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For weeks now — honestly, months — I’ve had an internal debate: Will the Oklahoma City Thunder be competitive this season?
Logic and recency bias dictate no, but the Thunder had a 20-27 at the end of March and were closer to a play-in spot than the best draft odds. It took effort from the front office to stop Mark Daigneault and Co. from winning.
At the start of a new season, with clear eyes and a full bill of health, will the Thunder be good again? Or were they playing above their level when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was on the court during the first half of the 2021 season?
To attempt to find a conclusion, my optimistic and pessimistic sides are going to have an argument. Kind of like Shea Serrano’s old Good Cop/Bad Cop articles, only less fun and clever because I am not, unfortunately, Shea Serrano.
Let’s argue: Can the Thunder be any good in the 2021-22 season?
Optimist: The Oklahoma City Thunder will be competitive for as long as the front office will let them win this season. Pessimist: The Oklahoma City Thunder are led by a bunch of teenagers and early-20-something-year-olds, traded away their good veteran, and added three more rookies into the mix. They will not be good. Optimist: Say all you want, but I have two words and one hyphen for you: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Pessimist: I mean yeah, SGA is awesome, a future All-NBA guy, but who is his second option? Devin Booker couldn't get over the hump at age 23. Trae Young didn't until the Atlanta Hawks added pieces. The Washington Wizards were bad between the days of John Wall stardom and Russell Westbrook, even with Bradley Beal on the team. The similarities between those three 2021 playoff groups? They added contributing veterans. The Thunder? Derrick Favors and a bunch of guys who can't legally drink. Optimist: Cool, you have three examples. Here are three young players who did lead their team to the playoffs without co-stars: Ja Morant. Luka Doncic. Julius Randle. And SGA has already led his team! The Thunder were 16-19 with him on the court last year -- that winning percentage is .001% less than both 10th seeds last season. Pessimist: You're stretching with Randle and you know it, the Knicks had one of the best defenses in the league. But I'll ignore that to address your other point -- that record was in large part thanks to Al Horford, too. The Thunder were11-17 with Horford and won just 25% of their games without him. Optimist: Are you implying that Al Horford had the same impact as Gilgeous-Alexander? Pessimist: No, of course not, but those were the two best players on the Thunder last season. Now, one is gone? The Thunder have, what, two players who would start on almost any team in SGA and Lu Dort? And now you're running out center lineups consistently of Darius Bazley and Isaiah Roby. Love the guys, but they're spot-centers. Not big enough to bang around with the Rudy Goberts and Nikola Jokics. They'll get injured if they're doing that 25+ minutes for 82 games. Optimist: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was excellent during summer league. Pessimist: He's a rookie and it was summer league. And he's yet another guy who's 6-foot-8 without shoes. Optimist: Derrick Favors. Pessimist: Another natural power forward. Optimist: You mean another player not confined to just one position. Pessimist: The Thunder, full of versatile players who can play several positions -- Optimist: exactly -- Pessimist: but none of whom can score. Optimist: Lu and Bazley made strides! Were you not watching the end of last season? Fake fan. Pessimist: Oh, yeah, OK, Dort and Bazley are going to match the offensive prowess of these other western conference teams. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram literally missed the play-in tournament! Optimist: Don't forget about Kenrich Williams ... Pessimist: Oh, you want Kenny Hustle to be shooting more? Optimist: Absolutely! Go look at his shooting numbers. Pessimist: I know his shooting numbers. Optimist: Go look anyway! Pessimist: About 66% from inside five feet, 50% from 5-9 feet, 47% from 10-14 feet and 44% from 3. Optimist: The Brooklyn Nets would be the 2021 NBA Champions if the Thunder had been willing to trade him. Pessimist: What? You can't just say things like that. Did Brooklyn even try to trade for him? Optimist: I don't know. They should have. But we're getting off base. The fact of the matter is, the Thunder were good when Gilgeous-Alexander played. Pessimist: Were they though? Through March 