As we turn the page on the 2021 NBA regular season, there is heck of a lot to be excited about if you are a Thunder fan.
Yes, it is bizarre to say “there is a lot to be excited about” when the team lost 23 of its last 25 games (in record fashion), but let me explain why this season should have you anything but discouraged for the future.
These losses were obviously intentional and the absolute right move from Sam Presti and the Thunder front office. If OKC would have continued winning games at close to a .500 pace (which they did to start the season), it likely would have landed them at the 11 or 12 seed in the West.
Due to the lackluster nature of the middle of the pack in the East, this would have given the Thunder the worst, or second worst lottery odds (likely meaning a pick in the 10-14 range with no real shot at a top pick).
In the effort to tank, many–and even most–of the key players were rested frequently over the last couple months. This gave guys like Moses Brown, Isaiah Roby, Theo Maledon and more a chance to get significant run and show the organization what they’ve got. Many have impressed enough that I see them sticking around and being solid pieces to build with moving forward.
The Thunder finished the season at 22-50, tied for the fourth worst record in the league. Unfortunately the win against the Clippers last night knocked us back a slot in the lottery, but still, the fourth or fifth best odds gives OKC a real shot at the #1 pick in the draft (in 2019, the 7th-best odds won, & in 2020, the 3rd-best odds won).
I am sure that leaves you wondering “what the heck happens if multiple teams finish with the same record”, as it did myself. Well, come to find out, the fate of the franchise could come down to…… a coin flip (which takes place next Tuesday, May 25th). Go figure. In a bizarre way, I kind of love it. We are talking about a lottery in the first place after all.
Finishing at 22-50, OKC is tied with Cleveland for the fourth best lottery odds. If they win the coin flip and get the fourth slot, their lottery odds will be:
- #1 pick: 11.5%
- #2 pick: 11.4%
- #3 pick: 11.2%
- #4 pick: 11%
- #5 pick: 7.4%
- #6 pick: 27.1%
- #7 pick: 18%
- #8 pick: 2.1%
If they lose the coin flip and get slotted in at the five spot, their odds will look like:
- #1 pick: 11.5%
- #2 pick: 11.4%
- #3 pick: 11.2%
- #4 pick: 11%
- #5 pick: 2%
- #6 pick: 18.2%
- #7 pick: 25.2%
- #8 pick: 8.6%
- #9 pick: 0.6%
As all Thunder fans should know, OKC will receive the best two of their own, Houston’s (top-4 protected), and Miami’s first-round picks this year. Moving from the middle of the table in the West to the bottom of the standings was paramount to ensure we get a good pick in a loaded draft class. This is in large part due to what is going on in Houston.
When the season started, it looked like Harden would be traded, but the Rockets were expected to get a good enough return to still be around .500 and likely finish toward the back of the lottery. If this were to have happened, the Thunder would not have needed to approach the second half of the season the way that they did.
Due to the horrific package the Rockets received for Harden, along with the injury-prone guys on that roster, Houston has flat out stunk waaaaaay worse than anyone anticipated. The first round pick that the Thunder are owed from Houston is top-4 protected, meaning after the lottery, the Rockets will keep their pick if it is 1-4, and OKC will instead have the rights to their pick next year (we want it this year because the top of the class is so loaded).
Just because Houston has the worst record in the league does not mean they are guaranteed a top four pick, although it is very possible. Houston’s lottery odds are as follows:
- #1 pick: 14%
- #2 pick: 13.4%
- #3 pick: 12.7%
- #4 pick: 11.9%
- #5 pick: 47.9%
The Thunder essentially had to hedge their bets in case Houston has a successful lottery and ends up in the top-4. OKC’s worst case scenario was making the play-in tournament (or close to it) and finishing with a pick around 10-15, while also missing out on Houston’s pick due to the 1-4 protection. This would have given OKC two mid-late first round picks via their own pick and Miami’s pick, which is a hell of lot more underwhelming than having a real shot at a top-3 pick.
With OKC’s current positioning, it is possible to end up with 1 (via our own pick) and 5 (via Houston’s pick). Miami’s first-rounder would go to Houston should Houston fall out of the top-4.
With all of that said, there is plenty to look forward to for OKC fans, and this rebuild might move a lot faster than anticipated. Yes, the Thunder also have many future assets and are draft-rich for years to come, but with the right moves in this draft, the Thunder could be back in the playoffs as early as next season.
Due to the amount of the franchise’s assets being tied up in future draft picks, many Thunder fans have been left wondering which players will be around for the long-term.
Below is how I see the landscape of the current roster, along with anticipated/ideal plans for this draft.
