The Oklahoma City Thunder enter the 2020-21 season eyeing their first rebuild since 2007. After more than a decade of excellence, General Manager Sam Presti pushed the reset button trading all his veteran players. Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schroder will all don different colors after a successful 2019-20 season. Presti appeared most upset with the trade of Adams, a fan favorite and colorful character who embraced the Oklahoma community for seven seasons.
Now, the Thunder of yesteryear will forge itself a new identity behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, and Darius Bazley. The trio is 22, 21, and 20 years of age, respectively, and acquitted themselves fabulously in last year’s playoffs. While the Thunder said goodbye to its veteran heads, new blood is set to carry Oklahoma City into the future.
Let’s take a look at the expectations for the Thunder this season.
Oklahoma City Thunder Eyeing Rebuild Season with New Core
2019-20 Success in the Rearview Mirror
Oklahoma City outperformed their pre-season 2019-20 ranking substantially battling their way to the fifth seed. Lead by veterans Paul, Adams, Gallinari, and Schroder, the Thunder had a top-five best line-up in the NBA statistically speaking. Former coach Billy Donovan deserves a ton of credit for creating line-ups in his vision, giving fans one of the most fulfilling seasons in some time.
Of all the things that went “right” last year, the most impressive aspect was the development of Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, and Bazley. The trio was able to build strong chemistry with one another, pivotal to where the team hopes to go moving forward. All three had breakout games throughout the extended season and are poised to move into leadership positions in 2020-21.
The Thunder were close to advancing to the second round in the playoffs last season behind a scintillating 30-point performance from Dort. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be but they can take a lot of confidence as the team reshapes itself.
Presti was extremely busy at the NBA Draft and through the early days of Free Agency, and a number of youthful faces emerged.
OKC YOUTH MOVEMENT (Under 25)
Aleksej Pokusevski – 18
Josh Hall – 20 (TW)
Darius Bazley – 20
Vit Krejci – 20 (Overseas)
Lu Dort – 21
Omer Yurtseven – 22 (TW)
Hamidou Diallo – 22
SGA – 22
Isaiah Roby – 22
Ty Jerome – 23
T.J. Leaf – 23
Admiral Schofield – 23
Justin Jackson – 25
— THUNDER MONEYBALL (@geola388) December 3, 2020
Aleksej Pokusevski, Theo Maledon, and Vit Krejci were added on draft night while Presti pulled a rabbit out of the hat signing 20-year-old Josh Hall to a two-way contract. Hall was a five-star high school recruit who elected to forgo college and enter the draft.
Additionally, former Georgetown big man Omer Yurtseven signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Thunder and will enter training camp with the squad. Presti also added Justin Jackson, Ty Jerome, T.J. Leaf, and Admiral Schofield via trade. One player Oklahoma City is waiting to take a look at is Isaiah Roby who was out with a foot injury for most of last year. The 22-year-old is an athletic forward who plays similarly to Jerami Grant, formerly with the Denver Nuggets and now with the Detroit Pistons.
It’s going to be intriguing to see how this team plays collectively and how Presti evaluates each player.
Expectations for the Young Guns
The new-look Thunder expects to be one of the worst teams in the NBA. Like last season, there is little pressure to perform to make the post-season. This year will fully focus on the development of Oklahoma City’s youth with Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, and Bazley looking to expand their games.
Who is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Second Star?
As it stands, the two most likely candidates for this role are Bazley and Dort. Bazley showed tremendous growth in the bubble, taking players off the dribble, shooting the long ball, and displayed excellent vision making players for others. Dort is an elite defender but an inconsistent long-range shooter. He needs to show his 30-point explosion in game seven against the Houston Rockets was no fluke.
Both have a shot to emerge as the team’s best player. In a perfect world, both would grow together and become the perfect compliments to Gilgeous-Alexander. Bazley and Dort have the potential to become elite two-way players.
There is massive hype around Maledon and Pokusevski as well. The pair possess reputations in Europe as future stars, especially Maledon who’s drawn the praise of former All-Star guard Tony Parker. Parker projected Maledon to go in the top half of the draft but instead, the Frenchman fell to 34th. Pokusevski has drawn comparisons to Dallas Maverick Kristaps Porzingis. The Thunder made a series of moves on draft night to select him at 17.
Who will emerge as the Thunder’s second star? This is one of the team’s biggest questions moving forward.
Will Oklahoma City continue to hang its hat on Defense?
Oklahoma City has consistently been one of the NBA’s Top 10 defenses over the past decade. The team finished last season with a 108.1 defensive rating, good enough for seventh in the league.
For seven years, Adams anchored Oklahoma City’s defense and was the voice that held the team’s scheme together. Adams was a physical force on the block, a throw-back type center who clogged the lane and routinely cleaned up blown coverages. With no Adams in the middle, it remains to be seen who becomes the team’s leader.
One imagines Dort and Bazley will take over primary defensive duties as the team’s bona fide leaders. Dort is a fantastic on-ball and team defender but is painfully quiet and reserved. Bazley is a more out-going voice so perhaps he will take over those duties. SGA is a wonderful offensive player but needs to make strides on the defensive side of the ball.
This will be something Presti needs to monitor throughout.
Oklahoma City Thunder and the Euro Connection
Two primary strengths of rookies Maledon and Pokusevski is their ability to see the floor and make the extra pass. Maledon is a sturdy six-foot-five guard who’s showed tremendous patience in pick and roll sets, making the correct read and ensuing passes in traffic. Pokusevski uses his seven-foot frame to see over defenses and is excellent at moving the rock to the open man. The one criticism of the two is neither one is overly aggressive in scoring the ball.
Luckily, Gilgeous-Alexander and Bazley will take on the bulk of the scoring load. I imagine the Thunder will play a lot more in transition given the youth on the squad. Paul, Adams, and Gallinari were older veterans with Paul more comfortable playing in the half-court.
The great thing is both players can shoot. In Europe last year, Maledon connected on 36.7 percent of his triples and will take open looks when they become available. Pokusevski didn’t shoot the ball as well at 32.1 percent from three but he possesses nice mechanics. The seven-footer will benefit greatly with Mike Miller on the coaching squad over the next couple of seasons.
A Tough Season Awaits
The Thunder face a tough season ahead. General Manager Sam Presti has torn down the roster completely with a fresh batch of talent. It has been a long time since OKC was a bottom feeder but the optics read well for the franchise.
If the Thunder are going to tank the year, they need to move George Hill and Al Horford. Both veterans are good enough to snag Oklahoma City some wins but Presti is aware of this. This will be a testing season for the team but it will learn from this experience.
Predicted 2020-21 record: 27-45
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