Oklahoma City have their star player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for Sam Presti to build around. Gilgeous-Alexander can do everything on the basketball court and is comfortable taking over late in games.
Shai had these hot streaks last season where he would just dominate from all three levels and slice defenses apart with his passing. That being said, it is almost impossible for a basketball team to achieve any sort of success with just one star.
The Thunder were incredibly fun during Westbrook’s MVP season but the team had a defined ceiling. Oklahoma City would collapse offensively whenever Russell went to the bench and that really hurt the Thunder in the first round series against the Rockets.
Houston pursued a similar sort of approach with Harden after Dwight Howard left and were marginally more successful. Daryl Morey surrounded Harden with shooters and hired Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets were lethal whenever they ran a spread pick and roll with Harden as the lead ball-handler but they faded hard in the playoffs.
Harden was exhausted by the end of the Spurs’ series and he could not carry the Rockets on his back any further. Houston were only able to achieve notable success once they acquired Chris Paul from the Clippers. Paul turned Houston into legitimate title contenders and a team that probably wins the Western Conference Finals in 2018 if Chris stayed healthy.
The last team to make the Finals with just one defining star player was the 76ers in 2001. Billy King put together a tough-minded roster that was gritty defensively and relied on Allen Iverson’s scoring to carry them on offense.
Oklahoma City have a few candidates who can legitimately develop into being a consistent second option for the Thunder. Myself and Clemente Almanza will discuss the players we believe can be ‘Robin’ to Shai’s ‘Batman’.
The Thunder had quite a few different scoring options last season; Oklahoma City had 9 players average more than 10 points per game. The even scoring distribution outside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a function of Coach Mark’s offensive system. The ball movement usually dictated who scored the ball and there were no set scoring options.
Out of those 9 players, only 5 players remain. Svi Mykhailiuk entered restricted free agency and was not brought back by the Thunder. Hamidou Diallo was traded to Detroit for Mykhailiuk. Al Horford left for Boston and George Hill ended up in Philly.
In my mind, there is only one player who could realistically become the Thunder’s second scoring option. Ty Jerome was considered but he will likely play off the bench which will restrict his scoring output. Aleksej Pokusevski was considered but I think he is still really raw.
Luguentz Dort took a huge leap last season in both efficiency and volume. Dort averaged 14 points per game and significantly improved his 3-point percentage, Dort shot 34% from downtown on 6.3 3PA per game.
Lu was very streaky during the season but displayed signs of real growth from deep. There were times where his hot shooting ran cold and he struggled to find the bottom of the net but he still impacted the Thunder’s offense.
The threat of Lu getting hot and knocking down 3-pointers in bunches meant that the defense had to stay tethered to him. The defense could not sag off and dare him to shoot as the Rockets did in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Dort’s gravity created space inside for Gilgeous-Alexander to glide into.
Dort will be a more consistent shooter with a full offseason of training under his belt. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Luguentz Dort can get to league average efficiency (36.7%) from downtown in the upcoming season.
Dort reaching this mark will obviously improve his scoring output as well as his efficiency. Moreover, Dort has already started working on developing his driving game. In Dort’s rookie season, he drove to the rim in a straight line with very little variation or consideration for the defense. He was surprisingly effective as nobody quite expected Lu to take people off the drive.
His second season was a different story; Dort’s efficiency within three feet of the rim declined slightly. Opposing defenses worked out Dort’s footwork and were better-positioned to slow him down.
Towards the end of the season, Lu was much more comfortable executing advanced footwork but he did not establish the right rhythm. Hamidou Diallo struggled with similar sort of issues during his second season in the league but he was eventually able to work it out.
Diallo was a monster off the drive before he was traded to Detroit. Diallo’s quickness and willingness to finish strong always makes him difficult to stop at the hoop. However, his improved footwork and situational awareness meant that his shooting efficiency jumped massively in his third season.
Diallo shot 68% within three feet of the basket in the 32 games that he played wearing Thunder Blue last season. Those improvements simply came as a result of playing regular minutes. Dort can achieve similar sort of gains.
Luguentz Dort scored 14 points per game last season but I think it is possible for him to get to the 16-17 points per game mark this season if he gets the same amount of shots. Dort improved vastly with just one offseason, imagine what he could achieve with time to craft and refine his skill-set.
Well, my initial pick was going to be Lu Dort, but with him extensively covered already, I’m going to go with the second most popular choice in Aleksej Pokusevski.
Poku returning from the G League Bubble looking like a better and more confident player has been talked about ad nauseum, but a reminder is necessary for this choice. For context, Poku USG% jumped from 17% pre-Bubble to 21.8% post-Bubble and his minutes per game also jumped from 17 to 28. These statistics emphasise the point that Poku went from being hesitant at the beginning of the season to being more aggressive and confident to finish his rookie campaign.
The Thunder made it a point of emphasis to give Poku the ball more and I think it is fair to say he delivered despite poor box score and efficiency numbers. Poku showed enough flashes of high-level play to warrant an increase in his offensive responsibilities.
Considering how the roster is currently constructed, I expect more of this from the sophomore forward for the entirety of the 2021-22 season. I just have a hard time seeing who else is going to take a good amount of shots per game outside of SGA. This team is full of young players and established role players that it is hard for me to picture seeing any take a high volume of field goal attempts.
For comparison, last year’s squad only had four guys who took more than 12 shots a game — SGA, Dort, Darius Bazley and the now gone Al Horford. And with both SGA and Horford basically missing the entire second half of last season, Dort and Bazley were able to inflate their numbers. With a fully healthy roster, I expect the shot attempts to come down for both of them.
Another reason why I think Poku has a real shot at being the second-leading scorer on this team is that he is a top-three development priority for the franchise. SGA, Poku and Josh Giddey are in their own tier when it comes to how much the franchise will expect from them in the long term. And with Giddey just being a 19-year-old rookie with questionable shot mechanics to start the season, I expect him to take a more conservative approach to his scoring game as he adjusts to the NBA.
This leaves a lot of room for error and leeway for Poku this season. SGA will get his, but when he is off the court, I expect Poku to carry a big offensive load. The efficiency numbers might not be pretty but the averages and scoring numbers will definitely be there to make him have a serious case as being the Thunder’s second-leading scorer for the 2021-22 season.