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The State of the Thunder

The Thunder as the team currently stands

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder’s last season will not go down as a vintage year in basketball. Oklahoma City lost a lot of games and ended up being one of the worst teams in the NBA. The final standings had the Thunder as the fourth worst team in the NBA with a record of 24-58. The aim of the season was to get a top-3 pick and the Thunder did not achieve that goal.

Oklahoma City were out-tanked by Houston, Orlando and Detroit over the course of the season. While the Thunder’s tanking towards the end of the year was egregious, they simply could not catch up with the front-runners.

It will mean that the 2022 NBA Draft is more uncertain for the Thunder. Jabari Smith Jr, Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren will be off the board by the time that Sam Presti picks. Presti has a challenging job over the next few months.

The first task will be identifying a player in the Draft who can potentially be an All-Star while also complementing the current Thunder core. In theory, Jaden Ivey would be the best player available once the big three are off the board. In terms of potential, Ivey could be an electric ball-handler but do the Thunder require another ball-handler?

Coach Mark Daigneault already has Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey at his disposal. There may not be many minutes on the ball for someone like Ivey or Shadeon Sharpe. In that case, a player like Jalen Duren, AJ Griffin or Keegan Murray could be desirable.

Those players all profile to be high-level, fringe All-Star level talents who possess the sort of complementary skills that the Thunder desire. The question about the 2022 NBA Draft is centered on the team’s direction going forward.

Broadly speaking, the Thunder have two options. Presti may believe that he has the players to build a contending team around and will sacrifice a high-potential prospect in favour of a player with a more tangible ceiling.

Conversely, Presti may go the other direction and believe that the Thunder need more top-end talent and choose to tank another year. In this instance, taking a player like Shadeon Sharpe makes sense. Sharpe is a tantalising prospect who has an almost unlimited ceiling but he is incredibly young and is short on actual experience.

Shadeon has not played competitive basketball since high school and it will be difficult for him to acclimatise to the physicality of the NBA. He is a project but if the Thunder are planning to be bad next season, it would make sense to take another high-reward gamble.

The next task for Sam Presti will be the consolidation of the Thunder’s assets. Oklahoma City cannot use all of the picks in the cupboard to select players, it would be an ineffective use of assets. It may be the right time to construct trades with the aim of adding talent to the team that can help with the long-term goal of sustainable winning.

Oklahoma City have their own pick and two other first rounders in the 2022 NBA Draft. The Clippers’ pick is likely to fall in the late lottery whereas the Suns’ pick will be #30. The Thunder may look to use both of these picks and other assets to move up a few positions.

New Orleans could be amenable to moving their pick providing that they receive a good offer. The Pelicans have a good young core to build around a winning team around and have stumbled in found money with the complete collapse of the Lakers. That Lakers’ pick is expected to land at #8.

I would expect the Blazers to consider offers as well. It has been a tumultuous season for Portland but they are still committed to the goal of winning a ring with Lillard at the helm. They do not have the luxury of time anymore, Lillard’s prime years are waning. The short-term outlook for the Blazers is growing in importance and they may look to add win-now players.

A trade to get the Thunder up to the 6-8 range would mean that Presti could take a player like Murray or Griffin without sacrificing the opportunity to take a player like Sharpe. It is an interesting proposition to consider and something that I expect Sam Presti to explore.

The consolidation of the roster should go further than just draft picks. Oklahoma City have players such as Isaiah Roby, Ty Jerome and Derrick Favors who can all be used to acquire pieces who can help the Thunder down the line.

The Thunder have a weakness at center that still needs to be solved. Presti could address this matter by selecting someone in the Draft but it will take time for that player to develop and become comfortable at the NBA level.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s extension kicks in next year and the Thunder will be on the clock to build a winner around him. Oklahoma City have to be cognisant of the limited time that they have.

Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Ayton are two players who currently play in uncertain situations. Ayton believes that he has earned a maximum contract but the Suns’ ownership have been previously unwilling to pay him that money. Negotiations went nowhere and DeAndre will hit restricted free agency.

Oklahoma City could put together a compelling trade offer involving picks, quality depth and young players to make that deal happen. Ayton is a player worth overpaying for; DeAndre is a legitimate two-way force whose age profile fits the Thunder’s core and he will only get better.

Gobert is six years older than Ayton but he is locked up on a long-term deal on a team who have hit their ceiling. Utah’s performances have waned over the course of the season and they no longer look like a team who can make a deep playoff run. The issues surrounding Gobert’s partnership with Donovan Mitchell have never been fully resolved.

Mitchell does not get the ball to Rudy enough and is rather shot-happy. Gobert can pout and sulk when he feels unvalued. The Jazz will shake things up if they flame out again. It is reasonable to assume that Gobert will be moved as part of their retool. Mitchell has stature within the organisation and his skill-set fits the current meta of the NBA.

The next few months will be very interesting to track and see how Presti will operate. From what he has said, it does not seem that the Thunder will deviate too much from their current plan.

The season was honestly quite enjoyable to watch as a fan despite all of the losing. The 2021 rookie class all emerged as legitimate contributors for the Thunder and overachieved relative to expectations. Josh Giddey is the obvious success story but I was highly impressed with Aaron Wiggins.

Wiggins was taken with the #55 pick in the Draft. We knew nothing about him other than the fact that he was a wing who played for Maryland. It was hugely surprising when Aaron received real minutes and played solid, competent basketball.

We also saw players such as Theo Maledon improve their level of play and answer the critics. Maledon was a forgotten man for a large portion of last season. He did not really play all that much and his development seemed to stagnate.

Coach Mark Daigneault allocated minutes in his rotation to Maledon towards the back end of the season and Theo performed. His passing vision, scoring and control of the basketball was significantly improved. His re-emergence will likely mean that Ty Jerome’s tenure with the Thunder is nearing the end.

The final storyline of the season involved a local player earning his way into professional basketball. Lindy Waters III has played his whole basketball career in Oklahoma. Waters III represented Norman North, then Oklahoma State and finally the Enid Outlaws in minor league competition.

He tried out for the Blue in October and made the team. He subsequently lit up the G League with his accurate, pinpoint deep shooting. Waters III only seemed to get better as the season went on and eventually earned a two-way contract with the Thunder.

It is a fairytale rise for Waters and he has made good on the Thunder’s faith in him. Waters has stuck true to his game and has been a marksman in Coach Daigneault’s offense. His ability to shoot off the move and challenge opposing defense has brought a skill to the Thunder’s offense that has been lacking for years.

The Oklahoma native is now representing his home state at the highest level of basketball. As stories go, Waters’ journey is nothing short of amazing.