Basketball is almost back! After an eternal offseason and some (technically real basketball, but not really) preseason action, only FIVE days remain until the Thunder regular season tips off. It may have seemed impossible during the dark days of summer, when the FIBA World Cup and Chris Paul’s new dieting habits were the closest basketball junkies got to a fix, but we’re really going to make it.
Are you excited? I’m excited — more excited than Sam Presti swimming in a pool of draft picks or Nikola Jokić dancing half-naked on a tree in Serbia.
I don’t care that the Thunder aren’t championship contenders anymore. I don’t care that Vegas is predicting the lowest Thunder win total (around 31.5 wins from most sites) since they first moved to Oklahoma. I don’t even care that half the team is on the trade block. THUNDER BASKETBALL IS BACK!
Even if the worst possibility becomes reality, there’s still plenty of fun to be had this season. So let’s suspend our expectations for just a moment, and take a look at five things to be excited about this Thunder season.
1. Ball Movement
If you know me, you know I have an undying love for Russell Westbrook. But his departure has opened the door for the most exciting thing to hit Oklahoma City since the new downtown streetcar system (yes, that’s the most exciting recent OKC thing I could think of): Ball Movement.
For so long, iso-ball has ruled. The Thunder were dead last in passes made per game last year (and the year before, and the year before that). Having isolation-focused superstars can be fun, especially when that translates to winning, but a new style of play should be a breath of fresh air.
With three elite primary creators in Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder, the new Thunder roster construction has a clear goal. Thunder Forward Abdel Nader made it explicit; this team will feature “less holding the ball for too long.” That attitude will lead to beautiful possessions like the one above. Four passes and only one dribble leading to a bucket is not something Thunder fans are used to, but get ready for that to change this season.
2. Silk Shai
For those of you who have yet to see Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play, know this: the man is smooth as they come. Standing 6 feet 6 inches with a nearly 7-foot wingspan, the way he moves with the ball in his hands is awe-inspiring. He gets anywhere he wants on the court. Using a combination of hesitation moves and tight crossovers to get to the rim, and all of his length and finesse to finish, he is already a refined scorer in the paint.
At only 21 years of age, his silky style of play will only become more polished as he continues to develop in OKC. He creates easy looks for himself, and will learn with experience to create those same opportunities for others. It is only a matter of time before he expands his game to become the true face of the Thunder franchise.
3. Bench Mob Dunks
If you’re afraid the departure of Russell Westbrook and Paul George are going to make the Thunder “boring,” don’t be. Let’s not forget, OKC still has the defending Dunk Contest Champion, Hamidou Diallo. Better yet, he’s not even the best dunker on the team! Though Hami can throw down with the best of them, Terrence “2K” Ferguson has earned that title. Just check out the bounce on this slashing dunk over Maxi Kleber from last week:
Although Ferguson was a starter last year, with the long awaited return of Andre Roberson coming (*crosses fingers*) soon, he’ll likely come off the bench for a good portion of this season. Between Ferguson (21 years old), Hami Diallo (21 years old), and the electric rookie Darius Bazley (19 years old), the Thunder’s backup wings are some of the most explosive players in the league. You can expect mind-boggling aerial showcases almost every night from these young, athletic Thunder reserves.
4. Green Light Steven Adams
Since he arrived in Oklahoma six years ago, Steven Adams has played a very specific role. Rebound the ball, defend the paint, set hard screens, and let teammates set him up for easy finishes at the rim. He will still do all those things at a high level, but this year Steven Adams will have something he has never had before: The Green Light.
In preseason, we saw him run the fast break, shoot (and make!) a three, while still maintaining his brutish style of play. He may have only pulled those moves out because preseason games don’t count, but regardless he’ll have much more freedom this year to experiment and expand his game in new and exciting ways. This is the year of Steven Adams — Uncaged.
5. Revenge/Reunion Games
The core of the great Thunder teams of old may no longer be in Oklahoma City, but they are still out there playing basketball. Of the 30 teams in the NBA, half feature at least one former OKC rotation player. Some will be more hotly contested than others.
Russell Westbrook’s return to Oklahoma with James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha back at his side is one of the most anticipated games in Thunder history. Kevin Durant will be back with his new team in Brooklyn, and though he won’t be playing, expect him to get booed even from the bench. The reaction to Paul George and his new LA supersquad is still unknown (I’m in favor of a nice round of applause for PG13, but no tribute video). And of course, Royal Ivey making his long awaited return to OKC in his new assistant coaching role with the New York Knicks will make for must-watch TV.
If none of the first four exciting things were enough to get you interested in this Thunder squad, at least you can enjoy the visiting past. But know this. Though the Thunder’s record this year may be mediocre, their rise to excellence is already in motion. So let’s enjoy the process and get excited about this version of Thunder basketball while it’s still around.
Connor Ayubi is the newest member of The Franchise’s OKC Thunder insider coverage team. An Oklahoma native, he now studies Economics and Sport Analytics at Rice University. Connor has experience leading the analytics team for Rice Men’s and Women’s basketball, consulting for Rocnation Sports Agency, and preparing the Phoenix Suns for the 2019 NBA Draft with his scouting and analysis. Follow him on Twitter @AyubiNBA