Tomorrow, the regular season kicks off for the Thunder versus the Jazz. It’s a new dawn for Oklahoma City, but we’re keeping the Daily Thunder tradition of predicting what will most definitely/actually won’t happen this season. True facts below.
(1) The Thunder finish with 24 wins
This prediction lays the groundwork for those that follow. If it gives you heartburn, this may not be the list (or season) for you. After several years of squinting to imagine 55 or 60 wins as a best case scenario for Oklahoma City, finishing closer to 20 is actually one of the rosier outcomes this season: sniffing .500 for a worse draft pick is not. I have the Thunder finishing last in the Northwest Division and tied for fourth-worst in the league. There will be flashes of promise, and exciting upsets that are both fun and distressing relative to ping pong ball counts. But the combination of a very young and unproven bench, heavy load management, and of course traded players (the best ones), will dash whatever lingering hopes remain for a playoff appearance this winter.
(2) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will only lead the Thunder in games started
This wouldn’t have been all that radical a suggestion before his uber-aggressive preseason (18.8 PPG on 50% shooting). There’s no contest between SGA and CP3 when it comes to dimes, and there are too many other reliable scoring options around him to project a massive jump from his 10.8 PPG rookie season clip. This doesn’t spell disappointment for Shai’s sophomore year, but maybe a check on some expectations that have gotten a little out of control.
(3) Chris Paul takes a haircut to accommodate a trade
In order for a contender to both part with hefty expiring salaries and put themselves on the hook for Paul’s final contract year, he’ll have to loosen his $44 million grip or get used to Oklahoma City. He won’t be satisfied with the latter, so he’ll agree to reduce the guaranteed money remaining on his deal in order to land where he wants. I’m putting the reduced amount at $15-$20 million, which is what his agent might be convinced he could recoup on his next short-term deals if his career doesn’t stall. For reference, fellow CAA client Trevor Ariza has accumulated $45 million through his age-35 season on a series of short contracts the last couple summers.
(4) The Thunder fanbase rally around a phrase akin to “Trust the Process”
Early candidates: Over the Rainbow, Trust the Presti, Hoard Mode, The Replenishing. Pick one and make it happen.
(5) Some other Thunder media and fans will grow to be vocally upset with the rebuild by New Year’s.
Once a trade domino or two falls, and the losses start to rack up, the feeling of not competing–like really, not even trying to contend for a title–will sting more than many expect.
(6) Dion Waiters is re-acquired
Waiters is wearing out his welcome in Miami, as he once did in Cleveland. In a genius stroke that should both placate the “stop tanking!” crowd who still thinks Waiters can improve a team (he can’t) and excite the “Hoard Mode” (my vote) crowd ready to gather assets in style, Sam Presti will bring Kobe Wade back to Bricktown. He’ll get tax relief and/or an asset for his trouble.
(7) Darius Bazley starts more games than Terrance Ferguson
Ferguson has recovered from a rough summer before, but he still doesn’t look like someone who will do more with the opportunities in front of him than he did in a much narrower lane alongside Russell Westbrook. If Ferg doesn’t open up his game, there’s not much to discover about it. Bazley is much more of an unknown, but has shown flashes of playmaking that the Thunder will want to develop. Plus, the fact that Danilo Gallinari should be much easier to trade than the logjam of guards with starting pedigree means that Bazley has a clearer path to open games over the course of the season.
(8) The Thunder win the draft lottery
It might take hiring David Griffin to name-and-claim this prophecy, but the Thunder will grab the baton from the Pelicans, and Cavaliers before them, as a team finding the softest of landings rather than scraping the bottom of a would-be superstar crater.
(9) Billy Donovan is fired
It’s either this or an extension for Donovan, whose lame duck status is a bit under the radar. Donovan could implement more clever, aesthetically pleasing systems on both ends of the court now that his roster is younger and more malleable than those he’s inherited before. But he has been very slow to override the preferences of his strong-willed stars, and Chris Paul nothing if not one of those. He could have another chance at a truly blank canvas if he makes it past the trade deadline, but I’m not sure “we need to give him a chance with different players” is much of a safety net for a coach in his fourth season with the same team. The cynical feature of this move is again its dual-purpose: firing a coach is the ultimate “do something!” move demanded by win-now fans and media, and serves to adjust expectations and slowly ease people into the inevitable.
(10) The Thunder trade for a star! Then flip him.
Bradley Beal is off the market, but another star players becomes available every Tuesday in the NBA. No team can match the Thunder’s combination of draft assets, young players, veteran performers, and salary blocks to piece together. But Presti isn’t pushing his chips in to build a mediocre roster around an established player beneath the “best in the game” tier. He has just as much resolve and resources as he did when swooping in for the Paul George trade, which ended up being a prolonged flip in its own right.
