Thunder

The Thunder Think They Have it Figured Out

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The 2023-24 season for the Oklahoma City Thunder was nothing short of a success.

The Thunder finished with the West’s best record in the regular season at 57-25, but lost in heartbreaking fashion to the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs subsequently made their first appearance in the NBA Finals since 2011.

As a fan, it is always difficult to appreciate a season immediately after a soul-crushing playoff loss, but the Thunder did exactly what General Manager Sam Presti planned for his team to do— have a powerful arrival, not just an appearance, into postseason basketball.

Strong Beginnings

This season for the Oklahoma City Thunder was just the blueprint for a potential powerhouse in the Western Conference.

Built around MVP finalist Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder show how a small market can build a contender. The front office has a strategic combination of intelligent draft selections in the lottery, developing contributors from two-way contracts, and getting their franchise star and historic draft compensation for 2019 MVP finalist Paul George.

This is what built this team to the top seed it was in 2024 and the powerhouse they are set to become.

A Star is Born

Rookie phenom Chet Holmgren’s importance to the Thunder could not be overstated.

The addition of Holmgren to the 2022-23 Thunder, who looked numerous times like it was only a center away from contention, may have been the biggest reason for their success this season.

Holmgren’s rookie campaign may have been overshadowed by the monster that is rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama, but it was nothing short of special. Holmgren averaged 16.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks along with 53/37/79 shooting splits in the regular season.

Although his percentages dipped in the playoffs, he led the playoffs in blocks per game with 2.5 to this point. The Thunder were two points better with Holmgren on the court vs off in the regular season, but a whopping 14.1 points better in the playoffs. This is incredible impact for any player, let alone a rookie.

“MVP?”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s continued improvement and maturity as a basketball player has been especially beneficial to the rebuilding project Sam Presti has had in store for the Thunder.

Gilgeous-Alexander, since being brought in from Los Angeles, has gone from the young second-year player learning from a future Hall-of-Famer to someone who could potentially be in Springfield, Massachusetts himself one day.

His season was definitely spectacular. SGA averaged 30.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.2 assists along with 2.0 steals and 0.9 blocks per game on the defensive end.

He also had a 63.6 true shooting percentage, and the Thunder were 11.4 points better with Shai on the court during the regular season. His counting stats were almost identical in the postseason, but his two-point percentage was down while his three-point percentage was up.

An overall solid debut as a first option in the playoffs.

Inexperience Leads to Growth

Being a young team — the youngest number one seed in NBA history to be exact — you would expect a lack of experience to be the reason for a playoff exit.

Whether it was coaching and rotations or the players on the court, the Thunder’s experience (or lack of) showed in the second round against the Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving-led Mavericks. Whether it be Coach of the Year Mark Daigneault’s stubbornness of waiting until Game 5 to bench the struggling Josh Giddey, who immediately seemed to be a bad matchup against the Mavs’ defense, or the head-scratching decision of closing with the struggling Jaylin Williams in the deciding one-point loss of Game 6.

Even young stars Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren had their fair share of struggles on offense in the series against the Mavericks.

After averaging 21.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.0 assists while shooting 53% from the field in the first round against the Pelicans, JDub’s stats tanked in the second round. Williams averaged 17.0 points on 42% from the field against Dallas, while the rebounds and assists stayed about the same. Williams’ series against Dallas was not “bad” by any means, but it truly was a major drop off for the second option in a playoff series.

The young Thunder will use this experience in the postseason as a stepping stone to not only be more prepared for future playoff environments but for the front office to realize what they truly have to adjust the roster accordingly year by year.

What’s to Come?

The Thunder have the 12th pick in the upcoming draft which has some history to it, being the same spot Jalen Williams was selected at just two years ago.

Will they use this pick on a prospect or trade it for a veteran contributor or future assets? The Thunder have crucial decisions to make as well, whether it be to extend certain players or to make a move for another star, trading mainstays in the process.

This offseason will be one of the first difficult moments in the process of this rebuild and current core.

About Cody Burton

Student at West Virginia University

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