Remember when Chris Paul played games in Oklahoma City when he was with the then-New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina? When he put up 5.7 VORP as a rookie and 3.9 in his second year, that first season good for fifth all-time among rookies since VORP became possible to keep as a stat in 1973-74, he set the world on fire in a city that didn’t even have a team yet.
The top four, in order? Michael Jordan (8.1), David Robinson (6.4), Tim Duncan (6.0), and Alvan Adams (5.8.) Three Hall of Famers and one guy who made his only All-Star team as a rookie on a team that went to the NBA Finals before an unremarkable career.
Anyway, the point of this digression is that Chris Paul is back in Oklahoma City. Trouble is, it’s 14 years later, he’s coming off a career-worst 2.4 VORP season, and he hasn’t made an All-Star team since 2016, hasn’t made All-NBA since that same year, and hasn’t made All-Defensive since 2017.
And he’s making $38.5 million this year and will make $44.2 million in the last year of his contract in 2021-22.
Small wonder, then, that Vegas has the Thunder, winners of 49 games last season, penciled in for 31 wins on the over/under.
Are things really that bad in OKC? Are they destined to make the Minnesota Timberwolves no longer the plug-ugly cellar dwellers of what was recently the strongest division in the league?
2018-19 record: 49-33
2019-20 over/under: 31
Well, Besides CP3…
Russell Westbrook is gone, and depending on how you feel about his high-volume, low-efficiency counting stat gunning, that may not necessarily be the worst thing.
But Paul George is also gone, and he was irreplaceable. Danilo Gallinari is the biggest name on this team besides Chris Paul, and it seems like the only true bright side here involves Steven Adams, who will get plenty of chances to match the five offensive rebounds he’s averaged in each of the last two seasons.
Adams is a 3.2 VORP player. On paper, he’s the best player on the whole team. Gods save the Thunder.
And Terrance Ferguson is a zero-VORP player who scored just 9.6 points per 36 minutes as a starter.
This might be the worst offensive team in the whole league.
On the Other Hand…
The Thunder were fourth in the league in Defensive Rating last year. The guys they’re replacing the departing Westbrook and George with can prevent the other team from scoring; Roberson and Ferguson are both solid defenders, Adams is a beast on the low block and as a rim protector, and CP3 was at one point in his career the best defensive point guard in the NBA, so his leadership should go a long way toward keeping this team defensively focused.
They won 49 games last year with a No. 17 offense. The problem is that they’re not doing that, especially in the West, with a No. 30 offense no matter how good the defense is.
Which is the Whole Question Here…
Exactly. The Thunder will be one of the best defensive teams, but they won’t be able to score.
You know the last time we saw a team like that in the Northwest Division? Those early Jazz teams Quin Snyder coached before Donovan Mitchell showed up and Rudy Gobert developed into a force in the restricted area at both ends of the floor.
Those teams pretty consistently finished ninth or tenth, but even they had better offenses than the Thunder, suggesting that 38-40 wins only works if your offense is no worse than the downside of mediocre.
The better parallel might be the 2015-16 Indiana Pacers. That team went 45-37 with the sixth-worst offense and third-best defense, and they played in an Eastern Conference whose 8 seed (the 44-38 Pistons) would’ve been tied for the 5 seed in the West that year.
I’m not saying Oklahoma City is going to win 45 games. But you see a pattern developing here.
Are the Oklahoma City Thunder good? No. That’s Busted. They won’t be able to score worth a lick, their highest-paid player is over the hill and injury-prone, and losing both Paul George and Russell Westbrook means they look nothing at all like a playoff team.
But are they 30 wins or less bad? I’m not going to go that far. They’re at least as good as a 2018 Lakers team that won 35 games, after all.
So I’m calling 33-37 wins, nowhere near the playoffs, but better than (and therefore Over) 31.
NEXT: Utah Jazz.