OKC Thunder: 10 young cores who offer templates for rebuilding

OKC Thunder rebuild Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) celebrates with Jaylen Brown (7) : Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
OKC Thunder rebuild Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) celebrates with Jaylen Brown (7) : Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports /
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The OKC Thunder has ample options to follow when it comes to rebuilding based on the example set by teams with young cores.

The 2020-21 NBA season is underway and the OKC Thunder arrive at this campaign with a very different mindset than the prior dozen campaigns.

Varying descriptions will be used to describe this iteration of the club and its objectives including resiliency, rebuild, and tank. The one undisputed fact is the OKC Thunder are emphasizing youth both in terms of developing the young core and via the myriad of draft picks the franchise will convert in the next seven years.

For the second year running The Ringer compiled a power ranking list of all 30 team’s young cores. The analysis took into account players on every team age 25 and under. The OKC Thunder took the 19th position last year.

This year the Thunder improved to rank 13th on Zach Kram’s list. While this position is a vast improvement it should be noted the rankings don’t take into account all the incoming draft picks.

In evaluating the 30 teams Kram only considers roster players who’ll be 25 (mid-way through this season) or are younger. He then used the statistical projections from FiveThirtyEight. Specifically, the player comparison stats, although clearly there is ample room for variance.

For example, it’s unlikely a player like Pascal Siakam was projected to experience the huge leap he took two seasons ago. Likewise, a high draft pick who fails to meet expectations (like Markelle Fultz) would start off with strong projections simply based on his top draft position.

In other words, a player like Aleksej Pokusevski who so little is known about and is a big swing – big risk selection doesn’t necessarily project high in the initial projections.

Of the 10 player comparisons for him, only two are above average. Mind you a two in ten chance of being special is probably a risk Sam Presti or any die-hard Thunder fan would take every time. Especially since one of those player comparisons is Giannis Antetokounmpo!

The other metric listed is WAR (wins above replacement) although Kram puts less emphasis on this and even where the team is seeded focusing more on the “range” or the tier where they are seeded.

"WAR: 76.6 Best under-25 player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (28.7) The Thunder’s ranking still feels a bit like a shrug because so much of their future rests in draft picks rather than players on the current roster. Still, this is an important developmental campaign for the team because the four starters next to Al Horford are all in the U25 bracket, ready for vastly increased responsibilities this season compared to last. Gilgeous-Alexander remains OKC’s clear best young player; joining him with a double-digit WAR projection is cult playoff hero Luguentz Dort (12.1)."

The four players Kram is referring to are SGA, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, and Hamidou Diallo. The Ringer scribe concedes this seeding “is a bit like a shrug” because of the loaded Thunder draft closet.

To wit, over the next seven seasons, the club could conceivably have 18 first-round draft picks. Many of these picks have lottery protections (picks 1 – 14) while others like the Rockets picks only have upper lottery protection (1 to 4).

TI can’t really blame Kram for the shrug because this truly is unprecedented territory and the likelihood of the Thunder keeping and conveying all 18 of those picks seems far-fetched.

Furthermore, outside factors can easily influence and shift the situation. For example, let’s assume James Harden gets his way and is traded. While that seems like an inevitability what isn’t known is how the Rockets will be impacted. They could get back a haul of players and remain relevant or they could equally elect to take draft picks or trade any assets they receive and take a similar path to what the Thunder are doing.

If Rockets’ GM Raphael Stone takes the latter path, it can dramatically impact OKC. Houston could retain picks earmarked for the Thunder if they finish 27th or lower. Conversely, the Thunder could greatly benefit if Houston became a lottery team but finished 26th or higher.

In all fairness to Kram, the Thunder situation is unprecedented. Everyone has Sam Presti to thank for essentially rewriting the book on how teams dive into rebuilding. Granted the Paul George trade was an outlier because the Clippers viewed everything they gave up as part of the cost to lock in Kawhi Leonard. But, then Presti outmaneuvered Daryl Morey in the Westbrook – Paul trade.

This offseason, Presti upped the ante through a concerned dismantling of the core combined with continued trades for the assets that the core netted. It’s become a running joke in the NBA that Sam Presti will essentially just own one of the upcoming drafts with all the picks but he truly has changed how teams look at approaching a rebuild. Albeit, setting the standard and then having another team replicate it is easier said than done.

Of the teams in the upper tier of Kram’s list, there are very specific strategies those clubs used to restructure. We’re diving into the teams Kram ranked in those top ten positions with a view to the specific strategies and analyzing which method would behoove the OKC Thunder to pursue.