OKC Thunder mailbag: How can you make a 57-win team even better to contend for NBA title?

In this edition of the Thunder mailbag, we look at ways OKC can improve upon its breakout 57-win season.

@caleb_t_jones__: What do you think this team needs to be better next season?

I think some of the glaring issues we saw in the regular season especially came apparent in the Western Conference semifinals. Despite that, I think OKC should only react accordingly to a few of those and consider the others. It had enough of a sample to realize that this exact version of its core needs help if it wants to play with this identity. With talent, with certain archetypes. But it also saw enough gold that it shouldn’t completely abandon this identity.

Let’s start here:

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Dallas center Dereck Lively II (2), Oklahoma City forward Jalen Williams (8) and Oklahoma City guard Luguentz Dort (5) fight for a rebound in the fourth quarter during Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Oklahoma Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks at the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.
Dallas center Dereck Lively II (2), Oklahoma City forward Jalen Williams (8) and Oklahoma City guard Luguentz Dort (5) fight for a rebound in the fourth quarter during Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Oklahoma Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks at the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Addressing rebounding

I know plenty of fans ripped their hair out with every rebound sacrificed this season. I still don’t think adding a traditional big man is the way to go. The players that immediately impact rebounding don't impact the glass alone. It isn't all additive, and there are things to work around. Chet Holmgren did frightening things as a rim protector in the playoffs, and his label as a unicorn seemingly depends on being a center. In that reality, the Thunder wouldn’t compromise its five-out spacing and could still maximize all of Holmgren’s best abilities.

I understand those who pitch lob threats, another center likely capable of aiding the glass and still allowing the Thunder to experiment with vertical spacing. I think with the right player, it would be intriguing. But then you’re counting on OKC’s ball handlers — who only threw so many lobs this past season — to adapt to and thrive alongside such a player instead of upgrading the offense they’ve thrived in.

There are players who could fit and still eat away at the margins. Some sort of big forward that isn’t dismissed on the perimeter, has some degree of ball skills, and still possesses the size to finish and chip away at the glass but not dominate.

The difficult part is, with OKC’s current identity, that fifth starter sounds like a player built in a lab. There are too many layers to that player's description. Realistically, unless the Thunder finds the perfect marriage between play style, build and contract, it’ll likely have to depend more on the fluidity of last season than any hopes of conquering the glass.

When the Thunder finds that, it will likely feel like Denver when it landed Aaron Gordon — mostly because the mystery player has such a tight but necessary crevice to fit into.

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Rim protection sans Holmgren

This might not be the same player, but OKC will likely have to address rim protection in its non-Holmgren minutes. Jaylin Williams was a capable spacer, and it’s still difficult to envision the team abandoning its five-out offense. But Williams, undersized and simply not as capable as Holmgren, was targeted at different points in the Dallas series.

The Thunder’s opponents were 9.9 points better with Williams on the floor.

It puts an unbearable weight on Holmgren, a rookie who played all 82 regular-season games and still shouldered an entire back line. It wouldn’t hurt to find someone who’d allow Holmgren to roam. But after blocking 2.3 shots per game this season, it’d be understandable if OKC instead found someone capable of roaming so that Holmgren wouldn’t leave his post under the basket.

Nevertheless, when life becomes easier for Holmgren, life will become easier for the Thunder.

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Bullish screener(s)

It should go without saying that any decision on a fifth starter wouldn’t come until one is made on Josh Giddey’s future. Will he spend his days in OKC? Will those days be spent coming off the bench?

Giddey or not, the Thunder could use some suitable screeners. In the regular season, its guard-to-guard screens served as the key to never-ending offensive possibilities. In the playoffs, the Mavericks effectively switched and eliminated most of them.

When Jalen Williams tried to create on the ball, it often led to dead ends or broken actions. And sure, Williams — a bonafide second option for much of the season with a steady diet of tough shots — watched as Dallas worked to take away his strengths. But not having any notable screener certainly hurt him.

In Game 6, when Williams had his best game and the Thunder offense was as recognizable as it had been since Game 1, he consistently found Holmgren for alley-oops. Even then, Holmgren never got open with a firm screen or bruising contact. It was with ghost or rub screens that he slipped out of, his go-to option with such a frail frame.

In most other scenarios, Williams was navigating screens from Giddey or Holmgren. Screens that rarely kept Williams’ defenders away from him or didn’t create any glaring advantage. Part of Williams’ summer should be dedicated to getting back to creating advantages without needing either of them. But few players in his position could thrive with the way Dallas plowed through picks.

Maybe OKC doesn’t need some bruiser. Just a player sturdy enough, with enough gravity as a roller that Giddey doesn’t need to fill that role and Holmgren can space the floor more often.

Otherwise, perhaps the Thunder could invest in another savvy self creator, a poised ball handler who can get those advantages without the burden of blown-up actions. Someone who’d come off the bench, slotted in when OKC staggers Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams.

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To make future editions of the mailbag, email questions to or message him on Twitter @jxlorenzi.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Thunder has three areas to improve to take another leap in 2024-25