Teams That Tank Part 4: The Oklahoma City Thunder

We aren’t even to the All Star Break yet and it appears that 6 NBA teams are already looking forward to placing their hopes on the ping-pong balls of the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery. As of December 7, 2021 Lottery odds have the following teams in the highest order: The Detroit Pistons, The Orlando Magic, The New Orleans Pelicans, The Oklahoma City Thunder, The Houston Rockets, and the San Antonio Spurs who are all under ten wins on the season so far (Since beginning this series the Spurs and Pelicans have crawled out of the cellar and will no longer be considered but the Indiana Pacers have fallen down to us.). Unsurprisingly, all six of these teams found themselves in the lottery last year with Detroit, Orlando and Houston all securing top 5 picks, New Orleans traded out of the lottery in a bid to build around Zion Williamson who, yet again, finds himself in street clothes rehabbing and leaving the Pelicans without clear direction for the future.

The inverse of the relative sadness of teams setting themselves up for short term failure in efforts to procure better lottery odds is the myriad of young talent vying to be selected with those precious draft picks. Names like Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr., and Paolo Banchero top a list of prospects who have absolutely stunned the college ranks with their skills. Lesser known names like Patrick Baldwin Jr., Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey seek to get their names into the illusive top five by playing the NCAA’s game and searching (in some cases extremely unsuccessfully) for a tournament bid and a rise to pre-draft stardom. There are also foreign prospects and those who haver forgone the college rout for the NBA G-League or other developmental programs like Serbian star Nicola Jovic, speedy point guard Jean Montero from the Overtime Elite team and the G-League Ignite’s Jaden Hardy. (The absolutely Meteoric rise of Jaden Ivey will now start to be considered moving forward.)

For the most part the goal of a team drafting this high is to draft the best player available, however some teams (specifically Houston, New Orleans, and San Antonio) already have invested in young players with all-star upsides so they may be more wary of team fit in these exercises. The goal of the next series of posts here will be to break down how each of these teams could be currently evaluating talent, both on their own rosters and the prospects of whom they could draft.

The Oklahoma City Thunder

The State of the Franchise

Clay Bennett Purchased the Seattle Supersonics in 2006. He made a small showing of “good faith” to keep the team there but very quickly moved them to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season. Immediately upon arrival they were in the midst of a rebuild that saw them draft future MVPs Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in successive drafts. This is how he made an NBA Finals appearance in 2012 and very obviously he is comfortable with rebuilding through the draft right now.

Sam Presti was Bennett’s first, and only hiring into the GM Position. Presti has a stranglehold on job security because, quite frankly, he’s been here and gotten three future MVP’s before so he has all the job rope moving forward. He’s built the most flexibly movable roster in the league. He has roughly 187 draft picks stock piled for the future (this number is a joke but seriously at this point I think he would trade his firstborn child for a top 10 protected first rounder). Sam is ready to draft and he knows what he is doing.

Coaching is The really new quirk because we are now entering the 14th year together for the Owner/GM combo. First year head coach Mark Daignault is more proof that this team is set on development. Promoted out of the Franchise’s Developmental team, The Oklahoma City Blue to spend one year as an assistant under Billy Donovan last year this team has fully embraced him as a player development guru. He’s really helped with some guys who might not factor in as complete building blocks but will be solid role players like Darius Bazely, Lu Dort, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl as well as seeing a meteoric rise in the stock of rookie Josh Giddey and star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Mark will have a lot of trust and leeway going forward and will definitely stick around for a while. 

What does the team Need?

So now that we’ve covered who’s running the ship… what are their weapons? The two building blocks for the future that they’ve found are in their starting backcourt right now. Shai Gilgeous Alexander is breaking out in his fourth professional campaign averaging 22 point and 5 assists as he’s finally wrestled the starting point guard slot to himself. Sliding next to him at the 2 is Jumbo sized guard Josh Giddey who’s been abysmal from an efficiency standpoint but has more than shown enough flashes and versatility to justify his draft slot. While these two currently start in the backcourt it is fair to note that with SGA being 6’6” and 180, as well as Giddey’s 6’8”, 210 frame building into muscle as he enters his 20’s there’s still a ton of positional versatility available for this lineup. OKC hasn’t shied away from funky lineups either with playing the 7 footer Aleksej Pokusevski at the 3 and 4, as well as many minutes with the 6’8” Darius Bazley everywhere in the front court. Almost 80% of their games have been started with the undersized Jeremiah Robinson-Earl at center. This team isn’t afraid to play funky lineups so they shouldn’t draft for fit under any circumstances.

Normally this is the time where we talk about who is movable and if they should trade them… quite frankly this entire roster could shuffle to other teams and no one would be surprised. That’s where OKC wants to be they’ve taken fliers on Bazely, Poku and Tre Mann to see if they hit but they seem more bent on getting more shots at the draft than current talent (see this offseason when they traded Alperen Sengün who plays a definite position of need for the probability of getting two shots at a star.)

The team has some definite needs along this roster though. Outside of SGA and Giddey they don’t really have another player that seems to be a for sure above average guy, projects like Bazley, Dort, Poku, Mann and others may or may not hit but that’s kind of the point of looking for talent. The team doesn’t play defense exceptionally well allowing opponents to score 107 points a game on 44% shooting. On the flip side of that they don’t shoot well from range either being only at 25% for the year (worst in the league but comparable with three other tankers in the Pacers, Magic, and Pistons.) So shooting should come at a premium for them as well. Another necessity for them would be to find an identity. Does this team want to just be a bunch of long playmakers who are trying to figure it out defensively or do they really have a future star in SGA?

Who are the Targets?

With the team struggles in mind There should absolutely be no questions in draft fit for this team. Their top three targets should be Duke’s Paolo Banchero, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. out of Auburn. All three guys play the 4 which is currently the “throw everyone there and hope something sticks” spot for OKC anyway. Banchero is averaging almost 18 points a night on decent efficiency for Duke. He’s a bruiser who could really provide an identity to this amorphous blob of players in OKC. Chet is long and springy, he could immediately elevate the team’s defense because of his unicorn game, not only is he shooting well from range (38% on nearly 3 attempts per) but he’s also blocking an astounding 3.3 blocks in only 24 minutes a night. Finally, if scoring from deep is the biggest priority for the Thunder they could find a real stud in Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. Smith is blistering the nets at an alarming rate, he’s scoring 16 points a night with 44% accuracy from deep on over 5 attempts a game.

If the Thunder fall out of the top three look for them to snatch up high end upside guys like Memphis Center Jalen Duren who’s obscene block and rebound numbers are unheard of from someone his age playing good competition. They could also turn to Perdue combo guard Jaden Ivey who would basically be the defensive role of Lu Dort while also providing three level scoring and some playmaking. One last name to consider is Paolo’s Duke teammate Adrian Griffin Jr. he’s coming on strong lately and is looking like an absolute NBA ready two way guy.

The future for the Thunder is simultaneously the most ambiguous one in the league but also the one with the most chances of landing a superstar. OKC should be really excited about this upcoming year… who knows maybe one of these players will be catching lightning in a bottle and they’ll be…. THUNDERstruck….

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Jonathan is a former basketball coach and current mega fan. He’s the co-host of the Assisted Development Podcast and can be found on Twitter at @PastorPostUp!