There are no expectations for the Oklahoma City Thunder entering the 2021-22 season, and that’s just how they like it.
The Thunder are in the midst of one of the most extensive rebuilds in NBA history, possessing multiple future first-round picks each year through 2027. They have one entrenched building block who recently signed a rookie-scale max extension, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but everyone else within their rotation are high-upside swings of the bat courtesy of OKC general manager Sam Presti.
Once Thunder legend Russell Westbrook and his All-NBA sidekick Paul George officially asked out three years ago, it jump-started what’s currently taking place within Oklahoma City. It’s allowing Presti to build a team in his own image, from literally the ground up. Building each piece of the foundation methodically, the Thunder have now put together such an intriguing collection of talents within their current vision.
Alongside star combo guard Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC has all of the following players under 25 years old within its extensive test trial run of figuring out who fits the long-term puzzle: Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, Theo Maledon, Aleksej Pokusevski, Tre Mann, Isaiah Roby, Ty Jerome, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Aaron Wiggins. Only one of these players was drafted in the lottery — Giddey, the 2021 No. 6 overall pick who has already flashed some exciting potential as a jumbo-sized playmaker, forming a fun backcourt duo with SGA.
The Thunder figure to be once again near the bottom of the barrel in the Western Conference standings this season. However, don’t be surprised if Gilgeous-Alexander’s star equity wills this extremely raw core to unexpected heights early on. Last season, the team carried a 15-21 record into the All-Star break thanks in large part to his brilliance, as he averaged 23.2 points, 6.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds on a fantastic 62.7% True Shooting percentage. Gilgeous-Alexander’s beautiful brand of basketball vaulted him into an elite category for lead guards who carried a high-usage rate.
SGA joined the following guards during OKC’s surprising early run who had both above 62% TS and 27% usage percentage (min. 20 games played pre-ASB): Stephen Curry, James Harden, Zach LaVine. This shows the leap Gilgeous-Alexander showcased as the lone star-in-the-marking for the Thunder’s rebuild, doing so even when teams blitzed him every game defensively.
Although the Thunder ranked last in offensive rating over that span, they were No. 10 overall in defensive rating, allowing only 109.8 points per 100 possessions. Once they officially pulled the plug on trying to win games, which included resting Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC fell off a cliff and finished with a 7-29 record post-All-Star break.
If everything clicks with the Thunder’s young core, they are going to be a feisty team that competes on most nights. Gilgeous-Alexander is the straw that stirs the drink, but early preseason flashes from Giddey and Bazley could be foreshadowing their own regular-season performances. OKC is nowhere close to being a legitimate competitor, especially within a tough slate in the West, but this group could certainly qualify as an NBA League Pass team.
So much young talent is developing within the Thunder’s player-friendly system put into place by head coach Mark Daigneault. Who’s to say they won’t at least surprise some people early, especially if teams treat OKC on their schedule like a layup win? And if Gilgeous-Alexander continues to blossom into one of the most exciting young prospects in the Association, OKC will compete each night thanks to his ascent to All-Star levels.
How does OKC’s projected rotation look heading into the 2021-22 campaign? Let’s examine it below.
Starters: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, Derrick Favors
Second Unit: Tre Mann, Theo Maledon, Aleksej Pokusevski, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Isaiah Roby
As you can see, so much unproven talent is still on tap for the Thunder’s lineup combinations. Gilgeous-Alexander is the stalwart for the backcourt, but everyone else alongside or behind him still has much more seasoning ahead in their development curves (Giddey, Mann, Maledon). Dort and Bazley are actually an intriguing wing combination, and Pokusevski is a true wildcard who saw a lot of playing time last season to accentuate his own raw aspects. Favors fills the veteran-big-man void left behind by Al Horford, who was shipped back to the Boston Celtics this offseason in the Kemba Walker trade.
Walker and the Thunder were never going to be a fit, especially with the longtime point guard’s desire to play for his hometown Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Luckily for the Thunder, he now is in New York, so no possessions will be zapped away from Gilgeous-Alexander in OKC.
Back to Favors: How long will he actually be on the roster, let alone within their rotation? It’s doubtful Favors finishes the season in Oklahoma City; whether he's dealt at some point or if he enters the buyout market after February’s trade deadline, we will see. However, in the short-term, Favors will provide a stable pick-and-roll partner for SGA and Giddey to showcase their talents. And if Favors performs well (he should gobble up nightly double-doubles), Presti could be in line to snatch up another future draft pick for his services.
Oklahoma City is still in the infancy of its historic rebuild attempt, but the flashes shown last season indicate that this can be a scrappy, competitive roster already. Add in another year of development for Gilgeous-Alexander, who seems poised for another leap, and Oklahoma City could soon escape the abyss into respectability ahead of its projected timeline.
The next step for the Thunder is finding their co-star alongside SGA, and that should soon come with Giddey or another top pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. Don’t discount the Thunder in 2021-22, because they actually have the pieces in place to be an entertaining watch.