Oklahoma City Thunder Season Recap

Oklahoma City Thunder Season Recap

by June 15, 2021 1 comment

The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the 2020-2021 season with low expectations. The team went with a completely new look after making the playoffs in the previous season. Veterans Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, and Dennis Schroder were all traded in the offseason and the team moved on from coach Billy Donovan.

Donovan’s contract expired at the season’s end, and both sides agreed to go separate ways. General manager Sam Presti hired from within the organization by promoting assistant Mark Daigneault to head coach. Daigneault had been a member of the Thunder organization for years; he coached the Thunder’s G-League team the Oklahoma City Blue for five seasons before being hired as an assistant for Donovan.

The goal was for the Thunder to get more youthful. Hiring Daigneault was a good start because, at 35 years old, he’s the youngest coach in the NBA. The Thunder also finished the season with the youngest roster in the NBA with an average age of 23.4 years. Winning games in the NBA with a roster full of developmental prospects is a tall task. The Thunder lacked veteran experience and it showed. They finished with their worst record in 11 seasons. The season may seem like a failure when looking at their record but with a team full of promising young prospects and a boatload of future draft picks, the Thunder are in a good position to rebuild their roster. 

Make sure to check out all of our other NBA Team Season Recaps.

Team Performance

With a record of 22-50, the Thunder finished with the fourth-worst record in the NBA. The team overachieved early. There was a 16-game stretch where the Thunder went 8-8 and began to show promise. Then Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went down with an injury. On March 24th, it was reported that Gilgeous-Alexander suffered plantar fasciitis in his right foot. With their best player sidelined, the Thunder decided to blow the roster up. Key players George Hill and Hamidou Diallo were both traded while Al Horford missed the team’s final 28 games. This left Daigneault with a roster full of developmental prospects. 

Daigneault’s coaching style is perfect for today’s game. He likes to play at a fast pace and he uses positionless lineups. The Thunder look to push the pace at every opportunity; finishing seventh in the NBA with a pace of 101.61. Daigneault utilized multiple players as ball-handlers and even used lineups with no point guard on the floor. With the roster being so young, Daigneault gave his players the freedom to find their games.

Several players flashed their potential throughout the season. Luguentz Dort’s offensive game improved in his second season. He increased his scoring average by eight points and he was more comfortable shooting the three. Ty Jerome was a consistent contributor off of the bench with his shooting ability. Second-year players Darius Bazley and Moses Brown both made their mark on the defensive end, showing two-way ability.

Both should be included in the team’s future. Rookies Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski were better than expected. Maledon is only 19-years old but he plays the game with veteran savvy. Pokusevski is a raw prospect but he’s 7’0 and is a jack of all trades type of player. Even with a record of 22-50, Daigneault did well in his first season as head coach with limited resources.

Team Award Winners

MVP – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Gilgeous-Alexander only played in 35 games but he is clearly the team MVP. He was having a career year before he got hurt. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged a career-high in both scoring (23.7) and assists per game (5.9) while he brought down 4.7 rebounds per game. He finished the season with 50/40/80 shooting splits. That is tremendous efficiency.

28 players averaged 23 points or more, only 10 of them shot at least 50 percent from the field. Only two of those 10 players were guards, the two guards being perennial All-Star Kyrie Irving, and Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander displayed tremendous growth in his first season as a primary scorer. He scored 30 or more 10 times. In the 2019-20 season Gilgeous-Alexander played in 70 games and only scored more than 30 three times.

Gilgeous-Alexander is more than a scorer. He facilitated the offense and was another coach on the floor for his teammates. Showing his upside as a playmaker. Gilgeous-Alexander’s defense has always been a strength and he continued to show improvements on that side of the ball. He served as the team’s closer and hit clutch shots. Gilgeous Alexander’s impact was irreplaceable.

The Thunder’s season would have gone completely different if Gilgeous-Alexander never suffered an injury. The team went 6-31 in games without Gilgeous-Alexander and 16-19 in games with him. That record alone proves how valuable he is to the team. At only 22 years old, the sky is the limit for Gilgeous-Alexander. He is a future superstar.

