2021 Midseason Report

2021 Midseason report: Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA.com takes stock of the Oklahoma City Thunder after the first half of the 2020-21 season.

What is there to make of the Oklahoma City Thunder?

First half summary: Oklahoma City shocked the NBA last season with a surprise postseason berth from a gutted roster led by Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and general manager Sam Presti stripped down the team even further coming into this season. The Thunder entered the 2020 offseason already flush with plenty of future Draft assets, but Presti thought twice about building on last season, deciding instead to institute a rebuild with the dizzying slew of picks netted through the 2027 NBA Draft as a foundation. Along the way, the Thunder found a way to remain fairly competitive through the first half of the season with a new coach in Mark Daigneault and a collection of mainly no-name young talent, headlined by Gilgeous-Alexander and impressive youngster Lu Dort; the only two returning starters from last season.

Before the season even started, Oklahoma City made its priorities known. Presti told The Oklahoman “it was clear that the most objective path was to prioritize the future.” OKC did that, and handed the keys to Gilgeous-Alexander, who is averaging career highs in scoring (23.2 points per game) and assists (6.3) entering the month of March, while Dort — known mostly as a defender last season as a rookie — is averaging career highs in scoring (12.5 ppg), rebounds (3.4) and assists (1.5) over the same span. Gilgeous-Alexander, 22, leads the league in drives to the rack, and is clearly one of the foundational pieces in the current rebuild. The current roster consists of 12 players age 26 or younger, including a pair of 19-year-olds in Theo Maledon and Aleksei Pokusevski, two 20-year-olds in Darius Bazley and Josh Hall, as well as 21-year-olds Dort and Moses Brown.

Biggest question going into the second half: What future Draft compensation can Presti land headed toward the trade deadline? Because at this point, we know two things: 1) The Thunder aren’t seriously looking to make a run at the postseason, and 2) they’ll likely be sellers leading up to the March 25 trade deadline.

There’s a good chance Presti will look to move veterans such as Al Horford, George Hill, Mike Muscala and Trevor Ariza to build upon the team’s already large collection of assets. Ariza might be more of a buyout candidate, but Horford and Hill could be valuable to some of the league’s contenders looking for vets. Horford has two years remaining on his deal. Rookie Maledon has already replaced Hill in the starting lineup for several games, after the veteran guard suffered a thumb injury that should keep him out past the All-Star break. Muscala, meanwhile, could be attractive because of his ability to stretch the floor and his $2.3 million contract.

Playoffs or lottery?: The Thunder advanced to the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 seasons, but we knew before the season even started they would be headed to the lottery with plenty of ammunition from past transactions to rebuild the team in a variety of ways. Still, the Thunder are within reasonable striking distance for a spot in the Play-In Tournament.

Then again, if you go back to last season, many thought OKC would make moves ahead of the deadline. Instead, the Thunder stood pat, surprising everyone by advancing to the postseason and taking a high-powered Houston Rockets team to seven games. Might Presti conduct himself similarly this year? That’s anybody’s guess at this point. But the moves Presti made going all the way back to the Paul George and Russell Westbrook trades have put OKC squarely in position to quickly return to title contention if the GM shrewdly navigates the team’s extensive bevy of assets. History indicates Presti is capable.

— Michael C. Wright