Preseason games tipoff on Wednesday and the regular-season is nearly one week away. The NBA is almost officially back. But who should you be cheering for?
22 teams will take the court once the season restarts and as many as 16 former Kentucky Wildcats will have an opportunity to make an impact. From All-Stars such as Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo to role players such as Patrick Patterson and Enes Kanter, the Big Blue Nation will be felt all across the Orlando bubble. 16 players can be a lot to keep up with, so I’ve decided to simplify your viewing experience: focus on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Out of the 22 teams, the Thunder have a Kentucky connection that no other franchise can replicate. Not only are OKC one of two teams that feature at least two former ‘Cats for the restart, but they’re also the only team that boasts three of them; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, and Hamidou Diallo. They are the perfect team for basketball-hungry Kentuckians to invest in and here’s why.
OKC is already being overlooked
The usual suspects are expected to cruise straight through the first couple of playoff rounds, but considering the circumstances, there has never been a higher chance for an underdog to make a surprise run. The Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks are widely viewed as the favorites once the NBA restarts–and for good reason. They possess the most overall star power with equally dangerous bench units. There is little argument that they were not the three best teams when the season was suspended back on March 11 and that will likely hold true once the season restarts.
Given the fact that not a single one of the 22 teams have played a real game of basketball in over four months, rust is going to be a natural part of trying to get back into a rhythm. There hasn’t been much practice time and each team will only play three exhibition games before encountering the eight-game regular-season schedule. The team that can make things click first will have a decent advantage. Having Chris Paul as the offensive leader, which OKC does, bumps up that advantage even more.
And yet, despite posting the league’s 13th best offensive and 10th best defense, the Thunder are hardly being thought of as a legitimate playoff threat. OddShark puts OKC’s odds at +8000 to win the NBA Finals, tied with the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers (both teams are currently out of the playoff picture). The Thunder will enter the restart with an overall record of 40-24, fifth-best in the Western Conference, but with significantly worse odds to win the title compared to the Houston Rockets (+1300) and Dallas Mavericks (+4000). Houston and Dallas will enter the restart as the sixth- and seventh-best teams in the West, respectively.
The argument for teams like Dallas or Houston over OKC is reasonable, considering both teams have bonafide superstars who can lead a team deep into the playoffs practically all by themselves (Luka Doncic and James Harden/Russell Westbrook). But it would be irresponsible to overlook a Thunder team that went 17-5 before the season was suspended. They did it without one singular offensive superstorm and instead decided to spread the love across the board. They played better when the situation tightened.
Experience, youth, and depth
Chris Paul tapping back into a younger version of himself has greatly benefitted OKC, but it’s been the rapid development of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that can make the Thunder so dangerous. With those two splitting time as the starting backcourt, OKC can score from anywhere on the floor, competently run the offense, and play reliable defense on any ballhandler. And once one of them takes a seat, head coach Billy Donovan elects to sub in Dennis Schröder, a front-runner for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
While some playoff teams are loaded at just a couple of positions, OKC can run a 10-man rotation, if everyone is healthy, that spans as young as 19 years old to as old as 34. Danilo Gallinari, who is 31, is the fellow veteran alongside Paul, who provides a lethal outside shooting opportunity as a 6-foot-10 stretch forward. Up-and-comer Lu Dort has manned the wing while the forever-reliable Steven Adams holds down the paint, making up the five-man starting lineup. However, once Donovan substitutes Schröder for Dort–sliding Paul to the shooting guard and SGA to the wing–the Thunder offense sets opponents on fire.
In 376 possessions featuring Schröder, Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, and Adams, OKC averages an insane 136.4 points per 100 possessions. According to Cleaning the Glass, that lineup ranks in the 98th percentile among ALL five-man rotations in the NBA. The team’s defensive rating isn’t too shabby, either; OKC posts a defensive rating of 106.3 with that lineup, which would rank as the fifth-best defense in the league. This is the lineup that OKC closes games with and a big reason why they have won more games in clutch situations (29) than any other team in the NBA (a “clutch” situation is defined by a game that is within five points with under five minutes remaining).
The @okcthunder lead the NBA with 29 CLUTCH wins this season!
— NBA (@NBA) July 21, 2020
The production doesn’t take a significant dip once the starters take a seat, either. Terrance Ferguson, Darius Bazley, Abdel Nader, Mike Muscala, Hamidou Diallo, and Nerlens Noel help make up the bench units. We’ll talk about the two former ‘Cats in just a second, but I would be doing the Thunder a disservice if I didn’t mention how good Dort was playing right before the season was suspended.
The 21-year old Dort signed a multi-year extension a couple of weeks ago and quickly showed his value as an impact player on both sides of the floor this past season, specifically on defense. He essentially took over Ferguson’s role in the middle of January and never looked back. Dort will defend the opposing team’s best player for most of the game.
The Kentucky Effect
We’ve touched on Gilgeous-Alexander a tiny bit already, so let’s expand on that some more. The one-time Kentucky point guard is easily OKC’s most important piece to a playoff run.
In just his second season, SGA has nearly doubled his production compared to his rookie campaign. He leads the Thunder in both minutes played (35.1) and points per game (19.3) at just 21 years old, 13 years younger than his backcourt counterpart, Chris Paul. He quickly settled into his role as a score-first guard who didn’t need to have the ball in his hands at all times, even though his usage rate did see an uptick. But despite commanding the ball more often and playing an important role in the offense with OKC, his shooting numbers remained virtually the same.
Moving onto Diallo and Noel, both of them will be key cogs off the bench, providing endless energy while specializing in a couple of areas.
Diallo will look to regain the playing time he had earned in the early stages of the season before an elbow injury sidelined him for 17 consecutive games. He made his return to the floor on Dec. 31 but was never able to work his way back into the position he had beforehand. The emergence of Dort around the same time put Diallo in an awkward spot, which led to the former Wildcat seeing randomized minutes of playing time throughout the final month of the season.
With Diallo, Dort, and Ferguson all playing a similar role within Donovan’s system, one of them–likely Diallo or Ferguson–could find themselves as the odd man out. As for Noel, his role is perfectly defined, and not many in the entire league know how to play it the same way he does.
Noel is almost always the first player to replace Steven Adams as the lone big man. OKC has size limitations down low, so Adams and Noel play strictly as centers with mostly undersized power forwards alongside them. Outside of a minor injury during the middle of the season, Noel was a steady presence with the second unit, consistently playing anywhere from 15-20 minutes per game. He’s not in the game to put up points, but rather to muck things up and play effective defense.
Only eight players in the NBA averaged at least one block and one steal per game this season; Noel has played the fewest minutes among them all. That–plus a motor that doesn’t stop–has made him a fan favorite in OKC.
No one would blame you for keeping your focus on Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, or Bam Adebayo, but if you want to invest yourself in a team for Kentucky reasons, you can’t go wrong with OKC. They are guaranteed to make the playoffs, the only team with three former ‘Cats, and have all the makings of a squad that can make a deep run with some upsets along the way. Plus, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is already one of the most exciting players to watch in the NBA. The thought of him slow-stepping his way right through the middle of the lane for a snazzy finger roll layup is giving me goosebumps.