The Oklahoma City Thunder kicked off their season in dramatic fashion on Saturday night as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a go ahead shot with just 1.4 seconds to go to put the Thunder on top of the Charlotte Hornets 109-107.
The Future is Bright
The Thunder looks very different this season, and the next generation of Oklahoma City basketball has officially begun. OKC is tied as the 10th-youngest team in the league, and if you take Al Horford, George Hill, and Trevor Ariza out of the mix, the average age makes OKC one of the youngest.
Youth isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Take a look at the 3 young guns in the starting lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22 years old), Luguentz Dort (21 years old), and Darius Bazley (20 years old) are the future of the organization. All 3 were significant contributors to the Thunder by the end of last season in the Bubble, and now they are poised to have an even bigger impact. Their individual outputs against the Hornets were plenty of proof.
SGA kicked off his third year in the NBA on a solid note as he finished with 24 points on 8-of-20 (40.0%) from the field. He struggled from 3, knocking down just 1-of-6 (16.7%), but he nearly had a triple-double, handing out 9 assists and pulling down 7 rebounds.
Luguentz Dort made his way into the hearts of Thunder fans starting back in February with his defensive abilities, and he quickly earned a staying spot in the starting lineup. His defense is what is going to be the most consistent aspect of his game, but he’s proven on a number of occasions that he has the ability to score as well.
Tonight, Dort had an impact on both ends of the floor as he finished the game with 15 points on 5-of-12 (41.7%) from the floor to go along with 5 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, and a pretty incredible block.
Darius Bazley quickly became one of my favorite players last season. His story is unique, and his growth between the postponement of the NBA season in March to the start of the Bubble was impressive. Prior to the season opener, I made it clear that he was the guy I was most excited to watch this season, and he did not disappoint against the Hornets.
Bazley racked up a double-double with 15 points on 7-of-12 (58.3%) shooting and 10 rebounds, and he also had 2 blocks on the defensive end of the court.
There is plenty of young talent to go around on this roster, but the trio of SGA, Dort, and Bazley are going to be the group to watch moving forward.
Mike Muscala: Trade Bait?
In his first season with the Thunder last year, Mike Muscala was a bit underwhelming. He came in with a reputation of knocking down corner 3s while also being a decent defender. Unfortunately, he did not get to do a lot of that as he averaged just a little over 12 minutes in 42 appearances.
Muscala is a bit slow for a power forward in today’s NBA, but he’s also a little undersized to truly play the center position. Still, he’s a skilled player who gives complete effort every time he steps on the floor.
I wanted Muscala to get more play time last February when Darius Bazley was injured, but it never really happened. Coming into this season, he’s one of the older players on the Thunder roster, and he was the first player off the OKC bench against the Hornets.
He took full advantage of the opportunity as he finished the game with 14 points on 5-of-8 (62.5%) from the floor, including 2-of-4 (50.0%) from three. He also had 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block.
Muscala is the type of player that a number of contenders may want to make a run at. He can knock down threes consistently, he’s a high-energy guy, and he can hold his own on defense. The fact of the matter is that he’s better suited for a team that’s looking to win, not a team that’s more or less trying to tank, and at 29 years old, he’s not getting any younger.
I believe that Muscala loves playing for the Thunder, and I’m personally a big fan of the guy. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Presti ends up moving him by the trade deadline.
Winning is Not the Focus
At this point, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that this season is not about winning so much as it is about player development and improvement. This roster is not at all one put together with the playoffs in mind, and with the arsenal of draft picks already in OKC’s back pocket, it just makes sense that losing games now means winning games in the future.
Even though winning is not the goal per se, that does not mean that players are actively looking to lose. The Thunder has plenty of talent, particularly in the starting five, and you can guarantee that they are going to give their absolute best. This is what they do for a living, so it won’t help anyone, particularly themselves, if they just give up and flat out don’t play.
Despite the rough finish against the Hornets, these guys definitely want to win games, and that was apparent as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wrapped the game up with his pretty go-ahead bucket.
Before long, though, losses will come, and the blame has to fall on someone, and its not Coach Daigneault or the players. If you want to be mad about the “losing mentality,” then blame Sam Presti and the organization’s front office. They are going to continue to make decisions that focus on the longterm success of the team, and if you have a problem with that, then you probably should just go ahead and bail on the Thunder now. Otherwise, just sit back, relax, and join the rest of us as we enjoy a stress-free season that comes as a result of no pressure on actively winning games.
Thunder Unsung Hero of the Game
Lost in the shuffle of SGA’s game winner, newcomer George Hill had an outstanding debut in a Thunder uniform. Hill finished the night with 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists, and he was nearly perfect shooting the ball. He made 8-of-9 (88.9%) from the floor—including 4-of-4 from three (100.0%)—and especially important was the timeliness of his shots.
I’m not sure about Hill’s future with the Thunder, as he is another guy who could warrant some attention from a number of contenders, but as long as he’s here, he will undoubtedly give his best effort every game as a veteran both on the court and off it.