In any competitive setting, it’s often been said that if you are not first, you are last. The Oklahoma City Thunder are not going to finish first in the Western Conference, and they likely will not even secure a top-four seed. Odds are the team will finish between six and eight in the standings before bowing out for the fourth consecutive year in the West’s quarter-finals. With that said, there is still massive value in the franchise qualifying for a playoff spot. If you would like to hear some cons regarding the Thunder reaching the postseason, check out site patriarch Cray Allred’s piece penned back in December. Today, we’re going to focus on the positives that would come with a playoff berth, starting with added experience.
Older and wiser
The Thunder are clearly following the lead of veteran Chris Paul. However, the future of the franchise rests in sophomore guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s hands. Last year for the Clippers, Shai shined bright under the playoff lights. In six playoff games for the Clippers – all starts – SGA averaged 13.7 points on 46.7% shooting from the floor and 50% accuracy from the perimeter (28.8 minutes per game). SGA became only the second rookie or sophomore among 71 qualified players over the last ten years to shoot 50 percent or better from beyond the arc in the postseason. Additionally, Shai is one of eight qualified rookies to shoot at least 45% from the field on a minimum of 60 field-goal attempts dating back to the 2010 playoffs. Among those eight players, SGA’s effective field-goal percentage currently ranks third.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s playoff numbers as a rookie
It is undeniable that playing in the postseason helped Shai develop his game, paving the way for the breakout season he is currently having. Allowing Shai to further expand his playoff seasoning, along with company such as Hamidou Diallo, Darius Bazley, and Luguentz Dort (assuming Dort gets converted to a standard contract) garnering their first taste of playoff action, could pay dividends down the line when the time comes to make a run into late April and May.
This one seems a little obvious, but the Thunder are a small market team, and added revenue brought in by even two playoff games could make a big impact. Not just for the team’s pocketbook, but the overall local economy and the young player’s salaries. Is a playoff bonus a big deal to CP3? Considering the vet will earn upward of $38 million this season, probably not. But for fellow starter SGA, who will earn less than four-million dollars in the 2019-20 season, a playoff bonus is a nice incentive. Additionally, the Thunder have already played their only true nationally televised game this season, unless Thunder games get flexed to the ABC, ESPN, or TNT slate. More national exposure is simply an added benefit to making the big dance.
Analytics point in the Thunder’s favor
There’s been much discussion about the Thunder possessing the five-player lineup with the best net rating in the NBA. Rightly so; that’s a pretty big deal. The lineup in question contains Paul, SGA, Dennis Schröder, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams, and is posting an impressive +31.4 NRTG. The aforementioned lineup is over ten full percentage points better than the second-best five-player combination in the association. Over the past ten seasons, the team that possesses the league’s best five-player lineup in the regular season has not only made the playoffs, but also advanced beyond the first round in five out of those ten years.
The Thunder are putting together some impressive NRTG statistics this season. After Kevin Durant left, the Thunder nosedived to a +0.8 NRTG team in 16/17, saved from plummeting further by the best season of Russell Westbrook’s career. Following the departure of Westbrook, Paul George, and Jerami Grant1, the team has been a +1.7 NRTG team in 19/20. Even with better historic weightings in the two Westbrook/George seasons in between, they still averaged just 48.5 wins. They’re on pace for 47 wins this season. For what it’s worth, the last team to record 46 wins and miss the playoffs was the Nuggets in 2018.
We didn’t think it was pointless for the last three Thunder teams to take their shot in the postseason. So why would we think this squad, performing at a similar level, shouldn’t have a chance in the playoffs?
Do the Thunder really want to move their vets?
This could all be stuff and nothing if the Thunder elects to deal away some or most of their veterans before the February trade deadline. But before heading to the bank to sell off your remaining Thunder stock based on Adrian Wojnarowski’s recent report on ESPN that the “Thunder are open for business,” you may want to hold back. Woj is one of the best in this industry so, of course, his report has merit. With that said, why would the Thunder want it to be known they are ready to move any or all of their veteran players? By making this transparent to the rest of the league, the Thunder lose leverage in trade negotiations. Another probable scenario is a rival executive monitoring Oklahoma City’s situation passed this intel along in an effort to lower Sam Presti’s said leverage.
The Thunder are in a no-lose scenario. There are advantages to making the playoffs, and pros to missing the playoffs for only the third time in team history. All in all, the perks from a playoff push far outweigh playing arbitrary games when April 1 rolls around and hoping ping pong balls bounce their way.