21–22 NBA Previews: The Oklahoma City Thunder (#29)

Trying to make sense of what happened with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season is at once simple and complex. What’s simple is that they sucked, mostly by design, to a profound and historical degree. What’s complex is the manner of the “by design” part of that. 

A fun stat to represent this: in spite of the fact that the 2020–21 NBA season was 10 fewer games than a standard NBA season, the Thunder had 16 different players average over eight points per game. 16! Do you know how erratic and transitory your roster and rotation needs to be for 16 different dudes to manage to average that many points per game? 

I’m not going to do the research involved in proving how irregular this particular set of circumstances was; suffice to say I’ve been obsessing about the NBA for my entire life and can’t think of any comparable example. The 2015–16 76ers, legendary for the bald-faced, structural tank-job they had going, had 10 guys average eight points per game. They, at least, glanced sideways at structural regularity. There was a system. You cannot say the same about the 2020–21 Thunder.

And yet, in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder have an honest-to-god foundational piece, which is something most tanking teams can’t say in the moment. Shai is a hellaciously good offensive player—both relentless and controlled all at once. He led the league in drives per game by a ridiculous margin—25.2 compared to Luka Dončić’s second place 20.3—and got to the line a ton, but he also made over 40% of his 3-point attempts. His assist rate skyrocketed to almost double his career-high. His shot-profile is excellent, and he’s relatively consistent from everywhere on the floor. 

Everyone thinks Shai is really good, but I’m getting the feeling there’s a sleeping giant here. Part of that is certainly the fact that his team shut him down in the interest of pursuing laughably bad losses every night. He played 35 games. Two of his three NBA seasons have occurred in during a bizarre pandemic, and his team contexts have shifted wildly. He was a promising rookie on a veteran-laden Clippers team, spent a year in Chris Paul School, and then was handed the keys for half a season before getting shut down by the tank. You look at his stats from last year, and it’s hard to talk yourself into the idea that this isn’t a superstar, and yet the surrounding noise is so loud you almost can’t see the player.

Meanwhile, there’s not much else to talk about here. The tank kinda failed: instead of ending up with Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, or Jalen Green, the Thunder wound up with Josh Giddey, a player who reminds me of Ricky Rubio without the dribbling or the defensive brilliance. Just to clarify: that’s not a compliment. It’s possible the second best guy on this team is either Lu Dort or Darius Bazely, and while those guys are nice developmental basketball stories, neither has shown even a little ability to be efficient at generating offensive value. 

So, I’m left wondering what I’m looking at. I can’t think of five players I’m more excited to consider than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but I also have no faith whatsoever that this team is ready to do anything close to giving him a reasonable context in which to exist. My guess is that the rumors that Sam Presti was trying to trade Shai to move up for Cade were true. My guess is that this is a team that would be content, right now, to have zero good players instead of one. I think they are looking to linger in the darkness. I think that’s a mistake. I think Shai is worth building around, and I hope he burns so bright this season that the context, in all that darkness, can’t help but find him.