Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: Mid-Season Report
12:50 PM EST on February 16, 2022
It is NBA All-Star weekend, which is considered the midway point of the NBA season. However, because the league does not want their celebration of the biggest stars to compete with the NFL playoffs, it is actually closer to the three-quarters point of the season.
Nonetheless, we will call this a mid-season evaluation of the team.
If you like wins, you probably are not pleased with the team's performance. They are currently 14th in the Western Conference only ahead of the painfully bad Houston Rockets, and 29 games behind Phoenix for first place. For those who want to watch this team in the playoffs, I guess they are only 5.5 games out of the play-in tournament, so there is still a chance.
A point of contention among some in the Thunder fan base is the current strategy of not intentionally winning. Some "fans," including 100% of the people who post comments to the team's Facebook feed, hate it. They do not enjoy the prospect of paying money to watch the team "experiment" with the roster rather than give the five best players outsized minutes in order to eke out a few extra victories.
The remainder of fans, mostly consisting of nerds, like me, who are plugged into internet analysis of future value of draft prospects think the current path is brilliant. They want the team to compete hard on the floor, but ultimately, come out on the losing side in order to raise the probability of being in a position to select a future superstar in the draft.
Currently, neither side is overly pleased with the team's performance.
As I write this, the Thunder are 17-39, a winning percentage of 31.6% ranking them fourth in the reverse-standing behind the Houston Rockets (26.8%), Orlando Magic (22.0%), and Detroit Pistons (21.1%). The former faction is displeased because winning less than a third of the games is tragic. There is no whiff of hope for playoffs. Meanwhile, the latter faction is disgusted that the team has won enough to fall outside the bottom three teams.
Through the first half of the season, OKC's decision-makers have clearly been trying to appease the tank enthusiasts. The coaching staff has been extremely cautious about injuries to the best players. When the team had a COVID outbreak, the front office was quick to promote players from the G-League and the coaches gave them significant minutes rather than using them just to give the actual NBA players an opportunity to rest. Veterans like Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala disappear from the rotation entirely, for weeks at a time.
If the strategy works and the roster gets an addition like Auburn's Jabari Smith, Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren, or Duke's Paulo Banchero, it will be well-received long-term. If not...well, come on, let's be honest. It's not like this crew was going to be a tough out for Phoenix if they'd been able to sneak into the playoffs.
The Kids are (Mostly) Alright
After tanking in 2021, the NBA draft lottery wound up with (close to) the worst-case scenario of selecting 6th in the first round. Going into the draft, rumors linked the team to UConn's James Bouknight and Jonathan Kuminga of the G-League Ignite in the event an opportunity to trade up failed to materialize. No one was interested in OKC's offers to move up, then despite both Bouknight and Kuminga both being available to them, Thunder GM Sam Presti chose Australian teenager Josh Giddey.
Possibly the most shocking selection of the night, Presti's surprise has looked incredible to date. Through three months of the NBA season, Giddey is a three-time Western Conference rookie of the month. He is also the youngest player to record a triple-double in NBA history, something he's done three times. Playing a position that generally requires time to adjust to the league and still eight months shy of his 20th birthday, he has already established himself as a solid NBA player.
Surprisingly, and this is a testament to the quality of the 2021 draft, Giddey is not really considered as a strong candidate to win Rookie of the Year at the end of the season. From an advanced statistics perspective, he is probably the third-best rookie, behind Cleveland's Evan Mobley and Toronto's Scottie Barnes. He's definitely the best passer in the rookie class, if not the entire NBA, and his rebounding numbers are better than all but two players who were drafted to play center (one of which is his teammate, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl). His shooting needs work, and he's well behind many of his peers when it comes to scoring acumen. That said, the Thunder definitely acquired a building block with Giddey.
(Statistical comparison of players at the top of the draft, Thunder draft picks, and players who were linked to OKC prior to the draft--games through 2/13/22)
Giddey was not alone in the OKC draft class. Shooting guard Tre Mann was also a first-round pick (18) and both second-round selections (Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Aaron Wiggins) have been signed to multi-year deals with the team.
