The Whiteboard: The Thunder tore it down and still might be a playoff team

Oklahoma City Thunder, The Whiteboard

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After Monday night’s 125-122 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Thunder are 7-9, just a game and a half out of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Their record, admittedly, looks much, much better than their point differential but every win counts a little more in this abbreviated season and 538’s NBA predictions currently give them a nine percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s nearly double their preseason postseason odds.

None of that is all that impressive until you consider that the Thunder traded three starters and a key reserve from last year’s surprising playoff team, turning Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder into George Hill, Al Horford, Aleksej Pokusevski (one of the 2020 NBA Draft’s biggest projects) and four future first-round picks. It was a slate of rebuilding moves, prioritizing long-term value over the short-term and this team is undoubtedly worse than last year’s team. But the expectation was that they could be among the worst teams in the league this year and they are definitely more competitive than that.

So how are the Oklahoma City Thunder still this good?

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander still looks like a star, even without Chris Paul. It was a legitimate question how much harder things might be for the talented third-year guard, assuming a lead role without Paul’s experience to scaffold things. All he’s done is increase his scoring average, nearly double his assists per game and post career-high shooting numbers both inside and outside the arc. He’s been the team’s primary creation engine — just 12.6 percent of his 2-point field goals and 34.5 percent of his 3-point field goals have been assisted — and he’s still increased his true shooting percentage from 56.8 to 62.0. Suffice it to say he was up for the challenge.

Luguentz Dort is a net positive on offense. Dort carved out a role for himself on defense as a rookie but his offensive woes — 39.4 percent from the field, 29.7 percent on 3s — were a glaring problem in Oklahoma City’s playoff run. This season he’s made himself a legitimate spot-up threat. More than half of his shots have come beyond the arc and he’s shooting 43.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s.

A balance of youth and experience. The Thunder’s starting lineup features three players at the beginning of their careers — Gilgeous-Alexander (22 years old), Dort (21) and Darius Bazley (20) — and a pair of experienced veterans — Al Horford (34) and George Hill (34). This was the recipe for the Thunder last season, when the steady hands of Paul, Gallinari and Adams helped Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort found their roles. This year’s roster is much more tilted towards youth but it’s functioning in similar ways. That starting lineup has played 195 minutes together, outscoring opponents by an average of 1.6 points per 100 possessions. Oklahoma City’s first three or four players off the bunch are also extremely young — Isaiah Roby (22), Hamidou Diallo (22), Theo Maledon (19) and Pokusevski (19). But the Thunder have outscored opponents by 2.1 points per 100 possessions when Horford and Hill were on the floor together, regardless of which other young players were around them.

The Thunder are catching some lucky breaks. Not to end on a down note but, again, the Thunder’s record is probably overstating how good they are. Four of their seven wins have come by three points or less and just two came against teams that are currently in position to make the playoffs. And on the other end, seven of their nine losses have been by double-figures. They’ve also gone just 2-4, outscored by a total of 64 points, in the last six games which Horford has missed after the birth of his child. That Horford-Hill foundation is a powerful stabilizing influence but it’s also incredibly fragile.

Still, the Thunder have more incoming draft capital than any other team in the league. And they’re somehow still able to give their talented young core high-leverage minutes in meaningfully competitive games as they wait for those picks to turn into players. It’s the best of both worlds.

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