The Oklahoma City Thunder have hardly missed a beat after a summer that saw them trade their two franchise cornerstones.
After trading Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers and Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets over the offseason, many in the NBA world thought the Thunder were on the verge of a rebuild.
Instead, nearly halfway through the NBA season, OKC sits seventh in the Western Conference at 21-16, on pace to win 46 games. They've won 10 of their last 12 games and own the NBA's third-best record since December 1 at 14-5.
Of course, what the Thunder got back in the George and Westbrook trades has mattered significantly to their success this season. For George, the Thunder received veteran forward Danilo Gallinari and talented second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and for Westbrook, they received Chris Paul. In both deals, they also received a bounty of draft picks.
There was some thought that the Thunder could be a competent, competitive team with their current core, but many in the NBA world assumed they would continue to tear-down their roster. Paul was reportedly shopped once he landed in Oklahoma City, and veterans like Gallinari and center Steven Adams could likely fetch more young players and draft assets.
Instead, the Thunder have kept their team together, and a mix of proven veterans and young players make them a surprise through the first half of the season.
Chris Paul is still good
Because of his age (34) and his burdensome salary ($38.5 million this year, $85 million over the next two years), there seemed to exist a belief that Paul couldn't contribute on the floor anymore.
That hasn't been true. Paul may no longer be the “Point God,” but he's averaging a tidy 16.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 6.5 assists on 47% shooting, 37% from three. The Thunder have outscored teams by 3.3 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor.
Paul can still set up teammates with the best of them:
And he likes to take over late in games, hunting mismatches and getting to his spots.
In an overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, Paul scored 20 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. For the season, the Thunder are a +96 in the fourth quarter with Paul on the floor. They wouldn't be where they are today without him.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a star in the making
The Clippers have spoken openly that they were convinced to give up their haul for Paul George because it meant landing Kawhi Leonard in free agency. They have also said the toughest part was letting go of Gilgeous-Alexander, a future star in their minds.
Sure enough, Gilgeous-Alexander has made a huge leap in his second season. He leads the Thunder in scoring with 19.8 points per game, chipping in 5 rebounds and 3 assists, as well. While his outside shot is still a work in progress, it's not as if it's broken — he is shooting 33.8% on nearly four deep attempts per game.
Gilgeous-Alexander's three-pointer will need to develop, but what has helped him score so effectively this season is that he is already a strong finisher in the paint at just 21 years old. Per Second Spectrum, 52% of Gilgeous-Alexander's points have come in the paint. Long and slippery, he already has a knack for gliding to the basket, demonstrating patience and pace beyond his years.
It will help Gilgeous-Alexander to spend his early years learning under Paul, not to mention reserve guard Dennis Schroeder, who is putting together a solid season off the bench. The Thunder have experimented with playing all three guards together, and they have thrived, outscoring opponents by a mind-boggling 27.6 points per 100 possessions in 232 minutes this season.
Draft picks are nice and essential, but there is no guarantee in any draft. Gilgeous-Alexander may very well be the most important piece the Thunder got in return for their stars this offseason.
Will the Thunder go in the opposite direction of what's expected?
While the Thunder's surge has been a pleasant surprise, some of it may not be sustainable. They haven't faced the stiffest competition, with 12 of their wins since December 1 coming against teams currently below .500.
Luck has also gone their way in close games. The Thunder rank as one of the better teams in the clutch (defined by the NBA as the last five minutes of games, with the score within five points). The Thunder own the best plus-minus in the NBA in the clutch, having outscored teams by a whopping 61 points. Since December 1, they have gone 8-1 in games decided in the clutch. Those odds are likely to swing back the other way as the season goes on.
A big question going forward is how the Thunder, internally, view this season and how they want to proceed.
The Thunder have made the playoffs nine of the last 10 seasons, a streak they'd surely like to keep going. In a small market, one dominated by football, the Thunder could risk becoming irrelevant if they went for a full-blown tear-down and rebuild.
Resisting that path could be tough, however. There have been trade rumors around Gallinari, a free agent this summer. Adams remains a valuable big man who could fetch the Thunder nice assets in return. Few teams want to be stuck in the middle of the NBA hierarchy, and the ceiling on this Thunder team is limited.
However, Oklahoma City can go the other way, too. The Thunder own as many as 15 draft picks in the next seven years — how many more assets do they need? They could instead look to improve the roster by trading some of those draft picks for win-now players. It's unclear what star players could truly be available, but an NBA GM told Business Insider over the offseason that the Thunder's treasure trove of draft picks will jump them to the front of the line any time a good player becomes available.
The Thunder were one of the busiest teams of the offseason, and they remain a team to watch in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline.