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OKC Thunder: Making sense of this team, one season to the next

  • 3 min to read

Of all the ways to look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, here are a couple.

Were Chris Paul not dealt to Phoenix, the Thunder would owe him $41.5 million this season, or more than the organization's bound to owe any two players suited up for Wednesday's season opener at Houston.

Also, had the Thunder retained both Paul and Steven Adams, who was traded to New Orleans, their combined salaries, roughly $69 million, would be more expensive than any six players on the roster Oklahoma City will get to work with Wednesday.

The Thunder also have a new head coach in Mark Daigneault, for whom it’s unclear if general manager Sam Presti and ownership would prefer he lead the team to a regular season as stunning as the last one, in which OKC shocked the league by finishing in a fourth-place tie in the Western Conference, or if it’s about development alone, wins be damned, because all they’re good for  is keeping the Thunder out of the draft lottery.

A year ago, it was plainly clear then-coach Billy Donovan put his best unit on the floor at the ends of games, a five-man squadron that inevitably included the point-guard-triumvirate of Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Presuming the Thunder can find themselves in competitive fourth quarters this season, one wonders if Daigneault’s lineup in those moments will reflect the same sense of purpose as Donovan’s.

Speaking to media Tuesday afternoon, in advance of facing the Rockets, Daigneault at least sounded like a coach who wants to collect every conceivable victory.

“We’ve had a really good stretch of weeks here with [preseason] camp and we’ve got to carry that over,” he said. “The main thing is that we have to carry that over against any team, but especially a team like Houston.

“Just our competitive spirit, how hard we play and being a 48-minute team. That’s going to give you the best chance every single night to put yourself into position to be successful, regardless of opponent,” he said.

Try as one might, when the coach mentions “48 minutes” and “the best chance” to be “successful,” he must be given the benefit of the doubt.

He’s talking about wins.

Still, it’s hard to overestimate just how much less a team this season’s Thunder appears to be when compared to last season’s.

Last season, Oklahoma City averaged 110.4 points per game, 42.9 rebounds, 21.7 assists and 7.6 steals, figures that were 2 points more, 1.9 rebounds less, 1.3 assists less and 0.6 steals more than its opponent, leading to a 44-28 regular season.

Yet, if you take the per-game numbers of every returning player — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Hamidou Diallo, Darius Bazley, Mike Muscala — Oklahoma City brings back only 39 percent of last season’s scoring, 39.6 percent of its rebounding, 30 percent of its assists and 44.7 percent of its steals.

Yes, the roster has been restocked, most notably by center Al Horford, who averaged 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in Philadelphia last season; guard George Hill, who averaged 9.4 points and 3.1 assists as Milwaukee’s seventh man last season; and wing Trevor Ariza, who collectively averaged 10.5 points and 4.8 rebounds for Sacramento and Portland last season.

Beyond them, the Thunder have added a bunch young prospects on inexpensive contracts, any one of which could surprise everybody the way Dort surprised everybody last season, going from a two-way contract that saw him spend most of his time with the G-League’s Oklahoma City Blue to becoming then-reigning MVP James Harden’s defensive kryptonite as a fully contracted playoff starter.

However, Dort’s story is still exceedingly uncommon, Hill is likely no Paul nor Schroder, Ariza is unlikely to fill the void left by Danilo Gallinari, who’s now an Atlanta Hawk, and while Horford might be a sturdy enough center, no two Thunder centers on the current roster figure to be as strong as Adams and Nerlens Noel, in tandem, were last season.

The best possible scenario when it comes to OKC’s roster would appear to be that four of the five returnees will have real roles to play on future Thunder rosters capable of chasing championships: Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, Bazley and Diallo.

Yet, even if they’re bound to, it would appear to be a great deal of development away, enough for two or three of them to become stars when, only last season, their being satellites surrounding Paul, Gallinari, Schroder and Adams were enough for them to be projected ahead of the game.

It is, indeed, a new season.

ESPN has projected the Thunder to finish dead last in the Western Conference, likely to win 25 games in what’s scheduled to be a 72-game regular season.

FiveThirtyEight.com, which puts numbers to politics and sports, forecasts 27 Oklahoma City victories.

Various sports books have set the over-under Thunder victory total to be 22 or 23.

The reason they play the games, of course, is that (almost) anything can still happen.

“Ever since the first day of training camp, every guy’s been in here working hard,” Hill said. “At the same time, staying after practice, getting to know each other, coach has done a great job.”

Perhaps stuff like that can matter again, like it did last season.

One never knows.

Clay Horning

405 366-3526

Follow me @clayhorning

cfhorning@normantranscript.com

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