After OKC GM Sam Presti was blindsided by Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers, and after he traded Russell Westbrook to Houston, the path was clear. Keep Chris Paul around long enough to peddle him for draft picks and an expiring contract. It would set OKC up nicely for the 2020 draft. The worst place to be is not good enough for a conference final and not bad enough for the lottery.
Presti wasn’t clear what he was getting in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander because in the Doc Rivers system, Gilgeous-Alexander was a rookie defender who could make an open shot when the ball found him, and as a bonus, he could beat his man and drive to the rim. What Presti didn’t count on was Gilgeous-Alexander work ethic pushing his ceiling way up, improving over the summer into an accomplished player and the front runner for Most Improved. He has been a wonder.
As nice as Gilgeous-Alexander has been though, the bottom line is the bottom line. The Thunder need to get into the lottery. An All-Star on the rise is a good thing and creates a brighter future. But teams need two All-Star talents to contend and OKC isn’t a free agent destination. It’s more imperative then to develop Gilgeous-Alexander but lose enough games to qualify for the lottery. Mine young talent.
It was all going according to plan. Until Chris Paul happened to the Thunder like he happened to the Clippers, only an older version of himself. In the summer, Paul was considered leverage for trades beginning in December. Curiously, Presti failed to consider the competitor first psyche of Paul. And his leadership quotient.
Regardless of trade rumors, on day one Chris Paul was always going to compete and play to win. It’s in his blood. He doesn’t get coasting or being that sulky dude waiting for the calendar to turn. Paul has leaned into the OKC experience with a flourish and a funny thing happened.
Paul’s mentorship, support, and experience has allowed Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder to thrive. The Thunder’s first seventeen games they lost twice as much as they won, a 6-11 record. In their next 18 games, they have lost four times with a record of 14-4. If you look at their recent record critically, it’s obvious what happened. The Thunder have only played 6 teams with a winning record. They are beating the teams they can beat: New Orleans, Minnesota, Portland, Chicago, Memphis, Phoenix, Charlotte, San Antonio. And yesterday, Cleveland.
They beat the Clippers at home and Utah on the road but lost to Denver. Their Toronto victory was against a depleted team. It’s hard to gauge how well they match up against the Raptors. But their Mavericks home victory was impressive. Luka Doncic had 35 points and the Thunder won in spite of his dominance. But Kristaps Porzingis didn’t play.
The schedule should tell a lot. They play the Sixers, Rockets and Lakers. The question that still nags at the conscience is who are the Thunder? And what is the point of winning 45-47 games?
The Thunder don’t have a 20+ point scorer, nor do they have an All-Star. Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schroder average 18 ppg. Outside of Schroder though, their bench is offensively ordinary.
The Thunder are a mediocre scoring team, ranked 21st. An excellent shot making team, ranked 6th. They aren’t skilled at three, 7th worst in the league. Their rebounding needs help. They don’t have quick hands and are nearly last in the league in assists. They don’t turn the ball over which helps the cause. Defensively, they are better than good but not great. They are still drawing sold out standing room capacity, 100% at home games. Which makes you wonder about the Presti strategy.
The Thunder are so beloved, fans will come to see whatever team Presti assembles. So what’s the point of a 7 seed and losing in the first round to Denver. A number 19 draft pick awaits. The Thunder also have the Nuggets pick which will be in the mid 20’s.
Here’s a look at the players at those positions the last few drafts.
Luka Samanic. Kevin Huerter. John Collins. Malik Beasley. Jerian Grant.
Nassir Little. Mortiz Wagner. Anzejs Pasecniks. Brice Johnson. Jarrell Martin.
The last All-Star to be drafted 19-30 was Jimmy Butler. He was the last player drafted in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft. As good as Butler is, he has been on four NBA teams.
After the lottery picks have been chosen, the rest of the bunch, give or take a mistake thrown in, are role players, not stars. The Thunder have enough role players. It is an elite scorer that they need, someone to compliment Gilgeous-Alexander, someone like LaMelo Ball.
While Billy Donovan has to be concerned with winning each and every game on the schedule, Sam Presti has to have an eye on the future.
The Thunder’s rich but short history is impeccable. It has them in the playoffs year after year with MVP players. So, getting to the playoffs isn’t enough. OKC isn’t Charlotte. There has to be a vision of reloading with young talented draft picks who the Thunder develop. A sobering fact: of the top 4 scorers on the Thunder roster, they only drafted Steven Adams. You can cherry pick above average players from other teams but you develop your own lottery picks into stars.
Losing in the first or second round of the playoffs doesn’t get you a star. It gets you temporary satisfaction. It gets you dreams.
Chris Paul was a nice filler in a tough situation Sam Presti didn’t ask for. But now Presti has to dig in and have a vision. He has to lead.