NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

2019-20 Regular Season Record: 44-28 (.611%), 5th in Western Conference, Lost in 1st Rd.
Head Coach: Billy Donovan

The Oklahoma City Thunder were one of the surprises of the NBA last year, working their way to a 44-28 record and the 5th seed in the Western Conference. You would think that after trading away Paul George and Russell Westbrook one day apart last offseason that the Thunder would be in a major rebuilding mode. Wrong. Chris Paul, who was brought over from Houston in the Westbrook trade, put together a great campaign - 17.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 6.7 apg, 1.6 spg, shooting 48.9% from the field, and was one of the most clutch players in the NBA all year. Denis Scroder was a close 2nd to Montrezl Harrell in Sixth Man of the Year voting, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had an excellent year, going off for 19.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.3 apg. It certainly didn’t hurt that none of the starting five missed more than 10 games in the year, as they played with cohesiveness and teamwork that has become the hallmark of Billy Donovan-led teams. Over-achieving all year, they took the Houston Rockets to the limit in the 1st round of the playoffs, losing in the deciding 7th game.

2020 Notable Departures

There was another massive overhaul in the offseason in OKC. Gone are many key members of the over-achieving group from the 2019-20 season. See below for a recap of the Thunder’s busy offseason:
  1. Traded Chris Paul and Abdel Nader for Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a 2022 1st round pick
    • They then flipped Kelly Oubre Jr. to the Warriors in exchange for a 2021 conditional 1st round pick & a 2021 2nd round pick 
    • Rubio was sent to Minnesota as part of a 3-team trade that saw the Thunder receive the draft rights to Aleksej Pokusevski (17th overall pick) & a 2024 2nd round pick
  2. Traded Dennis Schroder for Danny Green and the 28th overall pick in the 2020 draft 
    • The Thunder subsequently sent Green to Philadelphia, in exchange for Al Horford, a protected 2025 1st round pick & a 2020 2nd round pick 
  3. Steven Adams was the final piece of the pie, leaving the Thunder and heading to the New Orleans Pelicans as part of the 4-way trade that landed Jrue Holliday in Milwaukee. The Thunder acquired a ton of assets in the deal, notably: 
    • George Hill
    • Denver Nuggets 2023 lottery protected 1st round pick
    • Washington Wizards 2023 2nd round pick
    • Charlotte Hornets 2024 2nd round pick 
    • $27.5M trade exception 
  4. Nerlens Noel (NYK) and Danilo Gallinari (Atlanta Hawks) left the Thunder and signed as free agents
Got that? A little confused? That's okay. There's a lot to digest there. Ultimately, the Thunder were unable to turn the trio of James Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (plus Serge Ibaka & Steven Adams) into a championship. Knowing how difficult it is to win a championship, they put themselves in a great position to be competitive in the future as they have the most draft picks in the near future by a mile

New Faces in 2020-21

With the whirlwind of trades taking place through the offseason, some players didn’t even get to pretend they were part of the Thunder organization – Danny Green and Kelly Oubre Jr. were traded for and shipped out just as quickly. So who are the most notable new additions to the Thunder’s roster this year?
  1. Aleksej Pokusevski, 17th overall pick in 2020 NBA Draft - widely regarded as one of the biggest risks in the draft. If he reaches his potential, the 7’0” multi-position big man could be the steal of the draft. Having recently hit a growth spurt to get to his current height, he had been a shooting guard growing up in Europe, and he has playmaking and ball handling abilities that should translate to the NBA.
  2. Theo Maledon, 34th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft - the 6'5", 185 lb. point guard comes from France, and was expected to go late in the 1st round of the draft. 
  3. George Hill - brings 12 years of NBA experience to the young Thunder. Don’t forget that Hill shot a league-leading 46.0% on 3.0 3-point attempts last year. 
  4. Al Horford - the five-time All-Star will be joining his 4th NBA team, and along with Hill, brings leadership and veteran savvy to the team. Horford averaged 11.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 4.0 apg last year in Philadelphia while playing his usual great team defense. 
  5. Trevor Ariza traded three times in one week during the offseason, he finally ended up in OKC and will oldest member of the Thunder, entering his 17th season, with his 9th team 

The Young Canadian Duo

With so many players now out of the picture, it’s quite clear that the Thunder are going to be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's team – the 2nd through 6th leading scorers from last year’s team are gone. SGA only attempted 14.5 shot attempts last year while shooting a solid 47.1% from the field, and there’s no doubt he will see an uptick in his usage for the upcoming season – look for SGA to get up close to 20 shots per game. SGA will be looking to provide more playmaking, on both sides of the ball, as he should beat his career average of 3.3 apg, and look to improve upon his 1.2 spg average too. He was quoted as saying:

I have certain skills and just fine-tuning those and sharpening those up and being ready to do it for a full 48 minutes. The biggest thing is how much of a toll it takes on you to play at a high level on both ends of the floor. The greatest players in the game can do it, and ultimately that's where I want to get to, so I know I got to do it.

With the ability to produce games like his monster 20 point, 20 rebound, 10 assist triple double or go into his hometown and post a career high 32 points while hitting the game winning shot, expect big things this year from the young Torontonian. 

And while most NBA fans are aware of SGA, not as many may be familiar with his countryman from Montreal, Lu Dort. Dort went undrafted in 2019 and had to sign a two-way deal with the Thunder just to get onto the team. Playing in 36 regular season games, his coming out party didn’t take place until the 1st round series versus Houston, where he was tasked with guarding the league’s leading scorer three years running – James Harden. The Rockets and Harden found out soon enough how much of a pain Dort could be on the defensive end. At the end of the series, Dort received high praise from his fellow ASU alumni Harden: 

I’ve seen him since college when I would go back to Arizona State. He worked his butt off and it’s showing. Obviously, he played extremely well tonight. On the offensive end, he made a lot of shots. He just played his butt off. He doesn’t care about anything but playing hard. As a young guy coming into this league, that’s all you need to ask for. Learning how to play and learning defensive schemes and offensive schemes, and the total packaging of being an NBA player is going to come but he has the right mindset of just playing hard and playing balls to the wall. He is going to have a great career.

Look for both of the young Canadians to excel in their expanded roles during the season. Unfortunately for the Thunder, they are likely to drop out of the playoff race and fall into the lottery for next year. 

Photo Credit: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire