Back in the Bubble: Can the Thunder make a surprise run?

The NBA is back. Kind of.

The league is facing their version of a new normal. In their words, it’s a whole new game for everyone. What wonders will the Disney Bubble bring to the teams, players, fans and even the league itself?

When Oklahoma City traded away Paul George and Russell Westbrook last summer, much was said about the mother lode of assets they received — and rightfully so! But while the future looked bright, the team left in its wake wasn’t particularly interesting, to put it nicely.

Six-foot point guards like Chris Paul tend to age poorly in their mid-thirties — especially with an injury history as extensive as his. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seemed like a star in-the-making, not one in the present. The rest of the team’s key veterans (Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schröder) had little left on their deals, making them prime trade fodder instead of long-term pieces. 

This iteration of the Thunder had “mediocre” written all over them. OKC seemed destined to be stuck in No Man’s Land: too good to snag a high draft pick, but not competent enough to make the playoffs. 

For a while, they were trending towards that exact path with a 6-11 record to begin the season. They were average on defense and terrible on offense, sporting a shot profile straight from a DeMar DeRozan fever dream: lots of midrange jumpers and not enough threes. 

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The knee-jerk fix would’ve been to sprinkle some modernity — more threes and less long twos — to their shot diet. But the Thunder doubled-down on this not-so-modern style in their next 47 games, increasing their mid-range diet, shooting less from deep, and slowing down their pace even more. The result? The second-best record (34-13) in the entire league since their 6-11 start. 

So what exactly happened? They obviously didn’t fundamentally shift their playing style. And aside from Dennis Schröder, who has been averaging almost 21 a game since their awful start (he averaged 14.8 in the first 17 games), nobody made a drastic leap.

Instead, it was the “boring” stuff that sparked OKC’s resurgence: They settled into an identity, stuck to their roles, and played towards their strengths. These may seem like elementary things, but there simply aren’t many teams that know exactly who they are.

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Unsurprisingly, the tone-setter for this smart, pick-and-roll-heavy OKC team is Chris Paul, one of the most brilliant pick-and-roll maestros in league history. This has been the Point God’s finest season since his Clipper days. He looks infinitely more comfortable commandeering possessions at the driver’s seat — a far cry from his Houston days sharing the rock with James Harden. 

With Paul on the floor, the Thunder’s offensive rating jumps from 103.3, worse than the bottom-ranked Golden State attack, to 116.9, better than the league-best Dallas offense. That’s insane. Even guys like Giannis (+5.8), Kawhi (+9.7), Harden (+2.6) and LeBron (+8.1) don’t come close to CP3’s on-off impact on offense.

It speaks to the effectiveness of Paul’s slow and deliberate style of play. He’s adept as ever in burning defenders on the pick and roll. And it’s chicken dinner if bigs switch or sag back; he’ll lull them to sleep with a never ending barrage of hesitations and crossovers. Watching CP3 dribble his way to his patented, leaning mid-range J is like re-watching your favorite TV comedy — you’ve heard the same joke a million times but still laugh when it hits.

And it’s not just CP3 who is flourishing in this offense. Schröder is having his best-ever season and is shooting an incredible 48.1% from the midrange on a high number of attempts. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the breakout stars this season, is thriving with his herky-jerky half-court craft. Even Gallo, who has been miscast as a wing in his previous stops, has prospered as a full-time four screening and spotting up around the three guards.

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This grind-out, veteran-led playing style looks to sustain in the bubble (or ballroom…?) Playoffs. They have one of the slowest paces in the league, draw a ton of free throws, and are excellent in taking care of the ball — perfect when the game bogs down in the heat (or playoffs. Oh, and they’re one of the greatest clutch teams in the history of the NBA. (Here’s a crazy stat: they are 24-5 in games decided in the clutch since late November.) They certainly have the tools to match up well with one of Houston, Denver, Utah, or Dallas in the first round.

But can they go deep into the Playoffs and challenge one of the LA teams? Probably not. For all their consistency, this OKC team doesn’t have as high of a ceiling compared to their postseason counterparts. There’s no switch to flip or break-in-case-of-emergency tactic, like Giannis Antetokounmpo at center for the Bucks or LeBron James and Anthony Davis surrounded by three shooters for the Lakers. Unless CP3 turns back the clock (his Playoff numbers are wild) and one of the LA stars gets injured, OKC doesn’t have a realistic shot of making the Western Conference Finals.

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For a team projected to win 33 games, a Second Round exit would be a pretty good outcome for the season. But given the cold and calculated decision-making of OKC GM Sam Presti, even a surprise quarter-final run wouldn’t nudge him to change course and load up. Gallinari will probably fetch a hefty contract elsewhere, and if they get the right offer, he would let go of Schröder or Adams. And even if everyone returns, there is no telling if CP3 will be the same player at age 36. 

So savor this team while you can, OKC fans. This will probably be the best Thunder squad in a while, or at least until SGA turns into a bonafide superstar alongside their gazillion other future assets. For all the extreme highs and lows of the Westbrook-Durant/George teams of the past, the steadiness of this Chris Paul-led Thunder team is a refreshing change of pace — and most importantly — loads of fun to watch.

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