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The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw NBA basketball. In order to get you up to speed before Thursday’s season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
[More NBA restart previews: Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Houston Rockets • Indiana Pacers • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New Orleans Pelicans • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Toronto Raptors • Utah Jazz • Washington Wizards]
Where were the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Place: Fifth in the West
The Oklahoma City Thunder were one of the league’s biggest surprises, largely because Chris Paul’s steady hand steered a remarkable record in the clutch. The Thunder played 42 games with the score within five points in the final five minutes, and they won 29 of them. Paul led the NBA in clutch scoring by a wide margin, generating a positive net rating of 28.8 points per 100 possessions over 160 minutes. The result was a winning percentage better than when the Thunder had Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
Known for clashing with veteran teammates at his All-NBA level, Paul has proven to be the perfect mentor for fellow ball-handlers Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, and they have formed a devastating three-guard attack alongside rugged center Steven Adams and a healthy Danilo Gallinari. That five-man unit has outscored opponents by 30.1 points per 100 possessions this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, an astounding figure. The Thunder continue to be light on wings, but credit coach Billy Donovan for crafting lineups that feature as many of his best players together as often as possible.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Out: Isaiah Roby (plantar fasciitis)
Save for rookie wing Isaiah Roby, acquired in a January trade, the Thunder expect to have a complete roster in Orlando. That includes Andre Roberson, an All-Defensive talent whose knee problems have left him sidelined since January 2018. He hopes to be in action when OKC reopens its season on Saturday.
As expected, the Thunder also converted upstart wing Luguentz Dort’s two-way contract to a full-season deal, since he started the final 21 games before the season was suspended. OKC then filled their vacant two-way slot by re-signing Devon Hall, taking another flyer on a wing shooter hoping someone will stick.
Over/under wins in the bubble: N/A
Championship odds: +8000
The Thunder are a team full of X-factors, but Gilgeous-Alexander has a chance to become a superstar. He has already launched himself into the All-Star discussion, averaging a team-high 19.3 points (on 47/35/80 shooting splits), along with 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 35.1 minutes per game. He is versatile enough to play on or off the ball and defend multiple positions, and his length and athleticism make him a potential nightmare matchup on both ends of the floor, especially against opposing guards.
Gilgeous-Alexander could reach that next level with a mild increase in efficiency, both at the rim and from 3-point range. His shooting percentages from outside the paint have dipped with increased usage. The driving floater is an effective weapon, but improving his marksmanship from distance and stretching some of his longer mid-range attempts beyond the arc would take his scoring to another stratosphere. Let us hope he spent the hiatus continuing to work on his shot, because if Gilgeous-Alexander realizes his considerable potential in the bubble, the Thunder could make some startling noise in the playoffs.
(All times Eastern)
Aug. 1: Utah Jazz, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 3: Denver Nuggets, 4 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 5: Los Angeles Lakers, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 7: Memphis Grizzlies, 4 p.m. (NBATV)
Aug. 9: Washington Wizards, 12:30 p.m.
Aug. 10: Phoenix Suns, 2:30 p.m.
Aug. 12: Miami Heat, 8 p.m.
Aug. 14: Los Angeles Clippers, TBD
The Thunder trail the fourth-place Utah Jazz by a single game and the seventh-place Dallas Mavericks by 1 1/2 games, so their first-round opponent is up in the air. You can bet with Paul at the helm they do not fear their likely foes, the Jazz, Denver Nuggets or Houston Rockets. OKC owns a 4-3 record against those three teams, and two of those losses came in October. Whether they should fear them is another story.
Dort has been OK on the wing, and OK has been acceptable, because that spot in the Thunder rotation has been a hole since Kevin Durant was on the roster. But OKC is shallow beyond the aforementioned five-man unit, which better continue to be that good because of the diminishing returns beyond them. How often can you depend on that quintet, and does a three-guard attack lose effectiveness with increased usage? Their margin for error is thin, and at some point those clutch statistics should regress toward the mean.
On talent alone, it is hard to imagine this as the team Paul leads to his greatest playoff success, and a second-round appearance might count as that, even if he took Houston to the 2018 conference finals.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: Sixth in the West
Finish: First-round loss
Check out the NBA Disney World bubble in augmented reality:
More from our NBA restart series:
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