Stars/Face(s) of the Franchise
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: SGA looks like he could be the best player on championship-level team. He was so good this year that Presti had to start shutting guys down to ensure the Thunder lost games and got a good draft pick. Shai had the worst roster in the league on pace to make the play-in. That combined with the fact that he averaged 24 points/game, shot it at 51% from the field, 42% from 3, was by far our best player (and focal point for opposing defenses), and is only 22 years-old should get you about ready to run through a brick wall if you’re a fan of this team.
Even if Shai is capable of being the best player on a championship team, he needs another star or two alongside him before this team is ready to do anything meaningful in the West.
First draft pick this year: Jalen Suggs and Cade Cunningham seem like locks to go top-3, so we realistically only have a shot at one of the two unless Presti does something nuclear (not too likely this year). That is okay though, because all we need is one.
If the Thunder can secure Shai’s running mate for the next decade, this organization gets a hell of a lot closer to being back in the Finals. Adding a second creator on offense (even if we miss out on Cade or Suggs) relieves Shai of some shot-creation duties and should free him up to do more off the ball. This will allow him to play more efficiently when he does have the ball in his hands, not leaving him flat out exhausted at the end of games.
I’ve said it for over a year now and will not stop until it is done, the key to rebuilding quickly and efficiently is adding a second young star who can handle the ball and play-make next to Shai.
Lu Dort (the Dorture Chamber): Lu Dort has been one Sam Presti’s best finds this decade. The guy is an absolute menace who always gives the opponent’s best player hell. He has hindered our tanking efforts because he has simply been too good. Multiple games he has started off with over 20 points in the first quarter and flat out refused to lose (which is a heck of a lot cooler when we aren’t intentionally trying to lose).
Long story short, it is probably safe to say him not playing in back-to-backs for the last few weeks was not injury related.
One more reason to be excited about Dort; he signed a 4 year, $6 million contract last summer after his incredible bubble performance. This is no exaggeration, the best contract in basketball.
The Rockets pick at 5 *if OKC gets it*: There is thought to be (and I agree) a massive drop off after the top five prospects. Cade and Suggs will for sure be gone before five, so this pick would almost without a doubt come down to three guys.
First would be Evan Mobley. I personally am not that high on him, but at five he would be a steal. Presti would never pass up a talent like him falling into his lap, especially since one of the biggest needs for OKC is the center position.
Second and third options would be G League teammates, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga. Both could very well have been in play with the first overall pick if they had gone the college route and provided teams with 20+ games of film.
Green is an explosive, high-flying combo guard who could come in to the league and put up nearly 20 a game his rookie season.
Kuminga is a bruising, highly-skilled forward, who plays more like a point forward than a true 3 or 4.
Both are talented enough to start immediately and be big contributors on a competitive Thunder team.
*Reminder: there is a 47.9% chance OKC gets the pick here*
Future First Round Picks: OKC has many more first round picks in years to come, and this will likely be where the rest of the starters/key guys come from.
Theo Maledon: Tony Parker’s apprentice proved to be worth the shot OKC took on him via the Danny Green trade in last year’s draft. In his rookie campaign Maledon showed the ability to play-make for his teammates, while also knocking down the 3 ball (34%) and filling it up himself.
He has a long way to go before being ready to run a second unit on a championship-caliber team, but I believe that could likely be his destiny for this team.
Kenrich Williams: Kenny Hustle has been an absolute star in his role this season for the Thunder. The TCU alum seems to have found a home in OKC after spending his first two seasons in New Orleans.
Williams quickly became a fan favorite for his grit, toughness, desire to be the first one on the floor, and hustle (hence the name Kenny Hustle). His numbers are nothing flashy, but he did shoot it 43% from 3 on 1.7 attempts/game this season, and he does all of the little things that championship teams covet in role players.
Presti will (hopefully) keep Mr. Hustle around for years to come.
Free Agents: OKC has plenty of money to spend in free agency, but do not expect them to throw big bucks at a star. Look for Presti to add a couple key veterans on short contracts, and not hesitate to overspend a little.
Miami’s first this year *if OKC gets it*: OKC will pick at 18 for the Heat to complete their first round if they do not get Houston’s pick at number 5. So hopefully this pick does not wind up going to the Thunder, but if it does, they will be in a great position to grab a lottery-level talent who falls.
With the way this front office loves to take swings in the middle of the first round, I would expect them to take a high-upside prospect. I don’t know if you could anticipate this guy contributing a ton right away, but with the talent in this draft I expect whoever OKC takes at 18 to at least play a limited role his rookie season.
