May 13, 2020, 1:17 am
Nobody expected the Thunder to sit where they currently are in the standings after 64 games. They wrapped up the 2019 offseason having just unloaded two core superstars in Russell Westbrook and Paul George, both of whom are signed to hefty long-term deals. The standout players who remained on the roster after those trades, which returned an abundance of future first-round draft selections, were widely expected to be dealt in-season prior to the trade deadline in February. The Thunder were seemingly headed for a full rebuild as the 2019-2020 season commenced.
Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari (both of whom were acquired, along with seven future first-round draft picks, in the offseason deals of Westbrook and George), Steven Adams, and even Dennis Schroder were likely candidates to be dealt. Many Thunder fans were questioning Billy Donovan’s fit as head coach as they embraced the roster overhaul and analysts were indicating he might be on the hot seat. There was a major key to the George trade that many people overlooked at the time of the deal: the Thunder received guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as part of the trade, coming off an All-Rookie campaign with the Clippers.
The result has been glamorous for the Thunder. Gilgeous-Alexander has had a breakout season, Chris Paul has been a tremendous leader on his way to his tenth All-Star selection, the front office did not make a single trade at the deadline, and the Thunder sit fifth in the Western Conference standings as of the stoppage in March.
This is how it unraveled.
Sam Presti did it again. Or so it seems, at this juncture. The Oklahoma City general manager has a largely phenomenal track record, and his trades of Westbrook and George seemed to be an indication that – finally – Presti was embracing a full roster rebuild moving forward. After all, he had drafted three MVPs in Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, all of whom have now departed, and playoff appearances in nine of eleven seasons in Oklahoma City.
Superstar Paul George was extended during the previous offseason, then changed course and was shipped off by request to the Clippers to join forces with Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles. The Thunder had been gutted, again. They seemed destined for a lottery selection (and, likely, a top-10 selection) after all was said and done in 2020.
The Thunder didn’t start particularly strong, finding themselves at 14-14 after 28 games, but December proved to be a key month for them. They went 11-4 during that month as part of a stretch where the Thunder rattled off 21 victories in 27 games from December 16th to February 7th. The three-headed monster at the point guard position is the biggest reason why. Each of Schroder (31.0 MPG), Gilgeous-Alexander (35.1 MPG), and Paul (31.5 MPG) have played high-leverage roles all season long and were particularly good during the aforementioned stretch.
The roster, which had seemed to most to be an awkwardly-balanced conglomeration of young players who were largely unintriguing in the long-term, veterans past their primes, and Nerlens Noel, a league cast-off trying to carve out a spot in the league, clicked at some point in December.
There seemed to be a chip on the shoulders of every single member of the team. Paul, who was not necessarily expected to ever suit up for the Thunder after the initial trade involving franchise icon Westbrook heading to Houston, has maintained a pedal-to-the-metal attitude from the outset. People across the NBA questioned what Paul had left in the tank and the moves Presti made in the offseason were largely viewed as a courtesy to George and Westbrook to continue their careers elsewhere, with Paul heading to the Thunder to even out Westbrook’s contract.
There were essentially zero expectations in terms of victories or playoff aspirations for the Thunder heading into the season. The team apparently took note of that and has sustained remarkable drive through the season, even if the lack of expectations has blown their record and success a bit out of proportion.
Leadership of Chris Paul
With two seasons remaining on his four-year contract he signed with Houston in 2018, which includes an eye-popping $44.2 million player option for the final season alone, Paul is a hard player to move at this point in his career. There is no possible scenario in which Paul would decline that option (it would be a terrible financial decision to do so), so the only logical option was/is to try to unload his contract at some point. Trade rumors have swirled during his whole tenure with the team, and rightly so (the Knicks showed interest very recently), but they were often accompanied by criticisms of Paul’s value in relation to the amount of money he is raking in each year. Basically, Paul did not seem likely to have anywhere near enough left in the tank to justify his yearly salary for the rest of his contract.
Paul has blown all projections out of the water, whether it be value, trade, talent or otherwise. He’s always been a bona fide leader, even going back to his tenure in New Orleans. However, in both of his most recent stops prior to the Thunder, the Clippers and the Rockets, he had significant help in that respect. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were at his side in LA; and the Rockets were James Harden’s before Paul even arrived in Houston. On both occasions, there were legitimate championship aspirations and in both scenarios, Paul and his squads came up significantly short, year in and year out.
By last summer when Paul was dealt for Westbrook, talks of his ability to lead a team to a title and his leadership, which had always been highly coveted and earned him gigantic paychecks, was all but lost. Especially with this Thunder team.
Paul responded to the critics in a big way: leading the Thunder to the fifth spot in the Western Conference (only a game behind the Jazz for the right to host a playoff series) and being named to his tenth All Star team, regaining many the aspects of his game in the process that were so highly sought after for so long. There are even ongoing discussions with other teams who are now considering taking on Paul’s hefty price tag.
From a fantasy perspective, Paul has also largely regained his old self and has been a model of consistency. His value slots him at the beginning of the second-round of fantasy drafts, right inside the top-15. Paul greatly eclipsed his preseason ADP on both Yahoo (35) and ESPN (55), after he was taken in rounds three through five of most fantasy drafts last fall (which, at the time, seemed like a lofty expectation for return-on-investment). In the 31.5 minutes per game he has averaged in 2019-2020, Paul put up averages of 17.7 points, 6.8 dimes, 4.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals while maintaining a pristine 49/36/90 shooting line on the season.
