver those points on a nightly basis.

There are questions about Gallinari’s effectiveness in playoffs, how does Gallinari deliver when the pressure is on? I want to see Gallinari assume responsibility when the game is close. He is a skilled scorer and one of the Thunder’s best options. I do not want him to wilt under pressure and drift into the background.

Steven Adams:

Adams has had an unusual season with the Thunder. Steven’s raw numbers have declined, but his overall play has improved. Adams has become a capable passer in hand-off actions and a leader on defense. Adams has taken on that role, and it is common to see him calling out the work throughout the game.

Adams’ evolution as a player does not mean he is no longer a physical, bruising center. Adams is still that type of big man who sets bone-crunching screens on guards. The only difference is that Steven now has a lot more versatility in his game.

The reduction of minutes for Adams has managed his fatigue on a nightly basis and made him more impactful during games. Steven Adams is able to play at a high level, consistently at 27 minutes a night. The same cannot be said for last season when Adams looked weary at times.

Best Moment:

There have been a decent number of games where Adams imposed his will on All-NBA big men. However, I feel that his best performance came against the Clippers. Adams was a monster in that game. Steven snagged six offensive boards and was very good on defense.

Question:

Steven Adams is a staunch interior defender, but he has lost agility in recent years. Adams is marginally slower laterally compared to the past, but that small difference means that he struggles defending on the perimeter. Adams can stick with the guard for a few possessions, but he will get roasted if the Thunder decides to switch the pick and roll.

I would like to know if Adams can hold up on the perimeter and remain positive on defense. We have seen non-shooting, traditional big men being played off the floor by fast, skilled lineups in the last two years. The Warriors made Clint Capela an unnecessary defensive liability for Houston by sticking Draymond at center.

I believe Adams has the mind to compensate for his lack of pace. Steven anticipates actions very well and prevents the other team from scoring. I want to know if Adams can make those decisions decisively during the heat of a tense playoff series.

Dennis Schroder:

Schroder has been the third man in the ‘Three Amigos’ lineup. Schroder’s playmaking has been outstanding in making a list effectively. It is often Dennis who takes advantage of a broken defense to get a smooth pull up jumper from the elbow. However, it is Dennis’ defense that has sustained the lineup’s productivity.

Schroder has been an excellent defender this year. Schroder’s defensive win shares and defensive rating is comparable to a guard like Kyle Lowry, who is widely regarded as one of the best defenders at the point guard spot. Schroder plays with aggression and intensity on defense.

Moreover, Schroder’s defensive ability has not been limited to other point guards. Billy Donovan has trusted Schroder to defend wings with surprising results. Schroder’s engagement and hustle on defense have led to Schroder making more prominent players inefficient.

Best Moment:

Schroder has performed at a high level all season long, but his best game came against the Boston Celtics in March. Schroder’s scoring put Oklahoma City in an excellent position to win the game. Dennis stepped up in a match when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was unavailable.

Question:

Schroder is an outstanding player, but he can be streaky from the floor. On occasion, Schroder looks like he cannot miss from the floor. On the other hand, Dennis will have stretches where every shot is clanking off the rim. I am curious about Schroder’s ability to play consistently during the playoffs.

The playoffs are very different from the regular season; each game means more, and there is a small margin for error. Oklahoma City cannot afford for Schroder to have a prolonged slump. I want to know how Schroder breaks a drop and starts getting buckets again.

Terrance Ferguson:

Ferguson has not covered himself in glory this season. Ferguson lost his starting job for the Thunder. Terrance’s offense has fallen apart, and he has been reluctant to take open jumpers. It has been a difficult season for Ferguson in more than one way.

However, Ferguson’s defense has been elite. The protection is Ferguson’s bread and butter; he has been outstanding at this end of the floor. It is his offense, which means that he is limited to 20 minutes a night.

Ferguson has value as a defensive specialist, but this role is becoming extinct in today’s NBA. It is a requisite for all players to have a semblance of value on offense. Pure defensive specialists are scarce in the league; guys like Tony Allen just do not make sense to teams anymore.

Best Moment:

Ferguson showed the perfect version of himself in this game. Ferguson played strong defense and was able to knock down five threes from deep. Terrance looked like the ideal 3&D wing against the Sixers.

Question:

Ferguson is a capable shooter from deep; Terrance shot 36.6% on 3-point attempts last year. I am confident in his ability to knock down shots and hurt defenses. However, he needs to find that confidence within himself.

The main question for me as the Thunder goes into the bubble is whether Ferguson can find his shot again? DisneyWorld does seem like a pleasant environment to build confidence again. There are no fans to criticize Ferguson. Terrance is isolated from all personal problems. He can focus on his game.

Abdel Nader:

Abdel Nader has been a surprising player for the Thunder this season. Nader has grown into being a capable shooter off the bench. In previous years, Nader suffered from a poor shot selection. This issue has been corrected; Abdel’s shot diet looks much cleaner.