Ty Jerome: The lethal-shooting guard out of Virginia has appeared to be one of many quality additions this season. Jerome averaged over 10 points/game and shot 42% from 3. Quality numbers for a 23 year-old guard in his second season.
I don’t know how large Jerome’s role will be next year, but I do think his shooting ability gives OKC more than enough reason to keep him around and see what kind of player he can develop in to.
Moses Brown: The newly paid center from UCLA signed a 4-year, $6.8 million contract (non-guaranteed in ’21, ’22, and a club option in ’23) during his impressive season in OKC.
Brown averaged nearly 9 points and 9 boards in the 43 games he played in. Nothing too crazy, but he had some nights where he absolutely stuffed the stat sheet with 20+ points and 10+ rebounds.
The contract that Moses Brown signed could be an absolute steal, just like Lu Dort’s. Props to Presti for another low-risk, solid deal.
Isaiah Roby: The 23 year-old from Nebraska started much of the season for OKC and did not disappoint. He is obviously not a starting-caliber player on an elite team, but he is talented enough to play a role in the future (not sure it will be next season though).
In just over 20 minutes/game, Roby averaged 9 points and 6 boards. He also was frequently playing against other squad’s starters so keep that in mind.
Tony Bradley: OKC picked up Bradley in the George Hill trade, and he showed some real potential. In just 18 minutes a game, he averaged 9 points and 6 rebounds.
A lot of people speak highly of the 23 year-old center, including former teammate Joel Embiid. There is a chance Bradley sticks in OKC and provides quality minutes off the bench as he develops. However, if the team drafted Mobley, one of Brown, Bradley, or Roby could become a casualty.
Aleksej Pokusevski: Poku was an absolute roller-coaster this season. Thankfully though, the roller coaster ended on a high note, and he finished the season a heck of a lot stronger than he started it.
The first NBA games for the controversial Pokusevski were rough… and I mean rough. He jacked up ridiculous shots on the offensive end, looked like a fish out of water on the defensive end but also showed an unflappably ludicrous confidence in himself (which did not help things when he was playing poorly). It didn’t take long for Thunder fans to doubt the pick and question if Presti had lost it (including myself), but that was just foolish. It is Sam Presti after all.
Poku went down to the G League to play in their abbreviated bubble-season and that is when things changed. He looked comfortable and showed an incredibly flashy and brilliant play-making ability that was not shown in his first stretch of NBA games.
Once he came back up to the league, he looked like a completely different player. He frequently posted 20+ points, and 5+ assists and rebounds. He still has a long way to go on defense, but with how long he is, he has the potential to be a problem for opposing guards and wings.
There is still a real chance Poku winds up being a bust, but I’ve seen enough go be encouraged and hopeful that he will be a key part of this team for the next decade+.
Darius Bazley: Baze is a 20 year-old with a lot of potential but a long way to go. In his sophomore campaign, he saw his minutes nearly double, posting 13.7 points/game and 7.2 boards/game. Bazley also shot it at 35% from 3 and frequently posted 3+ assist games.
As I said prior, he has a long way to go but the kid is only 20 and already looks like a solid role player on a competitive team. Keep in mind, he didn’t play college ball and this was only his second year playing organized basketball after high school. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself in a starting role for years to come, but need to see more before I can definitely say so.
Gabriel Deck: Toward the end of the season OKC signed Deck to a 4 year deal that included this previous season. The next three seasons are non-guaranteed, but would be roughly $3.5 million/year.
In his 10 appearances with OKC, he averaged just over 20 minutes a game and put up 8.4 points, 4 boards, and 2.4 assists per game.
I have no idea what the Thunder’s plans are for the 26 year-old from Real Madrid and the sample size is just too small to give a prediction on his future in OKC.
Notable Players Not Mentioned
Al Horford: Though he is under contract for two more seasons, Horford could very well be traded over the summer. If he is in fact not traded before the season, he will likely once again be a big name rumored to be on the move at the trade deadline next season.
Long story short, as much as I like Horford’s game, he just doesn’t fit the timeline of this young nucleus. Presti will flip him for whatever assets he can sooner or later.
Mike Muscala: Moose gave an emotion answer in a presser about his time in OKC earlier this week that leads you to think he will likely not be coming back to Loud City.
Svi Mykhailiuk: The sharp-shooting KU alum was picked up mid-way through the season by the Thunder. He was on an expiring contract and is a free agent now. OKC has extended a qualifying offer, but I wouldn’t neccessarily bet on him being back next year. For that reason he went unmentioned, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Svi stick around for a few years.