Paul brought an important element to the Thunder roster: the pick-and-roll with starting center Steven Adams and backup big-man Noel. All three of the Thunder’s excellent point guards (Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Schroder) flourished in this role, and Paul led the way. Among players with at least 36 games played, Noel led the league in score frequency as the roll guy on pick-and-rolls, scoring a whopping 70.7 percent of the time. Adams, who scored 65.5 percent of the time, ranks 24th in the league in score frequency. Paul himself has a 52.2 score frequency on the pick-and-roll as the ball handler this year, good enough for seventh in the league, which tends to be a bit more challenging for guards (ball handlers), seeing that they do not have control of putting the ball in the bucket.
All in all, the addition of Paul to the Thunder has been a smashing success. Even if they don’t attain any playoff success with Paul in the fold, he has nearly managed to justify his large contract by helping the team in so many different ways, the biggest of which being the recreation of his value and potential trade packages the Thunder could receive in return for him. Paul has seemed driven from the very beginning, meshing with the never-say-die attitude and harnessing the culture the Thunder have fostered for essentially their entire tenure in Oklahoma City, dating back to their relocation from Seattle prior to the 2008 season.
This Thunder roster gelled almost instantly. One of the pressing questions from the George deal was the potential of the young stud, Gilgeous-Alexander. Later reports would surface that the Clippers were very hesitant to part with the young guard, who had just finished off a very impressive rookie season. Now it’s quite evident why the Clippers’ front office felt the way they did about SGA – he is a stud. Thus far, he has accumulated per game averages of 19.3 points (team-high), 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and, in 35.1 minutes a game, has arguably been the team’s season MVP (although that award likely goes to Paul).
The balance of young players and the veteran tutelage of fellow point guards Schroder and Paul proved to be the most fertile of environments for Gilgeous-Alexander. Undrafted two-way rookie shooting guard Luguentz Dort, who worked his way into the starting lineup as a defensive stalwart for the last 21 games the Thunder have played, also benefited greatly from the veteran guard leadership.
Gilgeous-Alexander has started all but one of the Thunder’s games and provided consistency across the board fantasy wise, ranking inside the top-50 in per-game value in 8/9 cat leagues. His ADP prior to the season sat at 73 (Yahoo) and 88 (ESPN), so the fourth-round value he has provided has been a big bonus for fantasy owners. His talent has always been undeniable and he finished his rookie campaign with the Clippers inside the top-150 in only 26.5 minutes per game. He really made an impression during the Clippers’ hard fought first-round playoff series with the Warriors in 2019, but Gilgeous-Alexander has capitalized on his opportunity to take on a vital role with his new team and learn under Paul’s wing while he’s in town.
What Happened to Ferguson and Diallo?
One of the few disappointing developments the 2019-2020 season has brought upon the Thunder is the apparent stalling of the development of 21-year-olds Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo.
Ferguson, for his part, has been a beast defending perimeter shooters in this his third season in the league. Where he doesn’t cut it is on the other end of the floor. It would be nice for the Thunder to have a scorer other than Gallinari at the forward position but Ferguson hasn’t been able to put it together on the offensive end. The aggressiveness just has not been there for him and he has not been able to shoot the 3-pointer the way he did to close out the 2019 season (.366 from deep last year).
Diallo, another raw prospect for whom the Thunder have high hopes, has been injured on multiple occasions this season. He missed a large chunk (17 games) due to a hyperextended right elbow and had to sit out nearly the entire month of December. Diallo has shown ability in the past to be a quick cutter and solid finisher around the rim but he really was not able to find his rhythm when he returned on December 31st.
Diallo has managed per game marks of 6.1 points and 3.2 boards in 18.4 minutes over 38 total games; not exactly the type of improvement Thunder fans were hoping for. He did scrounge together a double-double on January 25th against the T-Wolves (10 points, 10 boards) but he has yet to build the rapport with current Thunder guards that he had flashed with Westbrook during his rookie season.
The aforementioned Dort, who is still signed to his original two-way deal, came out of nowhere and has been a bright spot as far as young players on the Thunder are concerned. He took over Ferguson’s spot in the regular rotation when Ferguson left a game in mid-January (and missed eight games after that) and quickly earned starts with his prowess as an on-ball defender. Also of note, Dort (21 starts) is the only two-way player to have earned even a single start in the NBA this season.
Two Victories Over Houston
With the Thunder in the midst of a prolonged hot streak in January, there was no better time for them to face Westbrook and the Rockets – twice. The first game, which marked Westbrook’s first trip to Oklahoma City as a visitor, was on January 9th and the Rockets received almost nothing from everyone except for Westbrook (34 points) in the second game of a back-to-back on their schedule. The Thunder won in a blowout, led by Gallinari’s 23 points and 11 rebounds, by a score of 113-92.
The second victory, this time in Houston on January 20th, was much more of a statement win for the Thunder, believe it or not. The Thunder trailed by seven at halftime and by 16 after three quarters as the Rockets looked ready to coast to an easy win and avenge their loss from earlier in the month. The Thunder, however, had other plans. They proceeded to post a 41-spot in the fourth quarter and hold on at the end for a 112-107 win, capped off with some flair by this crafty nutmeg dribble and subsequent floater from Paul.
Don't forget this nut meg either by CP3 as they blew this game opened and spoiled Russ' return to OKC pic.twitter.com/caDnvPMS0y
— Clemente Almanza (@CAlmanza1007) April 2, 2020
With the season on hold, it’s almost surprising to look at the Western Conference and see the Thunder, who were all but written off before the season and facing a full roster overhaul, looking down at the Rockets, who had dealt for Westbrook with massive title hopes entering the year, by a game in the standings.