The OKC Thunder have the best young core in basketball, but that doesn’t mean success will come immediately. While there is no shortage of reasons to be excited about this era of Thunder basketball, expectations may be too high for next season.
A thrilling and unexpectedly successful 2022-23 season ended a win shy of the playoffs. With 2022 second-overall pick Chet Holmgren returning, it’s understandable to see how another substantial jump could occur. However, the western conference is a gauntlet that a young team like the Thunder could struggle to navigate.
The OKC Thunder will be a play-in team during the 2023-24 season.
Holmgren’s impact will immediately raise the OKC Thunder’s ceiling on both ends. However, his defensive ability could turn the Thunder into an elite defense after finishing last season in the middle of the pack. Last season’s top two defenses, Memphis and Cleveland, each have young rim protectors and may show a glimpse of how the OKC Thunder will look with Holmgren.
Of course, the OKC Thunder’s success will still largely fall on the shoulders of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. After leading the OKC Thunder to the play-in tournament last season, he earned first-team all-NBA honors and was selected to his first all-star game.
Even with the star SGA has become, the Thunder’s performance in games he missed may be the biggest reason for optimism.
In 14 games where Gilgeous-Alexander was out, the OKC Thunder still faired well with a record of 7-7. Those games showed that while SGA often had to put the team on his back in fourth quarters, he still had a supporting cast that could hold its own. The Thunder’s co-stars around Gilgeous-Alexander are the reason for such high expectations.
The other half of the OKC Thunder backcourt, Josh Giddey, could determine how much OKC improves. Aside from his scoring, Giddey’s numbers from his first to second season stayed roughly the same. Last season, Giddey’s scoring jumped four points per game. Josh Giddey improved his shooting percentages at every spot, including 6% increases from the field and three-point range.
The catalyst for the Thunder’s postseason run in 2023 was Jalen Williams. The rookie-of-the-year runner-up averaged 14 points and 1.4 steals per game last year. A high flyer, Williams finished third among all rookies in dunks by throwing down just over one each game.
Giddey and Williams will ideally continue their development next season to allow the Thunder to climb the standings. However, growth is not linear, and it would be no shock if either guy took a step back as they attempt to grow their games and adjust to the addition of Holmgren.
Luguentz Dort is the longest-tenured Thunder player along with SGA and has been the anchor of OKC’s defense since he arrived. While he doesn’t necessarily fit the bill of co-star offensively, he is arguably the best perimeter defender in the league. Dort’s 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame allows him to use his strength to effectively match up with some of the league’s most prolific scorers.
Most importantly, Dort and SGA provide the Thunder with a level of consistency that the rest of the roster cannot. Although the uncertainty of how players such as Giddey and Williams will perform fuels the optimistic vision, it also feeds reason for concern.
Oklahoma City is one of the youngest teams in the league, and that inexperience will almost certainly cost it some games in a tight Western conference. Last season, only three games separated the fourth-place Suns from the ninth-place Pelicans. Not every season will have such a dramatic situation, but every game will matter.
Ultimately, the Thunder’s potential lack of improvement in the standings will stem from how the team’s above them fair. To clinch a playoff spot through 82 games, the OKC Thunder will need to jump four teams who finished ahead of them and stay ahead of the Mavericks.
With the exception of the Memphis Grizzlies, none of the teams above the Thunder had an offseason that would lead to a significant decrease in wins. Most of those teams made moves to get better or at least stay in a similar spot. Meanwhile, teams such as the Pelicans, Clippers, and Timberwolves could see major improvement if their stars stay on the floor.
A large jump is possible if the OKC Thunder can stay healthy and see steady improvement from the young core. However, a play-in appearance could be in the cards with the landscape of the West and the typical growing pains a young team goes through. Making the play-in would still be a successful season and a significant step forward for this era of OKC basketball.