Let’s get it out of the way now. The Oklahoma City Thunder are headed to the NBA Draft Lottery in 2022. But that’s not necessarily a negative for this small market team that’s still in the throes of an extensive rebuild with a promising young roster featuring players such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Aleksej Pokusevski, Darius Bazley and Josh Giddey, the sixth pick of the 2021 draft.
Thunder GM Sam Presti explained his plan two years ago that would bring the team back into contention over time through the Draft. The club now sits on 18 first-round picks and 18 second-round picks over the next several years, as Presti continues to slowly build the Thunder for a future of perennial contention. The only major move OKC executed this offseason was signing Gilgeous-Alexander to a five-year max extension. Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort form one of the league’s best young backcourt combinations. But at this point, that duo appears to be OKC’s only proven commodity as the rebuild continues. Gilgeous-Alexander’s rapid ascension could speed up Presti’s efforts. Thunder fans should be able to squeeze at least a little joy from watching the development of the club’s young talent in 2021-22, but don’t expect Oklahoma City to be playing beyond the second week of April.
Presti continues to preach patience about the franchise’s rebuilding efforts, but how much longer can the organization stomach the losing throughout the process? Oklahoma City hasn’t finished with back-to-back losing seasons since transitioning from Seattle into the first season of the Thunder in 2008. The natural fluidity of the NBA sort of muddles the long-term vision of what Presti is trying to create. But his approach toward building a team that reflects the city’s core values is commendable, and he’s not planning on mimicking the rebuilding methods utilized by teams in the recent past. “The Thunder needs to stand on its own,” Presti said prior to the 2021 Draft. “It needs to be who we are, has to represent our city. I think that’s a big factor. I think a team in Oklahoma City has to represent the values of the city and the community. We stand for a lot more than what we do. We draw a lot of inspiration from our local community. We have to be our own, one of one.”
This one’s difficult because nobody really knows how everything will look with so many young developmental prospects filling out the roster. You can count on plenty of experimental combinations and usage under second-year coach Mark Daigneault, who is known as a specialist in the player-development department. You should also expect a record similar to last season’s 22-50 finish. Predicted finish: 25-57.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Burgeoning All-Star talent played in just 35 games last season but is the foundational piece to this rebuild.
Lu Dort: Gilgeous-Alexander’s absence near the end of last season allowed the undrafted free agent to flourish offensively.
Josh Giddey: OKC’s highest draft pick since James Harden, Giddey takes an off-ball role after starring as a point guard in the Australian NBL.
Darius Bazley: Third-year forward took a significant leap from rookie season in Year 2 and should continue to grow.
Derrick Favors: The only true center on the roster, the veteran returns to a starting role.
Theo Maledon: Spent entire summer in OKC working on his game and body, and it showed at Summer League.
Aleksej Pokusevski: Watch out if this seven-footer becomes more consistent as a 3-point shooter.
Ty Jerome: Joined OKC from the G-League bubble last season and immediately looked like he belonged.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Thunder have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
STAT TO KNOW
1.12 — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the league with 25.2 drives per game, 4.4 more than any other player has averaged in the eight seasons of player tracking. He scored 1.12 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the third best mark for a player with at least 300 ball-handler possessions in the 17 years of Synergy play-type tracking.
— John Schuhmann
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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