Start time - 6:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
It has been 761 days since Chris Paul last played basketball in front of Thunder fans in Oklahoma City. In March 2020, Chris was leading the Thunder to the playoffs and the team was rounding into being a tough, resilient playoff team.
At that point in time, Oklahoma City were improving, seemingly on a weekly basis, and were making a serious challenge for home-court. The ‘There Amigos’ lineup was difficult to stop for most NBA teams and the Thunder were ruthless whenever the game got close.
Although Paul stayed in Oklahoma City for just one year, his impact on the club is undeniable. You can still feel Paul’s influence on the team today. His mentorship of Gilgeous-Alexander was crucial in turning Shai from being a scoring guard into being the full package.
Culturally, Chris Paul was important in changing the team’s focus and attitude. Sam Presti has always preached the value of teamwork but the individual ability of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Paul George meant that the team element often took a backseat.
Chris set the tone by his willingness to sacrifice his touches on the ball so that everybody else would be involved. The Thunder shifted from one individual controlling the game and dictating the action to the offense being ran collectively.
The common strength was only improved by the off-court activities that Chris organised for the team. Paul took the team to the Superbowl, watched G League games with Shai and bought tailored suits for every player on the roster.
He brought a sense of unity to the Thunder and you can still see those traits today. Shai can create a bucket for himself on every single possession and could get a 30-piece every night but he has learned that individual success does not always lead to team success. Teams win playoff series, not individuals.
Paul has gone onto the Phoenix Suns and is focused on leading the franchise to the NBA Finals after last year’s heartache. The Thunder’s road has been very different. Oklahoma City are a young, inexperienced team who are currently fighting for a top-3 pick in the draft lottery.
In the month of March, Oklahoma City won just two games. Injuries to nearly all of the Thunder’s core rotation have meant that little-used players have featured heavily. In the Thunder’s last game against Detroit, only 8 players suited up. Jaylen Hoard was signed on a hardship exception contract and ended up starting for OKC.
There has been ugly basketball at times but there have been encouraging signs of development up and down the roster. Theo Maledon is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Over the last 10 games, Maledon has averaged 14.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game while posting an effective field goal percentage of 53.2%.
I would go as far to say that Maledon’s recent performances have settled the Thunder’s dilemma regarding the backup point guard. Theo’s conditioning has improved and he is finding it much easier to attack the paint and create off the drive. He is no longer dependent on leveraging his deep shooting threat to create looks inside.
Ty Jerome is a steady, reliable option off the bench but he has stagnated this season. Jerome’s shooting has fallen off a cliff which means that he is less valuable as a player. Jerome’s primary value driver is his floor spacing; he does not really bring anything else to the table for the Thunder.
Maledon has started to positively contribute as a playmaker, on the defensive end of the floor and with his desire to break down a defense. Given his age, it is reasonable to assume that he will only get better over the next few years. I cannot say the same for Ty Jerome and feel like it may be time to move him on.
The other stand-out over the last month has been Lindy Waters. Waters, the Oklahoma native, has been a sharpshooter for the Thunder and has been filling it up from deep. His deep shooting has provided spacing and regular points for a Thunder offense that is lacking in the scoring department.
I have been impressed by the variation on Waters’ shots. Lindy is nailing 3-pointers on the move, coming off the screens and out of hand-off actions. Waters is not just standing in the corner and draining jumpers. Opposing teams have been sending two players at Lindy every time he catches the ball over the last two weeks. His scoring threat has made life so much easier for his teammates to score.
The last month has been tough to watch but there have been positives in terms of player development. We are seeing guys growing on a nightly basis and making a serious argument for their spot going forward with the Thunder.