We talked on Friday about the surprising season the Pacers have had while missing Victor Oladipo for most of the year. But maybe even more surprising has been the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A History of Star Power
Less than a decade ago, the Thunder had Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, they drafted all three. They traded Harden to the Rockets, Durant left to the Warriors in free agency and then finally traded Westbrook last summer to the Rockets for Chris Paul. While Houston tries to fulfill the promise of a Harden-Westbrook backcourt, many thought the Thunder were in rebuilding mode as the Westbrook trade was preceded by the trade of Paul George to the Clippers.
A New Era for the Thunder
Eleven players from last year’s team were gone, ten new players were in. They acquired three key pieces via trades: Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Paul has been the standout, returning to All-Star form for the first time in four seasons. He has been more aggressive offensively and been a leader for an inexperienced group. Many thought his time in OKC would be short-lived but instead he has embraced the new role and the new team to get them not only to the playoffs but also a real threat to advance beyond the first round.
Gallinari has continued to be an offensive force, averaging 19 points per game, and shooting more three-pointers, and more wide-open three-pointers, thanks to the play of Paul at the point. Gilgeous-Alexander was the one player the Clippers were hesitant to give up, but they did to attract Kawhi Leonard and put their club in win-now mode. SGA has proven that hesitation correct by doubling his production this year in points and rebounds in just 9 more minutes per game. The duo leads the team in scoring, more than making up for George’s absence.
Biggest Question Mark
The biggest question mark for the Thunder down the stretch will be depth. It has been an issue all year and their biggest bench contributor, Dennis Schroder, who is third on the team in scoring at 19/game, will likely be gone during their most crucial games to be present for the birth of his second child. The Thunder were not going to win it all this year, but without someone stepping up to fill in a big scoring load, they may become the team you want to play in the first round, just because they are short-handed.
The Schroder Inflection Point
The Thunder sit in fifth place right now, tied with the Rockets, and a game and a half ahead of the 7th place Mavericks. They will play all four teams ahead of them in their final eight games, have easier games against the Wizards and Suns and toss-up matchups against the Heat and Grizzlies. Schroder should be available for the first couple of games and they will need him to get a win or two there to try and end up at 5-3. That record should keep them in the fifth spot and in a match-up against the Nuggets or Jazz in the first round. If they struggle early and then lose Schroder, they could easily slip down to the 7th seed and must face the Clippers in round one.
They have $70M committed to Paul and Steven Adams next season but will drop $30M from their books with Gallinari and Andre Roberson. Gallinari should be someone they bring back. They will have a an eye on a big extension for SGA after next season when Adams’ contract expires. Rumors still swirl the Thunder will try to sell high on Chris Paul to off load the $85M remaining on his deal. That would be a temporary setback for the Thunder but offer them huge flexibility going forward. With 15 first-round picks over the next seven seasons, they will have every chance to replicate their success from over a decade ago when they drafted three future MVPs.