The Thunder have already found the next Russell Westbrook in their first season without him. No one can replace what Oklahoma City’s former franchise player meant to the city or the way that his larger-than-life personality transcended the game. But his role in the organization has been promptly filled by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a second-year guard who has made a massive leap after coming over from the Clippers in the Paul George trade.
Gilgeous-Alexander is showing that he can be the cornerstone of the Thunder’s latest rebuilding effort, just like Westbrook was when Kevin Durant left. Oklahoma City didn’t have to bottom out and start over, because it could instantly turn the keys over to Westbrook and use him to attract other stars. SGA is a very different type of point guard than his predecessor, but he has the ability to do the same thing now that Westbrook is in Houston. He’s not a household name (or abbreviation) just yet. He will be soon.
Like everyone else on the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander has fallen in line this season behind Chris Paul, who has been reborn after being traded for Westbrook. But he has also shown signs of future stardom while excelling in a secondary role. He’s Oklahoma City’s leading scorer and most versatile perimeter defender, and his numbers have skyrocketed since his rookie season with the Clippers:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Stats
Gilgeous-Alexander’s development changes the timeline in Oklahoma City. The team is making a surprise playoff push this season, with a 29-20 record and a firm hold on the no. 7 seed out West. FiveThirtyEight gives them a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoffs. But there would be no point in remaining competitive with a team built around older players, like Paul (34 years old) and Danilo Gallinari (31), who don’t have any room to improve. The Thunder would still have to think about pressing the reset button at the trade deadline and bottoming out. It’s different when they have a 21-year-old with nearly limitless potential on their roster.
The Thunder are good this season. They could be great in a year or two if they play their cards right.
It starts with Gilgeous-Alexander. His reputation is still catching up with his talent. There aren’t many young players in the NBA like him. He’s not great at any one aspect of the game, but he’s good at all of them. He doesn’t have any defined weaknesses. He can create his own shot, facilitate for others, shoot 3s, rebound, and defend multiple positions. A player like that doesn’t jump off the screen like someone who scores 25 or 30 points a night. But he can be just as valuable because he makes everyone around him better on both ends of the floor.
Winning follows him wherever he goes. As a rookie, SGA was the starting point guard on a Clippers team that defied expectations and made the playoffs. Now he’s doing the same thing with the Thunder, this time as a wing scorer. He doesn’t need to be put in a specific role to succeed. He’s a well-rounded player who can fill whatever hole his team needs.
With Chris Paul also arriving this offseason and Dennis Schröder already on the team, Oklahoma City moved Gilgeous-Alexander to an off-ball role. He quickly proved up to the task. His size (6-foot-5 and 180 pounds with a 6-foot-11.5 wingspan) allowed him to defend wings in two-PG lineups. And while he’s not a great outside shooter (34.5 percent from 3 on 3.5 attempts per game), he makes enough to keep defenses honest. He’s also a very crafty scorer who can find cracks in the defense.
SGA plays with an unusual amount of calm for someone with so little experience. Nothing the defense does seems to rattle him. He’s not an elite athlete, but his ability to change speeds and shoot from different release points makes him almost unguardable. He can always create space for himself off the dribble.
Charles Barkley has a great line about how a lot of young players try to jump over buildings when they first get to the NBA. What they don’t realize is that they can walk into an elevator, press a button, and let it take them to the top floor. Gilgeous-Alexander already understands that. He doesn’t rely on his athletic ability. He came into the league already knowing how to press the button.
The biggest thing holding the second-year guard back is opportunity, not ability. He hasn’t received the same chances to dominate the ball as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, two of the point guards taken ahead of him in the 2018 draft, who were just voted in as All-Star starters. Those two have been near the top of the NBA in touches since Day 1. SGA was fourth on the Clippers and is third on the Thunder. He has started his NBA career as an apprentice, learning how to pick and choose his shots on offense and contribute on defense.
Oklahoma City wouldn’t be successful this season if its new star hadn’t embraced that role. Their best lineups have come when Gilgeous-Alexander plays with both Paul and Schröder, boasting an astronomical net rating of plus-30.2 in 314 minutes this season with all three on the floor.
Their turnaround began in early December when Thunder coach Billy Donovan embraced three-PG lineups after a minor injury to Terrance Ferguson, their other starting wing. They were 8-12 at that point. They are 20-8 since.
The Thunder still have a lot of room to grow—and move up in the standings. Oklahoma City is only one game behind Houston for the no. 6 seed and Dallas for the no. 5 seed. Best of all, they have barely used their best five-man lineup, which pairs their three point guards with a stretch 4 (Gallinari) and a 5 who can anchor their defense (Steven Adams). That group has a net rating of plus-31.4 in 117 minutes, which is 10.5 points higher than any other lineup in the NBA that has logged at least 100 minutes this season.
It also wouldn’t be hard for them to make a significant upgrade at the deadline. The Thunder don’t have another reliable 3-and-D wing outside of Gilgeous-Alexander. Ferguson has not progressed in his third season, and the team has several other raw youngsters—Hamidou Diallo, Abdel Nader, and Luguentz Dort—behind him. Put someone like Robert Covington in their place and the Thunder could be one of the best teams in the West.
But the more important conversation in Oklahoma City isn’t about what it does in the next week. It’s what the team can do in the next few years.
The Thunder are in a unique position. They received an obscene amount of future draft picks in the Westbrook and George trades—three unprotected first-rounders and four lightly protected ones, as well as the right to swap two more. The initial expectation around the league was that those picks would be the start of a Process-style rebuild that would take a decade to complete. Now the calculus has changed.
Gilgeous-Alexander gives the franchise a homegrown star who can convince other young stars to stay in Oklahoma City. They can use those picks to trade for one (or even two) and sell them on playing with SGA, like they did with George. No team can outbid the Thunder in a trade, either. They can make a Godfather offer—similar to what the Nets gave the Celtics for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce—and then turn around and make another. Any team looking to trade a star will have to call them.
There’s no player currently on the trade market worthy of Oklahoma City’s bounty of assets, but that could change this summer. The most likely candidate is Bradley Beal, who has already complained to the media less than a few months after signing an extension. Putting Beal in Schröder’s role in Oklahoma City could make them a legitimate contender. There would be no way to defend three-guard lineups with Paul, Beal, and SGA, and all three can defend too.
The other option for OKC would be to hold on to its draft picks and wait for the next time a young star is put on the market. There’s no way to predict who it would be at this point, but it’s only a matter of time in the player empowerment era. There are a lot of great young players scattered on bad teams in the bottom of the West, from Karl-Anthony Towns to Devin Booker to De’Aaron Fox. If any of those guys ask out, Oklahoma City will be there to strike.
It would be a gamble to trade for an already unhappy player. But it was also a pretty big gamble to trade for George when he had just one year left on his deal. Thunder GM Sam Presti famously quoted A Tribe Called Quest when asked about it, saying: “Scared money don’t make none.”
Oklahoma City will never be a free agent destination. Presti knows that. The only way for them to get a star is to trade for one or draft one. So why hope one of those draft picks will eventually become one when it can trade for one now?
The beauty of building around Gilgeous-Alexander is that it doesn’t matter who is available. He can fit with anyone. He can be anything. Like a wild card in poker.
SGA gives the Thunder an almost unlimited number of options. They don’t need to blow this team up. They can bide their time and wait for the right opportunity to push their chips back in the middle. And they have more chips than anyone else in the NBA.