Guard have mercy
Sizing up the Thunder’s 2019–2020 roster
Who knew that managing a basketball team could reach the level of high art?
For most other general managers in the NBA, depending on your salary cap situation and the general makeup of your roster, trading for Chris Paul is a not unreasonable basketball move. For Thunder GM Sam Presti, however, it’s something more akin to da Vinci putting the final scratches of ink on Vitruvian Man. By trading away the franchise’s heart and soul in Russell Westbrook over the summer, Presti in return received the player who 14 years ago made professional basketball a viable enterprise in Oklahoma City in the first place. (Remember the Oklahoma City Hornets?) It was a perfectly cyclical exchange of assets, if your intent was to signal to the universe that the first era of Thunder basketball had reached its conclusion.
The beginning of the next era, however, likely will only feature Paul as a footnote. The Miami Heat have reportedly already shown keen interest in the 34-year-old’s services. Presti will likely spend the season (or remainder of the preseason) listening to offers for Paul and trade him to a contender in order to add to his pile of future assets and hand the franchise’s reigns over to second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for good. Or he may not! Either way, the Thunder’s top priority for the immediate future is Gilgeous-Alexander, whose floor appears quite firm and whose ceiling is potentially Westbrookian.
After all, you don’t win NBA Championships without NBA All-Stars—and NBA All-Stars are not in ready supply. When you’re in a small market like the Thunder you have to develop elite talent yourself, or else hope for the rare opportunity to trade for a disgruntled one. (Although Paul George may have just proven that to be an “easy come, easy go,” proposition.) Promising young players need tons of playing time to develop their skills, particularly at point guard, where one requires an extraordinary sense of patience and calculation to bend NBA defenses to their will. Paul has it now. Gilgeous-Alexander flashes potential.
Just 21 years old, the 6-foot-6 Kentucky product—who came to OKC along with Danilo Gallinari and about a billion future draft assets for Paul George—is the most promising young player to join the Thunder’s roster since James Harden. Near-impossible to rattle and a terror off the bounce, Gilgeous-Alexander’s enormous wingspan allows him to guard both backcourt positions as well as small forward. He’s got all the tools to become a two-way disruptor at the All-Star level. It’s a unique combination of skills that should enable Presti to chase talent in future drafts, rather than draft players to fit a particular position or role to complement him.
He’s also ready to make meaningful contributions right now. Clippers coach Doc Rivers not only kept Gilgeous-Alexander in his playoff rotation this spring against the Warriors, he continued to start him. Rare for rookies, practically unheard of for rookie point guards. And Gilgeous-Alexander played really well considering that the Clippers’ defensive scheme eventually called for him to switch between Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (at age 20). I went back and rewatched the series—you might recall the Clippers won two games as an 8-seed, a feat nobody predicted—to prepare for this column; and hoo boy, Thunder fans should be really high on this kid.
He scored 25 points in Game 4, feasted on Andrew Bogut and only turned the ball over five times in six games, impressive considering how often Draymond Green, a bona fide defensive genius, guarded him. And outside of the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox, I don’t think I’ve seen a young point guard communicate as much on the floor as Gilgeous-Alexander did. He’s always talking to his teammates. And did I mention that he hit half his three-point shots in the series?
Moving forward, I’d be curious to see how Gilgeous-Alexander operates in the pick and roll. He didn’t run much of it in the playoff series against the Warriors, instead initiating their offense with a lot of dribble handoff action with Danilo Gallinari on the right wing. (It’ll be interesting to see if Billy Donovan runs this year’s Thunder offense similarly.) Meanwhile, Gallinari should space the floor nicely for Gilgeous-Alexander and Steven Adams work as an alley-oop tandem.
To wrap this thing up, I’d like to push back against the phrase “rebuild,” which I’ve seen thrown around a lot this off-season. This Thunder roster isn’t bad. It’s definitely not going to win a championship, but they could fight for a bottom-tier playoff spot this year, even in a loaded Western Conference. It all depends on Presti and when or if he decides to move the assets that don’t fit the new Thunder championship timetable, such as Gallinari, Paul and perhaps even—gasp!—Steven Adams.
I personally hope that Adams adopts Oklahoma as his new ancestral home and lives here forever.
* * *
What is this team’s ceiling, and what’s its floor?
The Western Conference, again, looks brutal this season. Even if this Thunder team plays its little heart out, their best case is likely a seven- or eight-seed in the playoffs. Though that’s out the window if Presti decides to trade his best players early on for more long-term projects and future draft assets. We could finish anywhere from seventh (if one were to think very optimistically) on down to the bottom of the league. It’s really anybody’s guess.
Who fills the offensive skill vacuum left by Westbrook and George?
Westbrook, George and Jerami Grant combined to take over 51 shots per game last season. With that trio now gone, there’s a lot of opportunity for young players on this Thunder roster to showcase their skills, especially if Paul gets traded early on. Gilgeous-Alexander and Tulsa native Terrance Ferguson should each get opportunities to play larger roles in the offense than they did for their respective teams last season. Hell, let’s get nutty with it. I want to see Steven Adams pull up for mid-range jumpers.
Remember Andre Roberson?
The Thunder’s former starting shooting guard is back in training camp, and slated to move over to small forward due to the overabundance of skilled guards on the roster. The 27-year-old Roberson last played in an NBA game in January 2018, and spent all of last season sidelined by a tear to his left patellar tendon. Assuming his athleticism’s still all there, Roberson should be able to defend opposing perimeter threats, freeing Gilgeous-Alexander to focus a little more on his offensive game.
Will Sam Presti finally offer me that max contract?
Sam, baby, call me. I see all that empty cap space in 2021-22. Let’s do this thing.