After missing the playoffs by one game last season, the OKC Thunder enter this year beaming with optimism. Their roster is far more complete now, but the Western Conference remains highly competitive. What’s the best-case scenario for this young squad based on roster additions, internal improvement, and competition?
The undersized OKC Thunder navigated last season without a towering center on the roster, and the numbers were brutal as a result. Per NBA.com, they ranked 28th in opponent offensive rebound rate, 27th in roll man points per possession, 30th in screen assists, 22nd in blocks, and 30th in FG% within eight feet of the basket. The Thunder also allowed the second-most corner three-point attempts because perimeter defenders were forced to help inside with no shot-blocker manning the paint.
What is the best-case scenario for the OKC Thunder in the 2023-24 season?
Adding some much-needed rim protection
Enter former second-overall pick Chet Holmgren, who joins the fray after missing his entire rookie season due to a foot injury. The 7’1” Gonzaga product recently dominated Summer League through his massive catch radius, impressive finishing ability, screening, rebounding, and otherworldly defense.
He immediately enhances the pick and roll’s lethality since Oklahoma City’s playmakers finally have a lob threat and adequate screener. Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, and Jalen Williams should have more space to utilize now because the opposing center must respect the lob. In contrast, the opposing guard navigates a more disruptive screen, which adds separation for the ball handler.
His outside shooting drags opposing centers out of the paint. This perfectly complements an OKC Thunder team that ranked first in drives and second in BBall Index’s Rim Shot Creation metric. Their success with Mike Muscala on the court last season displayed the impact of a three-point shooting center.
Across the 497 minutes that Gilgeous-Alexander and Muscala shared the court, Oklahoma City produced a dominant 12.9 Net Rating. When Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Jalen Williams, and Muscala shared the court for 123 minutes, they churned out a staggering 18.3 Net Rating. For context, Boston led the league last season with a 6.7 Net Rating, and the 1996 Bulls’ 13.4 Net Rating is the largest ever recorded.
Defensively, Holmgren steps into the NBA as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. His 7’6” wingspan, anticipation, timing, and mobility deem him an elite help defender who can snuff out the pick and roll.
The OKC Thunder were routinely hurt inside by the bigger, skilled centers, so Holmgren’s interior defense was sorely missed. His presence allows Oklahoma City’s guards to aggressively defend the arc and not be forced into helping inside.
Along with Holmgren, Oklahoma City adds rookies Cason Wallace and Vasilije Micic to the core rotation. Wallace was Kentucky’s lead playmaker and ranked in the 70th percentile for pick-and-roll ball handler points per possession according to Synergy.
Meanwhile, combo guard Micic averaged around five assists over his past five EuroLeague seasons. He’s a crafty playmaker with desirable court vision, so the 6’5” guard brings serious playmaking chops.
The OKC Thunder managed to rank 5th in bench Net Rating last season despite lacking a floor general, which will not be an issue anymore as Wallace and Micic step into the rotation.
Wallace’s superb off-ball defense and an excellent point-of-attack defense add yet another disruptive perimeter option for the OKC Thunder to throw at opponents.
Holmgren’s two-way skill set fills foundational weaknesses that haunted the OKC Thunder all year, especially in their play-in loss to Minnesota. Wallace and Micic radically improve an already effective bench, too, so the OKC Thunder should trot out one of the best benches in the league.
The OKC Thunder Internal Improvement is Still on Course
Adding those three pieces raises their ceiling, but internal improvement will do the same. During the 2022 off-season, Oklahoma City poached legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland from the San Antonio Spurs and saw instant results.
They jumped from a 32.3 percent from three point land and 75.6 percent at the charity stripe to a 35.6 percent beyond the arc and 80.9 at the free throw line. It wasn’t a fluke either as the shooting forms appeared more fluid and stable. What will the numbers look like after another off-season with Engelland? Even a slight increase in efficiency heavily enhances a Thunder team that pressures the rim to the highest degree.
Most of their core fall between 20 and 25 years old, so expecting talent and production leaps from several players is more than reasonable. The extent of the leap is currently unknown, but it’s a given that a leap will be made.
Overall, it’s likely that the OKC Thunder roster three future All-Stars (Giddey, Jalen Williams, Holmgren) along with Gilgeous-Alexander, giving the team a legitimate chance to beat anyone on any given night.
The best-case scenario for the OKC Thunder
The OKC Thunder are a dangerous team, but the West is extremely tough. The Nuggets and Suns are extremely likely to rack up more wins, so count them as higher seeds. Both Los Angeles teams remain superior, but injuries to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, or Paul George are definitely plausible, given their age and history. That could give Oklahoma City a real chance of passing one of them, though you can never predict injury. In a perfect world, the entire NBA remains healthy for all 82.
The only franchises left with clear-cut stronger rosters are Memphis and Golden State. However, the Grizzlies will lose All-Star Ja Morant for 25 games due to suspension, roughly 30 percent of the season. Meanwhile, Curry (35), Thompson (33), Green (33), and Paul (38) are rapidly aging and declining. Load management may sink its teeth into this veteran roster with the intention that it leaves them rested for the playoffs. Again, for a realistic best-case scenario, let’s say the OKC Thunder passes one of them. Be it by a slow start, or the Warriors not carrying to fight for every regular season game the same way a scrappy Thunder team will.
That leaves four teams above the OKC Thunder, but the obstacles are not over. Sacramento, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Dallas are all relatively equal or ahead of Oklahoma City regarding projected wins.
However, Zion Williamson’s inability to get on the floor may shred New Orleans’ case, so count them out for the sake of trying to find the best-case scenario. Dallas and Sacramento feature porous defenses, while Minnesota must navigate the clunky Towns-Gobert pairing. With this upgraded roster, there’s a chance that Oklahoma City barely surpasses all of them in wins.
Denver, Phoenix, the Lakers, Clippers, Memphis, and Golden State should secure a higher seed in a vacuum, whereas Sacramento, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Dallas are on equal footing with the OKC Thunder. If Oklahoma City receives injury luck and experiences internal improvement, their best-case scenario is reaching the playoffs as a 5th or 6th seed.
Could they win a playoff round? It’s improbable, given their opponent would be a team like the Clippers, Lakers, Grizzlies, or Warriors; however, it’s not entirely unfathomable due to this talented, deep roster. If they do reach the First Round, the realistic best-case scenario is pushing one of these franchises to six or seven games and using the series as a springboard for the 2024-25 season.
No matter what happens, though, expect this season to be highly entertaining, competitive, and bursting with player development.