Oklahomans are used to winning. In the Thunder franchise’s 11-year history, they’ve reached the playoffs nine times (missing only their inaugural ‘08-’09 season and their injury riddled ‘14-’15 campaign) giving them the highest playoff berth percentage (81%) of any NBA city. They’ve given Thunder fans more historic big game moments in that short run than many much older franchises have ever experienced. Just ask the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In trend with most winning NBA teams, the Thunder have achieved their success on the backs of their superstar players. In each of their last ten seasons, the Thunder have had at least one player who finished in the top five of MVP voting. This is by far the longest active streak in the NBA (Houston is second with three straight years due to ex-OKC stud James Harden), but barring advances in the age reversal process for Chris Paul, the streak is basically guaranteed to come to an end in the upcoming ‘19-’20 season.
With no MVP prospects and no immediate championship hopes, Thunder fans might not feel they have much to look forward to this season. This should not be the case. Despite being absent of the household names of old, the Thunder roster is stocked with quality veterans and promising young players, a few of whom were acquired in recent blockbuster trades with the Clippers and Rockets. To help give Oklahoma a better idea of what to expect for the upcoming season, let’s break down the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the five key newcomers on the roster.
Point Guard – 6’0” – 34 years old
Last Season (Rockets): 15.6 ppg, 8.2 apg, 4.6 rpg, 58 games played
Chris Paul has been put in a perfect position to remind people of his greatness. As a result of his advanced age and albatross contract, “CP3” has come to be seen as a negative asset in front offices across the league, proving just how short people’s memories are. Just two years ago, before his injury shortened and overall disappointing ‘18-’19 season, Paul was still scoring 18ppg, was second in the league in isolation scoring according to nba.com, and looked poised to help James Harden lead the Rockets to a championship appearance before his tragic playoff hamstring tear in the ‘17-’18 Western Conference Finals. But just like Houston, it seems inevitable that OKC will soon want to ship the once great Paul off to anywhere else, and will have to attach some extra goods to get him out.
Although he isn’t the same electric young point guard that Oklahoma first enjoyed during his Hornets’ brief stint in OKC over a decade ago, Paul buys into his role on the squad and has a bounce back year. With the keys to the offense in his hands and capable off-ball scorers in Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari by his side, CP3 reverts away from his iso-heavy Houston days, and averages double digit assists for the first time since he was an all-star Clipper. He provides much needed veteran leadership (as one should expect from the head of the NBA Players Association) and mentorship to OKC’s lead guard of the future, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Although he doesn’t get picked for the all-star game, he is widely considered one of the biggest “snubs.” Most importantly for the Thunder’s long-term vision, his trade value takes an upward tick as championship hopefuls around the league start to think trading away a pick or two might be worth the risk of taking on Paul’s $38+ million dollar yearly price tag.
As we should be ready to expect given his injury history (at least twenty missed games each of the past three seasons), we get only a partial season out of OKC’s newest future Hall of Fame guard. As Paul’s legs continue to deteriorate, his trade value does the same, and OKC is forced to either commit to paying him for the next three years or move him elsewhere for a significant loss. Now he can’t control all of that, but regardless of how much he plays, Paul finds himself in a position to either elevate or destroy any chemistry in the locker room, which is in a fragile place already due to the recent roster reconstruction. He chooses not to buy in to the goals and systems of the team, and when the losses start coming (which they will) we find a disgruntled (former) star on our hands. Trying to selfishly boost his own numbers with his once effective iso-ball, teaching poor habits to the young players, and looking to get out, Paul fails to rally a team that desperately needs direction. Due to a combination of unwillingness and inability, the Thunder’s Chris Paul experiment becomes a bigger pain than Carmelo Anthony ever was.
Guard – 6’6” – 21 years old
Last Season (Clippers): 10.8 ppg, 3.3 apg, 2.8 rpg, 82 games played
For those of you who don’t know “SGA” by know, you will soon. Deemed to be the future “Face of the Franchise” by many here at The Franchise, the 21-year-old second year player seems to be the Thunder’s best bet at developing yet another star in house. Though we often see second year players take a big jump in production from their rookie numbers, OKC should be patient with Shai. He’s already said it himself — he is NOT Russell Westbrook. The triple doubles will be few and far between.
Following a promising training camp and preseason, Coach Billy Donovan decides to start Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at shooting guard when the season tips off in Utah on October 23rd. Despite some early struggles, we see a solid uptick in per-game numbers (15-5-5 is achievable) over the long run. With more freedom to play his game within the Thunder’s offense, Shai posts a handful of big-time performances, including a few triple doubles (he came close to the milestone multiple times last year), giving Oklahoma a glimpse at his true potential. In limited usage as the lead guard, SGA shows improved vision and playmaking as he is groomed by Paul to take over the offense in the coming seasons. While playing off-ball next to Paul and Dennis Schroder, he continues to consistently shoot the ball from three (36.7% last season on 1.7 attempts per game) on significantly more looks.
With Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder hogging the keys to the offense, SGA is unable to display his passing touch (his most talked about strength coming out of college) and is forced to sit and watch the ball. When touches do come his way, he struggles to create his own looks in the Thunder’s sometimes stagnant offense. Shai doesn’t get the chance to start until the very end of the season when the playoffs seem out of reach. Coming off the bench with a weak supporting cast, he cannot handle the defensive pressure as teams start to focus on him more and more. Overall he takes a step back from his quality rookie season due to the difficulties of organizational change and a worse roster. Oklahoma starts to wonder if he’s really worth betting on as the point guard of the future.
For more, come back next week as we break down the best and worst possibilities for Danilo Gallinari, Andre Roberson, and Darius Bazley in Part Two of this edition of the Thunder Forecast.
Connor Ayubi is the newest member of The Franchise’s OKC Thunder insider coverage team. An Oklahoma native, he is studying Economics and Sport Analytics at Rice University. Connor has experience leading the analytics team for Rice Men’s and Women’s basketball, doing analytics consulting for Rocnation Sports, and preparing the Phoenix Suns for the 2019 NBA Draft with his scouting and analysis. Follow him on Twitter @AyubiNBA