Whenever a team fully breaks out and soars into championship contention, it is always fun to pinpoint the first embers of what is now an inferno ready to engulf the rest of the league. What was the turning point? What needed to happen for promise to morph into greatness? This 2022-23 season, more specifically the NBA Play-In Tournament might where it all started for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now, by no means am I anointing this 40-42 team as the next dynasty, but they have the foundation necessary to realistically envision an NBA title in their future. And that pursuit could begin sooner than you think.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander just had an All-NBA First Team type of season. He will be 25 years old by the start of next season. Josh Giddey has already become a premier playmaker in the league. He is just 20. Jalen Williams’ versatility and efficiency on both ends of the floor will earn him NBA All-Rookie First Team honors. Lugentz Dort is one of the best at guarding superstars. They are 22 and 23 years old, respectively.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti has printed a blueprint that has proven successful for him and the past and has reaped fruitful results for many organizations across all sports. Build the foundation in-house (SGA was acquired after his rookie campaign). This team is growing together at a rapid rate, surprising most fans by coming within one game of a postseason berth. However, that one game versus the Minnesota Timberwolves showed just how far they still have to go until they reach the heights I am prognosticating for them.
More importantly, it exposed their biggest flaws. Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert flashed the cohesion and dominance the franchise had hoped for when they unconventionally joined the two bigs together. OKC was powerless inside in all facets of the game. The two All-Stars played off each other in the low post on offense and thwarted multiple fastbreak drives to the basket on defense.
The result was a 120-95 beatdown that forced the Thunder to live more on the 3-point line, which is another area in need of improvement. They were 13-of-40 (32.5 percent). The other glaring weakness that revealed itself Friday night was inexperience. This unexpected run, which included almost twice as many wins as last season and a thrilling mini-upset over the New Orleans Pelicans in their first NBA Play-In game, will help remedy that problem. The other two will need to be handled in the offseason.
But which one should be their priority? With an overall satisfying season now in the books, here is the biggest need the budding Thunder must address in the 2023 NBA offseason.
Biggest need for Thunder is a center
OKC shoots 35.6 percent from 3-point land, which ranks in the bottom half of the NBA. That type of perimeter production does not fly anymore. The problem, though, is that it will be trickier to upgrade since it is the weakness for most of the starting lineup. Jalen Williams is the only one who eclipses 35 percent. Therefore, that is best addressed via individual progression.
That then takes us to the low post, where the roster is particularly thin. Jaylin Williams (not to be confused with his teammate of same name) stepped up admirably down the stretch, but is best suited as a rotation guy. Alright, I’ve danced around this long enough. Yes, 2022 No.2 overall prick Chet Holmgren is expected to be recovered from foot surgery by the start of next season. Yes, he fills the aforementioned holes on this team if his one year at Gonzaga is any indication. But he needs to come with an insurance policy.
And that is where Presti’s savvy comes in. With the No. 11 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, the Thunder can find a solid talent to bolster up their frontcourt. Or they can look to free agency and try to win a bidding war over an established center like Jakob Poeltl or Brook Lopez. That option would also infuse a much-needed veteran presence to head coach Mark Daigneault’s group. Those are two men who will not be so easily pushed around by more imposing big men like Towns and Gobert.
It is unclear if the same can be said for Holmgren. Jumping on the “he’s too skinny” bandwagon is not something I take any pride in doing, but there are valid concerns that the highly skilled 20-year-old will struggle to overpower NBA bigs. He has clearly put in some work to disprove that notion, as evidenced by his more filled-out frame, courtesy of NBA Memes. He is still unlikely to be a bruiser down low, however.
The picture on the left is Chet Holmgren during summer league and the right pic is from yesterday.
Looks like he has added some muscle mass to his frame pic.twitter.com/M6OkyABLEW
— NBA Memes (@NBAMemes) April 5, 2023
And he doesn’t necessarily need to be. Holmgren can space the floor with a deft shooting stroke and really open up the OKC offense. If the organization feels it makes little sense to add a upper-echelon center in the market, then someone like Mason Plumlee or Thomas Bryant could also have a solid impact on this team’s interior defense and physicality.
The fact that little tweaking can be done the starting lineup shows just how much potential the Thunder have on their roster. They will need to make room for another key low post player, though. The difference could be monumental when we watch next year’s NBA Playoffs.
OKC can pat itself on the back for a quick rebuild, but now construction for a bonafide Western Conference contender begins in the 2023 NBA offseason.
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