Nader used to struggle on defense due to his lack of lateral quickness. Players would blaze past Nader, and there was nothing he could do to stop the attacking player. It has been a different story this season; Nader has been good at containing players off the drive and getting stops.

Nader’s performances have made him a valuable part of Billy Donovan’s rotation. He is one of the few wings on the team who can be useful on both ends of the floor. Abdel Nader also has one of the best nicknames on the Thunder this year; he is the ‘Terminator’.

Best Moment:

Although Nader scored just 14 points in this game, he played the bench role well. Nader took good shots, played tough defense, and bolstered the reserve unit. You cannot ask much more of a bench wing than this. Nader’s scoring contributed to the Thunder having a good night in Denver.

Question:

Nader has been stable during the regular season. Abdel has contributed to the team when the Thunder have needed him. However, his lack of athleticism may be a big issue in the playoffs.

Nader is a marginal athlete, and his lack of pace will mean that it will be difficult for him to escape defensive pressure. His physical limitations could negate Nader’s strong play. His lack of athleticism could be used against the Thunder and exploited by an opposing team.

Billy Donovan will look to shorten his rotation, and if Nader looks like a weak point, Billy will cut his minutes. How valuable is Nader’s production on offense is he is a liability on defense in a playoff series?

Hamidou Diallo:

Hamidou Diallo has found himself a spot in the Thunder’s rotation this season due to his energy. Diallo plays at a frenetic pace, and he is more than willing to work around the rim.

A lot has been made of Diallo’s athleticism in recent years, but I would argue that his game intelligence has grown hugely. Diallo recognizes that he is a poor shooter from a distance and has added different wrinkles to his game that compensate for this weakness.

Diallo has learned how to finish off cuts to the rim and maximizes his vertical by stealing offensive rebounds from opposing bigs. In recent games, Diallo has shown that he can be useful in pick and roll actions.

Darius Bazley suffered a bone bruise against Boston, which ruled him out for an extended period. Billy Donovan did not have another power forward on the roster who could soak up the minutes; Donovan got creative and went ultra-small with his lineup.

During the last month of the season, Billy Donovan placed Hamidou Diallo or Abdel Nader at the four. The decision made out of necessity put Diallo in the pick and roll as a roll man. Diallo proved to be surprisingly effective in this role. Hamidou’s athletic ability and quick decision-making meant that he performed well in this kind of action.

Best Moment:

Diallo has suffered from injury and inactivity all season long, but there have been a few bright spots. I was impressed by his performance against the Miami Heat. Diallo’s hustle and energy lifted the Thunder’s intensity level.

Question:

Diallo’s lack of shooting will be a big issue for Billy Donovan to figure out before the playoffs start. Diallo is not an efficient shooter, and defenses will sag off him. Diallo will be dared to shoot by the guard. Diallo missing needless deep shots will be wasted possessions for the Thunder.

How can Diallo earn minutes for himself in the playoffs? That is the question which I keep circling back to in my mind. Diallo has played well as a roll man, but Bazley coming back will lessen the number of possessions where he can get downhill with the ball in his hands. Billy Donovan will have to think about whether Diallo’s value is enough for him to earn meaningful minutes in the playoffs.

Darius Bazley:

Bazley has played well during his rookie season. Bazley slotted into the rotation as a rookie, and he did not make any glaring mistakes. There were times when Bazley was slow to rotate onto an attacking player, but his effort and energy has been a positive sign for the Thunder.

Bazley has not dwelled on his flaws; Darius has worked hard on developing his game for the NBA. Bazley made a lot of errors with his positioning on defense during the early part of the season. Before he was made unavailable due to injury, Bazley’s case was excellent.

Bazley is still incredibly raw on offense. His shot needs some work, and he could benefit from putting on some muscle so that he can be much more useful around the rim. Darius is still very much a work in progress. However, the initial returns from his rookie are promising. He could be an excellent player in the future.

Best Moment:

The game against New Orleans was Bazley’s career-high in points, and he showed a lot of promise. Bazley knocked down threes at an efficient rate, and Darius was good at finishing inside against the Pelicans’ defense.

Question:

The Thunder have a team of players who have all experienced playoff basketball. The team knows the pressure of playing in the playoffs and the importance of keeping a cool head. Bazley has not experienced that pressure as of yet. I want to see how Bazley responds to the intensity and if he can stay on an even keel.

Nerlens Noel:

Nerlens Noel has improved a lot this season. Noel has become a terrific interior defender who has allowed Billy Donovan to reduce Steven Adams’ minutes. Coach Donovan does not need to worry about a drop off in rim protection as Noel has been excellent at this aspect of the game.

Noel’s improvement around the rim has come from his disciplined defense. In previous years, Noel would hunt for the block and use his athleticism to make the highlight play. This technique worked, but it did mean that Noel was caught out of position reasonably frequently.

