Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): The Thunder are going to look very different next season. Gone are Paul George and Russell Westbrook, with the franchise receiving a historic amount of future draft picks, plus Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, in return for the two superstars this offseason.
With how loaded the Western Conference is expected to be, the Thunder aren't projected to be much of a factor next season. (FiveThirtyEight, for example, has them missing the playoffs with 41 wins, whereas FanDuel has their win total even lower, at 32.5).
Is that fair or are we sleeping on this team?
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): 32.5 is disrespectful. I think 41 wins is closer to where they'll actually be. This team still has talent, and with guys like Dennis Schroder, Andre Roberson, Terrence Ferguson and Nerlens Noel off the bench, they still have some depth too.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): I think that's the prevailing concern, right? It's so hard to gauge what we'll see from these players because it's a very new circumstance for pretty much all of them. They won 49 last season and lost two All-NBA performers. I see them in the middle of those projections, so around 37 or 38 wins.
Don't get me wrong, though. This is a prideful group and I definitely see them hanging around in a lot of games, I'm just worried they won't have what it takes to get over the hump on a lot of nights.
Rafferty: I think they have the talent to compete for a playoff spot. I could see Paul having a bounce-back year, they have pieces that complement each other well and they should be pretty nasty defensively. (Good luck scoring consistently against Paul, SGA, Roberson and Steven Adams).
MORE: Why everyone is wrong about Chris Paul
My biggest concern is injuries. Neither Paul nor Gallinari have the cleanest bill of health and the Thunder are going to be relying on them to carry the load offensively. Even if one of them misses an extended period of time, they could be in big trouble.
Irving: And if they were to both miss time at the same time ... well, then I could see where that 32.5 wins total projection comes in.
Defensively, they'll be fine. It's the offence that concerns me. Will they be able to keep up with some of the high-powered offences in the West with Gallinari, CP3 and Schroder/SGA as their leading scorers?
McGregor: Not only that, but let's say they hang around with a team because of their defensive prowess. Late game and you're OKC, you need a bucket. Whose hands do you want the ball in? Gallo?
For what it's worth, he was 15-for-42 last season in clutch situations, per NBA.com Stats.
Rafferty: Paul was even worse. He scored a total of 23 clutch points on 4-for-16 shooting from the field, including 0-for-9 from the 3-point line.
That's ... not great.
Even so, I'd still trust Paul more than anyone else in those situations.
McGregor: I'm with you there, especially if CP has the bounce-back year you alluded to. That, or maybe Shai can emerge as that guy in Year 2? He's got a lot of experience considering he's just 21-years-old and is fresh off of his rookie season.
Irving: I'm extremely high on Shai. He was a 20-year-old rookie playing like a five-year veteran for the Clippers last season. I also believe he'll take another step forward offensively with more opportunity in OKC this year, but I'm not sure he can be the go-to guy down the stretch of big games for a team hoping to make the playoffs yet.
At the same time, though, would you say OKC is playing with house money this season? They stockpiled draft picks with the trades they made. They're clearly planning for the long-term even if they do still have some pieces to compete in the short-term. How important is winning to them right now?
McGregor: It's almost similar to last year's Clippers, no? I'd venture to say they have slightly less established talent, but CP, Adams, Gallinari and Schroder are nothing to scoff at. Shai, Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo are all 21 and Darius Bazley just turned 19-years-old.
They've got young talent on the same developmental timeline and plenty of picks to continue to build. They're not in a bad spot by any means. I'd say wins and losses are largely inconsequential, as the focus now should be building and establishing a culture as they usher in a new era of OKC basketball.
Rafferty: It's going to be fascinating to see what happens with Paul. He's got to be the biggest variable. If he stays healthy and returns to the player he was even two seasons ago, I think we all agree that they have a good chance of being competitive in the West. However, with him playing well could also be what gets him traded. In which case, the Thunder would almost certainly be committing to a rebuild.
Irving: He's without a doubt the biggest variable, but I think you're right about if he's playing well, he'll likely become trade bait to a competitor at the deadline. Paul would have to be playing so well that OKC would be a top-four seed around deadline time in order for them to even consider holding on to him, right? If they're floating around the 6-to-10 range, fighting for a bottom playoff spot, they may as well move him and continue to focus on the long-term by adding more future assets.
McGregor: A little different given their age, but that reminds me of the Clips with Tobias Harris last season. Moved him for some of the assets that led to us having this conversation now about OKC. History would show that making that move is probably the best long-term solution.
MORE: Pros and cons of trading for Chris Paul
Rafferty: So what about the short term? What's the best-case scenario for the Thunder next season?
Irving: I think the best-case scenario for the short term is exactly what we were just talking about - CP3 stays healthy and plays well enough that he becomes a valuable trade asset at the deadline and they move him to add more pieces for the future.
Along with that, you'd like to see SGA really emerge as the bright spot of the future of the franchise if you're an OKC fan. Stepping up in big games, taking another leap offensively as a scorer and playmaker and continuing his progression as an elite on-ball defender.
I think you could consider that a successful season after moving your two franchise players and committing to a rebuild.
McGregor: I'm just going to stick with the theme that I've gone with multiple times already and say that I think the absolute best-case scenario would be a season that mirrors that of the Clippers last year.
Surprise teams by winning, see enough production from your established talent to stockpile more future assets, continue to win and establish a culture. I don't think it can translate to a playoff berth in a Western Conference as unforgiving as this one stands to be, but stranger things have happened.
A few bounces and this team could be the eighth seed.
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