While all three have spent time with the OKC Blue, their time with the big club has been loaded with promise. Mann has shown glimpses of being an effective bench scorer, although he needs to be more prolific or else better on defense if he wants to stick long-term. Meanwhile, Robinson-Earl looks like the kind of player who could stick in the league for a long-time doing all the little things coaches love, like rebounding and giving maximum effort on defense. A fourth rookie, Aaron Wiggins has far exceeded the expectations of his draft position by doing a little bit of everything, but not a lot of anything. The final rookie, Vit Krejci who came to the US this season after being acquired in a trade with Washington, has spent very little time with the Thunder, and has mostly been injured while playing for the Blue.
Those five may be the rookie class of this Thunder team, but a majority of the roster still identify as prospects. The more experienced prospects are spottier when it comes to be described as promising. Quickly, they are:
Aleksej Pokusevski -- "Poku" was the most entertaining player during year one of the tanking rebuild. However, the off-season physical development that was supposed to launch him into becoming a consistent threat did not materialize. As a result, his statistics are generally about the same as last season, except now he is getting fewer minutes and somehow shooting worse from three (which was supposed to be his specialty). Still something like the fifth-youngest player in the league, it is still way too early to write him off.
Darius Bazely -- In his third season, "Baze" is actually the elder statesmen of the team, having signed just before the Paul George trade that started the rebuild. No player that remains on the team was here before that moment. Eligible for an extension on his rookie contract this Summer, this is an important season for him. He has not performed in a manner that suggests he will get that extension. As a rookie, he showed flashes of promise and I remarked at the time that he would be a very good player once he stopped making the game harder for himself. He has not refined those tendencies out of his game. It is still common for him to pass up an open jumper, then dribble back out to the three-point line and attempt to take on the defender he allowed to recover one-on-one. When he succeeds, it usually ends with an off-balance reverse layup off the wrong foot, that he takes after one too many dribbles. Coach Daignault appears to have given up on him, relegating Baze to the bench after starting him the most of the past two seasons.
Ty Jerome -- As a prospect that was acquired in the Chris Paul trade, Jerome plays with a tremendous amount of swagger to compensate for his total lack of athleticism. After shooting an impressive 42.3% from three in his first season with the Thunder, he has reverted to 28% despite attempting more shots this season.
Theo Maledon -- A starter for a significant chunk of his rookie year, Maledon fell completely out of the rotation early this season. He puts up very good numbers when playing for the Blue. With the Thunder, though, he has not impressed. This season, he's barely above water in assist-to-turnover and his shooting percentages are atrocious.
Isaiah Roby -- Another player who has been usurped by the strong rookie class. Roby was a staple to the starting lineup in 2021, and has only appeared in about a third of games during 2022. From a per-minute standpoint, he is actually more effective this season, but it seems pretty clear that this will probably be his last season in OKC.
OKC was loaded with trade assets. They are so far below the salary cap limit that they can actually take on $23MM in salary before reaching the minimum player salaries for the year. This means there were almost no limitations in who the Thunder could bring back to the team. To make those acquisitions, they were loaded with a plethora of young players. Kenrich Williams is a complimentary piece many playoff contenders would have loved to add to their roster. Also, they possess more draft picks than they could ever possibly need.
With all of those assets, the team brought in a haul of...KZ Okpala. Okapala, a 6'8" forward acquired from the Miami Heat will bring the team a player that can...
Oh wait, he's already been cut.
The only transaction the Thunder made before inter-team movement was cut off until after the playoffs was a galaxy-brained trade that temporarily gifted OKC with a minimum salaried roster castoff who Miami pawned off in order to save a couple million in luxury taxes to the league.
What the Thunder actually got in the deal was the ability to defer the 2023 Heat first-rounder that had already been acquired by the Thunder until 2025, at the earliest. This actually is a shrewd move by Presti because they were about to have four first-round picks in 2023 (which is way too many rookies to bring in at once) and by the time this pick actually conveys as unprotected, the Heat could be built around a 35-year-old Jimmy Butler.
However, like a basketball version of Puxantawny Phil, the trade deadline brought Oklahoma City fans a forecast of six more weeks of losing.
Clark Matthews (@clarkmatthews) is a Lost Ogle co-founder and still occasionally writes about hoops and other topics for the site.