Defensive Player of the Year – Luguentz Dort

Dort is developing a reputation as one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. He takes on the toughest matchup every night and holds his own. Dort has the quickness to defend guards and the strength to defend bigger players. He has more of a football build at 6’3″, 215 pounds and he uses that to his advantage. Dort uses his compact frame to play physical defense on forwards. Dort’s instincts paired with his active hands make him the complete package on the defensive side of the ball. It’s rare for a young player to come into the NBA and establish himself as a lockdown defender from day one but Dort has made it look easy. The Thunder’s defense was better than their offense and Dort was the reason why.

Sixth Man of the Year – Ty Jerome

Jerome spent time in the G-League before being called up to the roster. The injury to Gilgeous-Alexander opened up the door for more playing time in the backcourt and Jerome seized the opportunity. Serving as the team’s sixth man, Jerome averaged 10.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game. He shot 42.3 percent from three, showing the potential to be a knockdown shooter. Jerome is a combo guard capable of both running the offense and being the primary scorer for the second unit. He was acquired in the Paul trade with the Suns and it looks like he has found his future role with the team.

Biggest Surprise – Aleksej Pokusevski

Statistically, the numbers don’t jump out for Pokusevski, especially when it comes to efficiency. Pokusevski shot 34 percent from the field, 28 percent from three, and averaged the same amount of turnovers as assists (2.2). At only 19 years old, Pokusevski was expected to have growing pains, but the potential he flashed was unexpected.

Pokusevski is a long-term project but at 7’0″, he possesses rare skills. Pokusevski displayed a rare combination of ball-handling, passing, and instincts as a playmaker for a player his size. His three-point percentage was low but he has a good shooting form so the numbers will improve. In his final 28 games, he made at least two threes in 15 of them.

Pokusevski was only the 17th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft so he did not come in with a lot of expectations. The Thunder’s decision to go with a rebuild thrust Pokusevski into the starting lineup and he did not shy away from the moment. He displayed a high level of confidence through the highs and lows.

Daigneault used Pokusevski in a variety of roles including point guard. At only 19 years old, Pokusevski has a ton of potential. He weighs 190 pounds so he must put on some weight. Defensively Pokusevski has a long way to go. Pokusevski’s role will not be the same with Gilgeous-Alexander in the lineup next season he has already staked his claim as a franchise cornerstone for the Thunder.

Biggest Disappointment – Al Horford

It was hard to pick a disappointing player on the Thunder roster. The team had no expectations coming into the season and most of their players performed well. Horford was acquired in a trade with hopes that his veteran presence would help guide the young players on the court. But Horford only played in 28 games so he was never able to truly make an impact. 

There was a mutual decision between Horford and the organization to shut him down for the final 28 games of the season so that the team could play their younger players. When he played, Horford was solid with averages of 14.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game. He shot a career-low 45 percent from the field and looked a couple of steps slower defensively. Horford is owed over $26.8 million in each of the next two seasons and his production does not warrant that kind of money.

What’s Next?

The Thunder have the fourth-best odds to land the top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. They also have the rights to either the Miami Heat’s first-round pick or the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick. If the Rockets land a top-four pick in the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery, then the Thunder will get Miami’s late first-round pick. If the Rockets’ pick lands outside the top four, the Thunder gets it. Landing two top-five picks in a loaded draft class would be monumental for the Thunder. Cade Cunningham, Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Suggs, and Evan Mobley would all be nice fits on the Thunder roster. Making the right picks in this draft is the first step in the rebuild for the Thunder.

Landing a star in the 2021 NBA Draft and pairing him with Gilgeous-Alexander would give the Thunder one of the brightest futures in the NBA. Do not expect the Thunder to aggressively pursue marquee names in free agency, they are an organization that builds primarily through the draft. The team has the rights to multiple first-round picks in the next six NBA drafts. The Thunder will have to decide what to do with Horford and his contract. At 35 years old, Horford does not fit in with the youth movement in Oklahoma City. He could be used to bring in some role players but at this stage in his career, Horford may only draw a second-round pick.

With all of their core players being under 25 years of age, the Thunder should look to bring in some veterans for guidance. Putting veteran role players around their young core will speed up the development process. Coach Daigneault showed that he is the coach of the future. A good draft paired with quality free-agent additions could put the Thunder in the position to exceed expectations next season.

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