Noel’s focus has shifted this season. Nerlens now focuses on using his length and athleticism to take away comfortable scoring angles at the rim. He is not trying to swat every shot; Noel is now trying to stifle the offense into submission.

He has also improved on offense. Nerlens Noel is a hugely efficient finisher around the rim. Noel shoots 86% on all looks within three feet of the edge. Noel is a guaranteed bucket inside. His scoring efficiency has sustained the bench’s point production and added another tool to the Thunder’s arsenal. Noel is a vertical threat on offense.

Best Moment:

Noel got a rare start against the Pelicans and proved why he is one of the best backup bigs in the league. Nerlens’ defense was exceptional, and he took away all inside scoring for the Pelicans.

Question:

Noel has grown a lot over the last two years. Nerlens Noel is a different player to the one who left the Dallas Mavericks ignominiously. I am curious to see what the next stage in Nerlens’ development is. How feasible is it for Nerlens to develop a 3-point shot?

Nerlens has all of the tools to build a workable, outside shot. Noel is comfortable shooting from within ten feet, and his mechanics are solid. The Thunder coaching staff need to focus on building Noel’s confidence and encouraging Nerlens to bomb away from deep.

Mike Muscala:

Mike Muscala has been a fringe rotation player on the Thunder this season. Muscala is the third choice center, and he provides a different look for the position. Muscala is a big who is comfortable stretching out to the arc and launching jumpers.

Muscala started the season poorly. He did not knock down the long ball, and he seemed to be rushing through the progressions of the offense. However, Mike’s shot has got better as the year has gone on. In February, Muscala drained 50% of his 3-point attempts.

Muscala is suitable for shooting, but it is difficult to see a role for him on the Thunder going forward. Oklahoma City will have a healthy roster on players, and there will be very few minutes for a third-string center.

Best Moment:

Mike’s best game from this season came against the Raptors. Nerlens Noel was unavailable, and Billy Donovan relied on Muscala to soak up Noel’s minutes. Muscala received even more, playing time when Adams left the game due to injury.

Muscala performed admirably as the de facto starting center for the Thunder. He notched 17 points, and he drained three long balls. Muscala showed a lot of grit as he stepped into a unique role and played well.

Point of Improvement:

Muscala is not a competent screener. His screen does not get into the body of the opposing player. Muscala’s filters need to be more physical going forward. I want to see Mike spending time with Steven Adams going over the intricacies of a strong screenplay.

Isaiah Roby:

Isaiah Roby was the only player acquired by the Thunder at the trade deadline. Roby was obtained from the Mavericks in a trade involving Justin Patton and cash considerations. Roby has spent a lot of time in the G-League, and I do not expect him to play much for the main roster.

Oklahoma City has a glut of athletic non-shooting wings; the Thunder does not need to introduce another similar player into the mix. Roby will not be traveling to Orlando with the team due to injury.

Deonte Burton:

I was high on Burton at the start of the year. Burton showed a lot of potential as a multi-positional defender who could shoot the ball from deep at a serviceable rate. Instead, Burton has ridden the pine. Burton has complained about his minutes throughout the season but has not done anything to justify why he should play.

I do not expect Deonte Burton’s team option to be picked up by the Thunder. His production and off-court behavior do not warrant another year in Oklahoma City. It is highly unlikely that he will play actual minutes in Orlando.

Kevin Hervey:

Hervey is one of the Thunder’s two-way players. He has played a lot of time with the Oklahoma City Blue. Hervey has only featured sparingly for the Thunder this year. Hervey has played well for the Blue, but he will be a player for the future.

Devon Hall:

The Thunder took Hall in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft. Devon Hall’s early career has been in the G-League. Hall has played a few spot minutes for the Thunder this season, but he has not received regular minutes in the game.

Hall has recently been signed as a substitute player by the Thunder. Luguentz Dort received a full contract with the main roster, which opened up a two-way spot. The league has stated that teams can sign substitute players if a roster spot opens up. Hall has likely been hired as an emergency option. He will play if all of the wings ahead of him are unavailable.

Andre Roberson:

Roberson is the Thunder’s X-Factor. It is unknown whether he will play in Orlando. It is unknown at what level he will be able to play. However, Roberson has made the journey to Orlando with the team.

It has been years since Andre Roberson played a competitive NBA game. The last two years of his life have been beset by injury. However, he will be an essential player for the Thunder is he is able to return and play at a reasonable level.

Roberson was an exceptional perimeter defender for the Thunder. He was a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in 2017-18. If Andre can return at 70% of the player he was, Oklahoma City’s prospects of advancing through the playoffs improve.

The Thunder will no longer have to play Lu Dort or Terrance Ferguson on LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. Oklahoma City will have a lengthy wing stopper who will hassle and harass players into mistakes. Roberson’s return would eliminate the main weakness in the Thunder’s lineup.

Andre’s return would be massive news for the Thunder if he actually played some minutes. However, his performance is not given, and we do not know what Roberson will look like after two years out of the game.