22, SGA's final game of the season, the Thunder averaged the fifth-fewest points -- fewer than the Rockets and the Pistons -- had the seventh-worst field goal percentage, the second-worst offensive rating and the fifth-worst net rating in the NBA. Optimist: And what was their record? Pessimist: 19-24. Optimist: Exactly! They were good enough! Pessimist: But that's exactly my point. They weren't good. They hung around when it mattered. They played tough defense, good coaching, teams wouldn't take them seriously and SGA would go off. Optimist: Does any of that change? You think they won't be playing harder than every other team? You think the coaching will suddenly be worse? You think Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can't make another jump? Pessimist: First off, their defense stunk as the season went on and Horford was benched. Second, I think that unless Gilgrous-Alexander is suddenly a top-15 player, it won't matter. Optimist: Are we certain that he's not already? Pessimist: What? Optimist: You heard me. Pessimist: He's absolutely not. And we're not going to have this discussion right now. Optimist: Did you hear what Sam Presti said about Aleksej Pokusevski? Pessimist: Of course, he said Poku looks great. Optimist: They didn't even need him to play in summer league. Pessimist: Did you even read the article? It sounded more like they wanted him to develop very specific traits that he wouldn't get simply by playing other fringe NBA competition. Not because he was so much better than, like, Theo Maledon. Optimist: Let me be optimistic. Pessimist: You're getting off track again. Optimist: Then let me get back on. Poku has apparently improved. Maledon won't have to be the lead ball handler. That alone will be huge, getting the ball into the hands of someone with actual experience. Bazley and Dort made strides. Isaiah Roby had his first true offseason with the organization. Ty Jerome! Ty Jerome was awful as a rookie, and now he's suddenly a skillful passer and sharpshooter last year. All of them will improve. And that's not even getting to the rookies. I'm seriously about to buy a Robinson-Earl jersey. Presti found a diamond in Josh Giddey and the whole league knows it. Tre Mann shot the lights out last year and can spread the court. Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome, Mann, Kenny Hustle and Robinson-Earl getting minutes together? The Thunder have shooters. It's a dream come true. Pessimist: Will that rotation actually see the court? I know we're talking about the Thunder, but that's three guards, a wing, and a 6-foot-8 center. If that unit gets any sort of substantial playing time, it would cut into the minutes of Dort, Roby, Bazley, Pokusevski, Giddey, Maledon and Favors, none of whom I particularly want shooting the ball. Optimist: But they won't have to take contested looks anymore. All the attention will be focused on SGA again. I'm thinking Bubble Bazley. And remember when Dort shot like 45% for a month? We know that's in him. Pessimist: I suppose. Optimist: If Dort can shoot and continue being able to score off the drive -- he dropped 40! Against Utah! -- and if Bazley keeps doing those spin moves; if Mann, Jerome, Williams and Robinson-Earl can keep shooting well, and if Giddey is anything as advertised, the Thunder will be competitive. Pessimist: That's a lot of ifs. Optimist: Are any unrealistic? You're telling me that you can't see a path where the Thunder have 10 NBA-caliber players on any given night? Pessimist: No. That's dumb. The Thunder straight-up started G League guys last season, and the roster saw relatively minimal turnover. How can you talk yourself into thinking the team will be good? Especially since the front office doesn't want them to be good. Optimist: They also didn't want to be good two seasons ago, but then made the playoffs. Pessimist: This is different though. The Thunder waived Kemba Walker. Sam Presti doesn't waive players! He shows the league that Chris Paul is worth $40 million and then gets a first-round pick in return! They cut Walker despite the fact that he's a good player. You have to admit that the front office doesn't particularly want to win. Optimist: I will admit no such thing. Josh Giddey will be a healthier player and better fit than Kemba from Day 1. The Thunder simply didn't want to have to bench Walker or limit Giddey's playing time. Pessimist: You're ridiculous. This has been entirely unproductive. Optimist: This has been extremely productive. I feel more confident than ever. Pessimist: I'm already Googling Chet Holmgren and Jalen Hardy.