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Thunder Journal: The Finale

Thunder Journal: The Finale

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Season in review

The 2021-2022 Thunder season ended with the result the majority of OKC fans hoped to see: a comfortable, non-stressful loss.

Thank goodness the LA Clippers weren’t trying to dodge LeBron James this go round.

After too many double-digit comebacks, nerve-wracking close losses and inexplicably nutty G League led wins, Thunder fans’ season-long enemy in Los Angeles gifted them the peaceful, easy feeling of knowing by halftime that their team would be locked into the #4 lottery spot.

Let’s hear it for a group of guys who helped OKC achieve their goal of not slipping past the Indiana Pacers in the reverse standings. This plucky bunch of likable overachievers was a rag-tag group of G Leaguers, two-way contract guys, 10 day hardship contract players and, for some reason…Isaiah Roby.

Here’s to you, Zavier Simpson, and the best sky hook since, well, ever. And to you, Jaylen Hoard, who just got another 3 rebounds while I was typing this sentence. Raise a glass to Georgios Kalaitzakis, who gave Thunder fans heart palpitations when he did his best Game 6 Klay impression against the Lakers’ B Team. Can’t forget Melvin Frazier Jr. coming up tank clutch, after Olivier Sarr was dismissed for too closely resembling a 7-foot Curry brother. If the Thunder ultimately wind up in the fortunate position of selecting Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith Jr. or Jaden Ivey, all of your contributions will be forever held in high regard within OKC fandom.

Thunder Rebuild: Season 2 is now officially in the books.

Before the season started, Sam Presti & Co. had a handful of goals in mind. My guesses as to those goals, in no particular order: the continued ascension of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to stardom, another returning young player separating himself as a core keeper, Josh Giddey proving the Thunder didn’t reach for him at #6 overall, the rookie class as a whole showing promise, restoring Derrick Favors’ value back into a positive tradable asset, the continued development of the youngest roster in the league, and OKC positioning themselves for the best odds possible to snag a top five pick.

So how’d OKC do? Let’s take score.

The players

Shai. The 2020-2021 version of SGA should’ve made the All-Star game, full stop. His numbers flirted with elite territory, but good guy Mike Conley was awarded a Lifetime Achievement nod instead. Coming into 2021-2022, Thunder fans hoped Shai would take another leap. The good news: he did. The bad news: not until after the All-Star Break. The first half of the season, SGA’s efficiency took a nosedive as teams swarmed him with double teams, he once again operated with the league’s least spacing and he experimented with a fun–but percentage-killing–side-step-step-back three-pointer. When he returned after missing 10 games towards the end of the season, he played like a top 10 player in the NBA. Shai scored 30-plus in 10 of 13 games, 29-plus in 11 of 13 games, and 26 or more in 12 of 13 games, all on Durantesque efficiency while playing with a mostly G League roster. That version of SGA is an All-Star next season, full stop.

Lu. While much of the returning roster had varying degrees of success or struggles, one player did stand out from the rest of the pack: OKC’s own living tall tale, Lu Dort. The undrafted gem followed up a breakout sophomore season, which came on the heels of a breakout rookie season, with a breakout third season. Lu has broken out more times than Andy Dufresne and Red combined. Lu upped his per-game scoring average from 14.0 to 17.2 while increasing his eFG% from 47.5% to 49.3%. A 22-year-old defensive stopper scoring that many points on that kind of efficiency qualifies as a core keeper. Probably. Stay tuned to draft night to see what Sammy thinks.

Josh. On draft night, you could hear the collective moans and groans from Oklahoma City to Tulsa all the way to the Okies in Muskogee when the Thunder drafted Josh Giddey with the #6 overall pick. Four straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month trophies and the four youngest triple doubles in NBA history later, Thunder fans wouldn’t trade Giddey for four Jalen Suggses.

Tre. Speaking of the 2021 NBA Draft, how many people pined for James Bouknight? Yeah, me too. Now how many of you would trade #18 overall pick Tre Mann for Bouknight straight up? Yeah, me neither. Another unpopular Thunder draft decision was trading the #34 and #36 picks to move up to #32 to draft Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. While the value may still be debated, it’s easy to see why Presti coveted JRE. The 6’10” stretch big became a starter and shot 35.2% from three, looking like one of the bigger steals in the draft. But Robinson-Earl may not even be the biggest draft steal on his own team: that could be #55 overall pick Aaron Wiggins, who started the season on a two-way contract and played himself into the Lu Dort special. This is how you know OKC aced the 2021 draft: all four picks would be selected higher in a post-season re-draft.

The others. Yeah, so Derrick Favors didn’t complete his courses in the CP3 Horford School of Thunder Rehabilitation and thus will not be getting traded for any positive assets. Next.

If I had a dollar every time Mark Daigneault has said “development isn’t always linear”, I’d be richer than Lu Dort. But Coach kinda nailed this one. Every one of Darius Bazley, Aleksej Pokusevski, Isaiah Roby and Theo Maledon looked like cut candidates halfway through the season. And every one of them had a midseason or late season resurgence. Now Baze seems like a useful gadget defensive role player with scoring upside off the bench, Poku flashed that unicorn upside for two straight months, and Roby was a man among boys playing alongside OKC’s tank squad down the stretch. While I wouldn’t quite group Maledon with the others as potential pieces moving forward, scoring 20+ points in four out of five games to close his season at least warrants a longer look.

The future

As for OKC’s final, most apparent and most polarizing goal, they just don’t have what it takes to lose with the expert skill of the Rockets, Magic or Pistons. The Thunder, supposedly the face of tanking, finished with a better record than all three teams for the second straight season. Still, OKC has a 48.1% shot at a top four pick and a 55.3% chance at a top five pick. That’s better than coin-flip odds of adding Holmgren, Jabari, Banchero, Ivey or Shaedon Sharpe.

So while the final record says 24-58 and the national media says the Thunder are the black eye of the league, the final tally of OKC’s season goals says this was a mostly successful season.

What’s next, Thunder fans?

It’s time to throw out those Clippers pom poms and boo the team you cheered yesterday when they face the Timberwolves tomorrow. Turns out OKC has one more secret bonus season goal that just might get to be checked off the list: two 2022 lottery picks.