(11) The Thunder shoot better than league average from three, at a higher rate than league average
Like I said, a new dawn.
(12) One All-Star will be selected from the Thunder
It’s Adams’ time. He might not be with Oklahoma City by the time the All-Star Game arrives, but he’ll have earned his selection as a Thunder. People are going to notice all the rebounds and points he’ll gobble up as part of the main course rather than getting by on the scraps. Something in the 20-10 range for him will have a lot more shine due to that leap than similar numbers from an old dog doing the same old tricks like LaMarcus Aldridge.
(13) Four more Thunder players will represent the team in All-Star festivities
Most teams become obscure as they enter a rebuild and start to replenish, which is why it takes so much patience from front offices and ownership groups to stick to. But the first wave of young, scrappy OKC players will not be anonymous–shoot, Terrance Ferguson was already the face of reliable playoff performance in a Gatorade commercial. Look for SGA and Bazley in the Rising Stars game, and for Ferguson to join (and beat) Hamidou Diallo in the Dunk Contest.
(14) The Rockets barely make the playoffs
Houston had to scramble to save their season last year, and they’ll have to do that again. Despite the failed MVP narrative James Harden has been peddling over that period, the team’s defensive stabilization had as much to do with their turnaround as his (admittedly dominant) offensive takeover. Russell Westbrook might be better an offensive complement to Harden than some fear, but he represents a significant dropoff from Chris Paul as a reliable defender. Is Mike D’Antoni going to be the one to instill defensive accountability and discipline in Russ? Seems doubtful.
(15) When the Nets come to Chesapeake Arena, the Thunder play a Kevin Durant tribute video
In the ultimate “so high road it’s actually low” sign of petty kindness, the organization that has been trashed by Durant will give observers more reason to scratch their heads at his comments and side with the franchise he spurned.
(16) Russ will also get a video
When the Rockets come to town, obviously. And yes, Durant might complain his took longer to materialize than Westbrook’s.
(17) Dennis Schroder gets shut down by New Year’s
The league has been cracking down on bogus injuries and extreme load management, but I think the Thunder will work on a mutual agreement with Schroder’s camp to find him greener pastures. Expect him to start and play way more than the Thunder might benefit from for the first chunk of the season, which will serve to cement whatever trade value he has. After that, everyone will be ready to move on. A phantom ankle sprain might be just what the doctor ordered to keep him sidelined and safe before a deal is worked out with another team.
(18) One player from the opening night starting lineup will remain on the roster past the trade deadline
What if I told you it wasn’t even Shai? Haha jk. Unless? Nay, we can’t think such a thing. Lest? (Hilarious) jokes aside, hearing Steven Adams give preemptive closure on his own theoretical trade at media day was a foretaste of some true bittersweetness. Fans in on the rebuild will be along for the roller-coaster, fiends for more picks and younger, cheaper players, but there are still a couple more gut punches left as the replenishing continues in earnest.
(19) The Thunder will enter the 2020 draft with four first-round selections in their control
While this season isn’t when the most juicy picks start to convey and swap their way into Presti’s treasure chest, the teams looking to acquire one of the Thunder’s vets for a playoff run will be more inclined to give up value-limited picks tied to making the playoffs and receiving a low pick. Rest assured the Thunder GM will also be in on any and every conversation he can be to help facilitate deals or butt into them with out-of-the-box opportunism like the star-flip scenario I predicted above.
(20) There will be on- and off-court feuding, with ejections coming in games against the Heat and Warriors.
One of the worst parts about watching the Thunder play without Westbrook this season will be how flat a lot of the matchups will feel. Russ’s orneriness made already-intriguing contests with teams like the Blazers and Sixers even more intense, and his disrespect for players and teams at the bottom of the standings pumped fun (and stress) into would-be snoozers. But Chris Paul isn’t a go-along to get-along personality, and Adams won’t stop innocently putting people in a headlock under the hoop. After stunting on everyone–most ruthlessly the Thunder–while playing with an unprecedented stockade of talent, Golden State will once again be vulnerable and no less brash. Time does not heal all natural shooting motions. And while CP3’s frustration builds with losing games in his twilight, Miami will represent the of the good teams that don’t believe enough in him to take on his contract. They happen to play just a few weeks before the trade deadline, when the prospect of him staying in OKC looks and feels more real. He’ll have words for players like Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic.
(21) Andre Roberson will play
Roberson is the final symbol for the Thunder identity we’ve known up until now: flaws worn on their sleeve, fiercely competitive, ridiculously athletic, and beset by really unfortunately timed injuries. This might seem overly dramatic, but regardless of how elite he remains on the perimeter or how many starts/minutes he receives, just being a professional basketball player getting run will be a victory after his terrible, very bad, no good injury and recovery process the last two years.