Clark Matthews’s Thunder Mid-Season Review
1:49 PM EST on January 12, 2023
After losing a free throw contest in their first nationally televised game since the NBA bubble, the Oklahoma City Thunder are exactly 50% of the way through the 2022-2023 season. From a mathematical standpoint, this seems like a perfect time to analyze the state of the franchise. Let's start with the ultimate question:
Are they any good?
This is a loaded question. From a base assessment, the team is a meager 18-23, winning just 43.9% of the time, sit in 13th place out of the 15 Western Conference teams, and last in the Northwest Division. That's not great.
If viewed through the lens of expectations, though, the Thunder are really freaking good. Coming into the season, realistic fans understood that this would be another season of "roster evaluation" -- a term coined by the team's management to justify being intentionally bad. The past two seasons have seen a lot of this. It involved planned shelving of the most effective players followed by extended minutes for G-League level talent.
The purpose of this was to: 1) assess whether end-of-the-bench players could contribute to the team long-term, 2) make the team bad enough to maximize the value of the draft picks determined by the team's record, and 3) drive Sports Animal callers insane.
While Sam Presti promised he would allow the team to "declare itself" in the early stages of the season, he also preached the need for patience, so most expected that to lead to the familiar plan as the season progressed. Those who wanted more of the same, though, were thwarted by the plan working.
Being bad, was necessary to improve the talent on the roster. As the talent on the roster improved, the depth of quality made it difficult to lose. Stronger players have been drafted, the borderline talent already on the roster developed thanks to the extra floor time received over the past two years, and the core players being built around are rapidly approaching their peak years of production. If the team could not intentionally do worse than 5-5 over the last ten games of the 2021-2022 season when they trotted out just six players, all of whom have been released since, playing games with a legitimate bench unit of quality players was bound to be better.
Better, they have been. While the world is becoming quite aware of the contributions of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, amazing contributions that are on track to get him in the All-Star game and potentially be an All-NBA selection at year-end, what has truly made OKC such a tough team to beat is his supporting cast. The ascendance of players like Josh Giddey, Aleksej Pokusevski, Isiaiah Joe, and rookie Jalen Williams has been awe-inspiring.
Giddey was expected to accomplish big things coming off a rookie season in which he was named Western Conference rookie of the month in every month he competed.
After some early struggles, questions began to arise about whether he was simply having a sophomore slump, or if he was ominously struggling to share the floor with SGA. With some adaptations to his role and what appears to be a more aggressive mindset, Giddey has regained or exceeded his previous form.
Those shooting percentages are extremely exciting should Giddey be able to maintain that level.
A player that many had written off has also become a potential franchise pillar.
"Poku" had become a sort of short-hand for something unpredictable and ultimately unimportant that happened in a basketball game. So, when the initial starting center for the team, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who was himself a replacement for Chet Holmgren, went down with injury for an extended period, few had confidence that Aleksej Pokusevski was going to hold down the middle of the defense.
Yet, there he was, a 7'1" toothpick banging with established post warriors for rebounds and driving them crazy with the ball in his hands on the offensive end. Most of the silly passes and overly confident ball-handling displays disappeared from his game--a loss for those spectators just there for the lolz--but what remained was a solid basketball player whose subsequent injury actually concerned fans who want the team to start winning.
Snapped off the waiver wire at the end of training camp was a little-known sharp shooter by the name of Isiaiah Joe. In 96 appearances over two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, Joe knocked down 94 three-point attempts. In 34 games with the Thunder playing essentially the same number of minutes, "Strokin' Joe" has made, cha-chinga, 54 Thunder money balls. His partnership with SGA has been very fruitful, making at least one defender hesitate to defend the drives of Shai, or else be punished with a three by "Zai." Plus, his defense is solid enough that he is not just played off the floor.
The biggest revelation of the season is probably Jalen "J-Dub" Williams, the third player drafted by Sam Presti in the 2022 Draft.
Even after watching his strong play in the Summer Leagues, it has been shocking to see how quickly he has adapted to the speed of the NBA game. In ranking Williams as the third-best rookie through the end of December, The Athletic's Sam Vencenie said this about him:
Williams has been Oklahoma City’s Swiss Army knife. He can set screens, sit in the dunker spot waiting for a dump-off, 45-cut from the wing, attack closeouts to shoot or pass or just simply spot up and take catch-and-shoot jumpers. Already, he’s an effective NBA player just by keeping it simple and being a versatile offensive weapon. Eventually, the shot is going to fall off the catch (he has clean mechanics and hit 39.6 percent last year from 3 at Santa Clara). But further growth will come when he gets even more comfortable using his frame inside the 3-point line.
J-Dub has shown the capability of doing it all at a young age, while also showing off good charisma and leadership qualities.
Now back to the initial question: Are the Thunder good? Yes. No team wants to play them. Certainly not the Eastern Conference leading Boston Celtics who came into OKC full strength in a game SGA missed with illness and got waxed by 33, nor any team that relies on a perimeter scorer, because those scorers always come down with the "Dort flu" the day of the game.
Eventually, the record will begin to reflect the talent of the team. As they continue to gel, and as the front court begins to heal, the close losses will become close wins. Whether that happens over the second half of this season and ends with a play-in tournament appearance, or after Chet Holmgren and another lottery pick join the team next season, they will definitely be fun to watch in the meantime.
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