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Discussion: Who starts for the Thunder?

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Who should the starting five be when the Thunder open the 2021-22 season?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

With the Oklahoma City Thunder season kicking off in less than two months and rosters being basically set, now would be a perfect opportunity to relax and reflect on what the starting lineup will be on October 20 in Utah.

With the Thunder rebuilding and entering another season where player development is prioritized higher than actually winning games, expect there to be multiple starting lineups throughout the season as Head Coach Mark Daigneault tinkers with certain players and lineups to see what meshes well.

For reference, the Thunder had 30 different starting lineups last season in a condensed 72 game regular season. It is probable that we will see a similar amount this season as young players struggle, improve or simply get injured.

But with all things healthy, a panel of our writers will discuss what they think should be the starting five based off the roster.

Clemente Almanza: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/ Josh Giddey/ Lu Dort/ Aleksej Pokusevski/ Darius Bazley

The backcourt is obvious as SGA and Giddey will be the first priority for the Thunder due to their pedigree. SGA just signed the max rookie extension and Giddey was taken sixth overall in this past draft. Both should lead the team in USG% and should have the ball plenty in their hands.

Dort is an obvious candidate too as he has started in 80 of his 88 career NBA games over the last two seasons. The 22-year-old is suddenly one of the most experienced players on the roster and will be somebody that many of the rookies and second-year-players look to for advice.

Dort has shown the ability to be an elite perimeter defender and a capable outside shooter. Dort improving in these areas of his game will allow him to develop into a quality NBA starter.

After SGA and Giddey, Poku is the player with the highest ceiling and most attractive potential. Poku had a bad rookie season last year in terms of stats and productions, but there were plenty of flashes shown throughout the season that showed what type of player Poku could eventually develop into under the right circumstances.

It is only logical that Poku takes the next step and is named a starter. Some might worry that Poku is too skinny to start at the 4, but keep in mind that Daigneault’s philosophy revolves around playing a position-less style of basketball where all five players can score, shoot and facilitate the ball. Poku fits the bill and where he starts in the starting lineup does not really matter to me.

Lastly, I would love to see how Bazley handles being the starting five to start the season. Bazley has the skillset to be a modern day stretch big who can use his athleticism and speed to his advantage when starting against traditional centers.

This is also Bazley’s most important season to date as it could decide whether or not he will be part of the Thunder’s future as he will be rookie extension eligible next summer. The Thunder are notorious for extending players they really like.

Bazley entering his fourth year without a new contract would suggest that the writing is on the wall in regard to how the organization feels about his long term future with the team. Bazley needs to impress to continue his time in Oklahoma City.

I would love to see the team give Bazley every possible opportunity this season to show his value and if he does not show much, then the Thunder can begin the process of moving on. It is imperative that the Thunder invest time into the development of young players who can make positive contributions to the team.

This would be my ideal starting five. It fits what the Thunder is trying to build as all five members can handle the ball and has shown the potential to shoot the ball.

J.D Tailor: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/ Luguentz Dort/ Josh Giddey/ Aleksej Pokusevski/ Isaiah Roby

The backcourt picks itself in my opinion. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an elite creator on the offensive end of the floor and led the Thunder admirably last season. Shai will certainly start for the Thunder in his quest to make the All-Star team.

Last season, Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort had great chemistry in the backcourt and it makes little sense to suddenly start changing things around. Shai’s shot creation and hyper efficient scoring complements Lu’s physical, aggressive defense. It is a pairing that just works.

Gilgeous-Alexander leveraged his own scoring threat to create the sort of kick-out opportunities that Luguentz Dort feasts on. Whenever Dort caught the ball and attacked the defense, he was able to use his strength to power his way to the rim. That sot of secondary playmaking opportunity was only really possible with Shai setting him up given Dort’s loose handle.

Conversely, Luguentz Dort’s defense forced mistakes from the opposing team which created easy transition scores for Shai to finish. Moreover, Dort usually takes the opposing team’s best player on defense which allows Shai to conserve his energy on the less glamorous end of the floor.

Josh Giddey starts at the 3 for the fact that his ball-handling is not quite strong enough to hold up as a lead playmaker for the Thunder. Giddey’s dribble can be high and uncontrolled in the half-court which makes ball retention difficult. In my opinion, Coach Daigneault should bring Giddey along slowly when it comes to giving Josh that responsibility.

Putting Giddey at the 3 will make full use of Giddey’s passing vision. I can certainly imagine Giddey grabbing a board and sending an outlet pass down the court to a running Lu Dort. Placing Giddey on the wing will also get him the sort of give and go opportunities that he executed well in the NBL.

In terms of half-court offense, Giddey playing on the wing should provide him with the chance to run sets from that zone of the floor. For Adelaide, Giddey was used as the ball-handler in side pick and roll action and he usually did well. He can see the roller and the weak-side corner easily on the wing which should make his life easier.

Deciding who starts at the 4 was tough for me. Initially, I had four names who could feasibly start at the Power Forward position. Darius Bazley, Isaiah Roby and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are all worthy candidates but my pick at the 4 comes down to how the Thunder play basketball.

In the last two years, we have seen the Thunder find success with lineups that prioritised playmaking. With this in mind, I chose Aleksej Pokusevski as the starting Power Forward. Despite his modest statistics in his rookie season, I thought Poku played well in the back half of the season.

His shot looked better and he found a lot of success operating as a pseudo point guard. Pokusevski certainly seems to understand how to create a shot and what a good shot is. I like his fit in a lineup with three other shot creators.

Contrary to popular belief, I believe that Pokusevski was pretty solid on defense last season. He consistently made the right help rotation at the right time and rarely got lost off the ball. Pokusevski also adeptly used his length to dissuade drives to the rim.

He lacks some strength for the position but Pokusevski showed flashes of decent rim protection last season. Aleksej stacked up blocks due to his timing and long arms. Pokusevski could struggle on defense against stronger forwards but I think his value on offense outweighs the negatives.

Although the Thunder only have two centers on the roster, Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala, I liked neither as a starter. Muscala is really valuable off the bench and I fear that value might be lost if he is placed into a role that is simply too big.

Derrick Favors is a fine player but he does not fit the Thunder’s timeline at all. The Thunder are trying to develop young players and quite frankly, Derrick Favors takes up minutes that could be used elsewhere. For that reason, Isaiah Roby should start at the 5.

Before Moses Brown turned up last season and gobbled up rebounds for fun, Coach Daigneault ran a lot of lineups with Roby playing center. These lineups were surprisingly good despite Isaiah being undersized for the position.

Roby is just 6’8 but he makes up for the height disadvantage through strength and grit. Isaiah is not afraid of contact and is more than willing to put his body on the line for the Thunder. He is also built like fridge which makes him difficult to move for the opposing team’s center.

Roby is a challenge for the opposing team. Isaiah is happy to run the offense out of hand-off actions and will find the simple, effective pass consistently. Roby can also stretch the floor to some degree.

Roby did not shoot well from outside (29%) but he was very solid on long twos (43%). Providing that Isaiah can reliably knock down mid-rangers, he will pull the defense away from the basket and creates space near the rim for Shai to attack.

I like this starting five for the balance that the team will have on offense. It is a starting unit primed to play unselfish basketball and take the defense apart through their passing.