Oklahoma City – For years and year when the Oklahoma City Thunder were competing for championships or prime playoff spots they would largely depend on the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, or Carmelo Anthony to get the job done. Now 4 of those guys are unquestionably first ballot Hall of Famers and Paul George can still play his way to getting to that point so that’s what they were paid to do.
However, a huge problem the Thunder were having during those times was when those guys weren’t playing super great, other guys wouldn’t step up and help get the Thunder the wins they needed. And sometimes even when they were playing out of their minds it wasn’t enough and they needed guys to step up and take them over the top which wasn’t happening.
One could argue that’s what the downfall of the Thunder was. For example, the Kevin Durant situation, he’s talked about how he didn’t feel there was enough talent around he and Russ and to an extent, he was right. Those teams weren’t set up to succeed if Russ and KD didn’t play well like we saw in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Even more so when the Thunder paired Russ with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
For years, Thunder fans begged for the Thunder to sign someone who could help the team more because the guys they were drafting weren’t cutting it. In their defense though, they weren’t drafting high but also, lots of teams were able to find gems drafting late. For instance, look at the Bulls with Jimmy Butler at 30 in 2011, Warriors with Draymond Green at 35 in 2012, Rudy Gobert at 27 in 2013, Joe Harris at 33 and Jordan Clarkson at 46 in 2014, Montrezl Harrell at 32 in 2015, and you could keep going. There were talented guys available every year that could have helped the Thunder but they didn’t pick any of them.
If the Thunder draft any of those guys that were just mentioned, do they win a championship? Who knows but they are unquestionably a better team with any of those guys.
I have a strong belief that championships are won because of the non-stars on the team. Obviously, you need stars on your team to win titles because when things get tough you want to be able to throw it to your star and tell them to make something happen. However, for the most part, you already know what you’re going to get from your stars. You already know that LeBron James, Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant are going to give you everything they have. There’s no need to question it.
What you don’t know is what you’re going to get from those others. Are they going to step up? Are they going to fold when things get tough? Can they hit a big shot when the star is doubled and has to pass out? That’s why the non-stars are important to winning titles. We’ve seen plenty of examples of this over the years. Look at Ron Artest in game 7 of the 2010 Finals where he hit the biggest shot of the game to put the Lakers up 6 to seal the game after Kobe was doubled. Everyone remembers the LeBron block in 2016 on Andre Iguodala but the most important thing about that play was the defense of JR Smith because without him effecting Iguodala’s shot there is no LeBron block and the Cavs might lose the game. Let’s go all the way back to 1997 when Michael Jordan passed out to Steve Kerr for the game winning shot that gave the Bulls their 5th title.
You can point to a non-star that has had to step up on every team that’s won every single championship in history. Whether it was in the actual championship or somewhere along the way in the playoffs, they stepped up.
The Thunder didn’t have that.
Not being able to draft guys to fill those other roles led to trying to develop the guys on their bench which is something they just couldn’t do for whatever reason. It seemed like there was a disconnect. Either the guys they were drafting weren’t good and they shouldn’t have been picked or there was something wrong in the development process along the way. It could have very well been a mix of both.
Has that issue been fixed for the Thunder now?
It sure does seem like it. But how?
The Thunder have used the G-League for exactly what it was designed to do and that’s develop your young talent. Almost every team has one but not many teams use it for what it’s designed for it. Yes, there are teams that have G-League guys that get called up but do they last? Not often so what are they using it for?
Think of the G-league like this; the NBA team is varsity and the G-League team is the JV. And that’s not to say that anyone in the G-league is a JV guy because they’re all professional basketball players playing at a very high level. Just putting in in simple terms. But, think of how a high school varsity and JV team is structured. The JV has guys that may be freshmen or sophomores that might not be ready for varsity and just need more playing time playing against bigger, stronger, and faster guys than they’re used to. The JV runs the same plays and have the same terminology as the varsity does so when someone from JV gets called up, they already know the plays and know what to do.
That’s what the G-League is designed to do but it doesn’t seem like teams are truly using it that way.
Except for the Thunder.
It seems like the Thunder figured out that they can use the G-league to actually help their current players develop and get some confidence and it has worked wonders.
Over the last 3 years, when the Thunder weren’t really playing for much, there have been a few guys the Thunder have pulled up from the G-league that have contributed in some way. Most notably Lu Dort who was undrafted and started playing for the OKC Blue. It wasn’t until injuries that he really got his shot with the Thunder and he exceeded all expectations. Look at this season, where the Thunder have brought up a few guys like Aaron Wiggins or Olivier Sarr recently that have contributed to this team.
Even better though, they sent guys down to the G-League this season to get reps and confidence and it has worked beautifully. No, the Thunder aren’t winning many games but you can tell the difference in the way that the guys are playing that it’s working. They have sent down Tre Mann, Isaiah Roby, Aleksej Pokusevski, Theo Maledon, and Jeremiah Robinson Earl. All came back playing with much more confidence. In fact, every player that has played for the OKC Blue this year and also played for the Thunder has played with extremely high confidence. It’s night and day between the way Poku and Theo are playing now as opposed to the beginning of the season. Roby who played quite a bit last season didn’t have a 20p game at all and he started a good portion of the games he played and played 23 mpg. He had his 2 career highs in points in back-to-back games this year after a stint in the G-league.
You could say there was a gap between his stint with the Blue and being back with the Thunder but that would be being disingenuous. The thing that was important for him was confidence and contributing. In his short minutes with the Thunder early this year he was timid because he wasn’t sure how long he’d be on the floor or if he’d be at the end of the bench after a mistake. After playing with the Blue he was still getting spotty minutes but the difference was that he was playing with much more confidence. It didn’t matter that he was only playing 3 minutes at a time. He was going to make that most of those 3 minutes and that has led to his recent play.
That can be said for everyone that the Thunder have sent down to the G-league. They have all come back playing with a lot of confidence and are showing they can contribute in whatever way the Thunder need. That’s why the team can put 5 G-League guys on the floor at the same time and not lose the battle. There have even been games recently where the G-League guys have played better than the starters and got the game under control for the Thunder. Most recently in a game against the Nuggets when they had 5 G-League guys on the floor.
This season, the Thunder have played 9 guys that have spent a lot of time in the G-League this season and all 9 have contributed in some way. All 9 looked like they could be on a regular roster. How many teams can do that? Are there any others? It doesn’t seem like it.
Most teams don’t have to but with all the Covid issues teams were having this year we saw lots of guys get called up and there were lots of guys that didn’t look like they were ready. That wasn’t and isn’t an issue for the Thunder because they now understand what the G-League is for.
Will the guys that spend time with the Blue be valuable pieces to the Thunder or any other team in the future? Maybe, maybe not. That remains to be seen. However, it seems like they recognized an issue they were having in previous years when they were trying to contend for championships and prime playoff spots and are trying to make sure they don’t make the same mistake.
That’s all you can ask for.