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Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Season Preview 2019-20: Is it a rebuild or a reload for the Oklahoma City Thunder?

#OKC

With the 2019-20 NBA season quickly approaching, we're rolling out 30 Teams in 30 Days. Between now and opening night, we'll dedicate one day to each team in the league.

Today, we're looking at the Oklahoma City Thunder.

2018-19 season record

49-33 (6th in the Western Conference)

Projected 2019-20 season record

32-50 (13th in the Western Conference)

Notable additions

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (trade)

Chris Paul (trade)

Danilo Gallinari (trade)

Mike Muscala (free agency)

Justin Patton (free agency)

Darius Bazley (draft, via trade with Memphis Grizzlies)

Notable departures

Russell Westbrook (trade)

Paul George (trade)

Jerami Grant (trade)

Markieff Morris (free agency)

Patrick Patterson (free agency)

Jawun Evans (free agency)

Raymond Felton (free agency)

Depth Chart

Starter 2nd 3rd 4th
PG Chris Paul Dennis Schroder Abdul Gaddy
SG Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Terrance Ferguson Hamidou Diallo Luguentz Dort
SF Andre Roberson Abdel Nader Deonte Burton Darius Bazley
PF Danilo Gallinari Mike Muscala
C Steven Adams Nerlens Noel Justin Patton Eric Moreland

3 key storylines

What to do with Chris Paul?

Chris Paul was once the best point guard in the NBA. He's not that anymore. What he is, however, is a really nice point guard, one good enough to help a team win a championship. The problem is the Thunder aren't that team, and that's the team that he's currently on.

The best-case scenario for both CP3 and the Thunder is for him to be playing somewhere else in the league. It's no secret that the Thunder were already looking to trade him in the offseason to continue their rebuild, but at age 34 - already slowing down and with $44 million dollars coming his way in 2021-22 should he pick up his player option (which he almost certainly will) - trading Paul isn't going to be easy.

So the Thunder have to hope Paul can return to being one of the best point guards in the league for teams to be interested in trading for him. That's going to come at the expense of Oklahoma City developing their young core - under the guise of mentorship.

The bottom line here is this: CP3 has to perform well in the first three months of the season, otherwise he and the Thunder are likely stuck with each other. And as the years go by it will be harder and harder to trade an ageing point guard who's going to be making more than half of your entire roster.

Can SGA make the second-year leap?

Anyone who's watched any minute of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander knows the 21-year-old can play. There is a smoothness and confidence in his game that is unteachable. SGA is as cool on the floor as he is off of it. He's the type of point guard fans want running their team. When Shai's at the wheel of your offence, you'll rarely be caught speeding or driving recklessly - he's always in control.

That's why the Thunder traded for him alongside the millions of draft picks they got in return from the Clippers in exchange for Paul George. They believe SGA can be the point guard of their future, but how long will that take?

When you look at Gilgeous-Alexander's rookie numbers, they won't jump off the page at you but they do enough to intrigue you. With more shots available to him in OKC, can he continue to shoot 37% from three? With his usage rate set to increase, can he continue to keep his turnovers below 2.0 per game? With more responsibility on the defensive end, can he continue to improve on that end of the floor?

SGA is going to be a solid point guard in the NBA for a long time, but he now has the added pressure of being one of the cornerstones of a franchise that hasn't missed the playoffs much in their existence. Oklahoma City will get back to the playoffs one day, but that will only happen once Shai Gilgeous-Alexander becomes the player everyone expects him to be. A giant leap from SGA in his sophomore can accelerate that playoff timeline.

Are we sleeping on Sam Presti?

When Sam Presti shocked the NBA universe by sending Paul George to the Clippers in exchange for a record amount of draft picks, most assumed that the Thunder were going all-in on a rebuild. That was later all but confirmed when Presti sent the face of the franchise Russell Westbrook to the Rockets.

We in the NBA world assume that the Thunder are just going to blow it up for a rebuild. It makes sense, right? As I mentioned above, Chris Paul isn't getting any younger. Danillo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder aren't exactly franchise players. SGA and Terrence Ferguson aren't ready to be the guys - yet. So it makes sense, blow it up and try rebuilding through the draft.

But what if there's another plan?

When Presti penned a letter to the Thunder fans this summer, he made it clear that expecting OKC to sign big-time free agents isn't realistic.

"Despite our city's rapid rise and growth, Oklahoma City remains the second-smallest market in the NBA," he said. "While this brings many benefits, it also poses strategic challenges. Given the way the league's system is designed, small-market teams operate with significant disadvantages. There is no reason to pretend otherwise"

So rebuilding would likely happen through the draft for Presti and the Thunder. But that takes time and in today's NBA, time isn't always on a general manager's side.

OKC has 15 first-round picks between next spring and 2026. One thing that NBA teams value as much as a franchise player is first-round picks. With the NBA as balanced as it's ever been, we could see a scenario where a team like the Thunder are really only a piece or two away from being back in playoff or even championship contention. If no one wants to trade for CP3, why not find players who want to play with him? What if Bradley Beal were available, how many first-rounders would it take to get him? How many would it take to pry Kevin Love away from Cleveland?

The Thunder are well-equipped to build for the future through the draft. There's no doubt about that. But they also have a treasure chest waiting to throw into any trade for a star. We know that Presti isn't afraid to take chances, especially on stars in the last year of their deals. Maybe the Thunder's rebuild will actually be a reload.

Scared money don't make none.

5 games to watch

Oct. 27 vs. Golden State Warriors

The rivalry certainly isn't the same as it was when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were involved, but the Warriors still have parts of the team that has terrorized the Western Conference the last five season. It's a first early test for the new-look Thunder.

Oct. 28 at Houston Rockets

The Chris Paul return game. Granted, it will be Russell Westbrook's first game against his former team as well, but the emotional return to OKC will come later in the season. So this is about CP3 proving to everyone in Houston he's still got a lot to offer and that they made a mistake in trading him away.

Nov. 22 vs. Los Angeles Lakers

The second half of a rare home-and-home series with the Lakers and the first time Chesapeake Energy Arena gets to see the new-look Lakers up close and personal.

Dec. 11 at Sacramento Kings

If the Thunder want to maintain their playoff status, they'll have to beat up-and-coming teams like the Kings. This will be the first of three meetings between Sacramento and OKC. A win here can go a long way.

Jan. 9 vs. Houston Rockets

The Russell Westbrook return game will be the most emotional night in Thunder franchise history. Get your tissues ready.

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