OKC Thunder forward Chet Holmgren speed animation
Oklahoman illustrator Todd Pendleton does a speed drawing of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren.
Sandbags barricade the doors. iPhones are traded in for spin-dial, hardwire telephone sets so as to not be intercepted. Trades are brainstormed on notebook paper and shredded by 1,000 blades for good measure upon expiration. No one in, no one out. The Sam Presti way.
That’s at least about as much of a vision as people can imagine from the Thunder decision maker’s headquarters as Thursday’s NBA trade deadline approaches. Fewer whispers come from his buildings than generally anywhere in the league. And while no one quite knows what’s going through his mind, they can speculate.
Here are three issues the Thunder can address by Thursday, the solutions, and the alternate realities that could unfold:
On its way to vying for a seat atop the West, the only mirror the Thunder has had to look into is its reflection on the glass.
OKC has notably been one of the league’s worst rebounding teams. In part for laughable efforts, in part for it being the most glaring of its few flaws. Effort aside, the team has established that the issue is mostly a trade-off for its playstyle. The lovable spacing, the transition play, the halfcourt fluidity. It has often left them smaller and typically more skilled.
But that trade-off should leave it middling or even 20th in the league, not 27th. Can the team make a move that wouldn’t forfeit the team’s offensive identity while also gnawing at the rebounding margins?
Solution: For the rebounding radicalists, let’s deliver a prescription of perspective. The Thunder won’t need a non-shooting glass cleaner like Andre Drummond to change things and be impactful. That’s leaning too far into compromising offensive identity for a flaw that hasn’t kept the Thunder from winning 35 games to this point.
Plenty have settled on some sort of middle ground. A rangy forward that has length to marginally impact the boards but also possesses the shooting gravity to flow into the OKC offense should do the trick.
At 6-foot-8, Cam Johnson isn’t a terrible rebounder, can break zones and will probably optimize the Thunder’s offense to a point where the rebounding becomes less noticeable. His Brooklyn teammate, 6-7 Dorian Finney-Smith, is a similarly fine rebounder who’s less of a talent offensively but spices up defensive assignments and brings enough effort to make the glass more forgettable.
There are other backup big men options, too. Kelly Olynyk, Wendell Carter Jr., Jalen Smith. The list goes on. Each with a skillset that could mesh well in Oklahoma City offensively but has at least one deficiency that doesn’t make them perfect.
Alternate reality: Presti could lean more toward a forward type than a genuine backup big.
He could also do nothing at all.
While it’s certainly garnered the most outcry from the fanbase, the rebounding seems to be the flaw the Thunder is most willing to live with. For play-style reasons, to play this season out and to see how much it matters in a postseason setting.
Non-Chet Holmgren backside defense
Holmgren’s gaze went from sleepy and spacey to outright weary in January. A grueling month with 17 games and five back-to-backs can do that. But a headache becomes a migraine when you’re asked to do what he has this season.
The rookie center has carried a historical load as a defensive anchor, almost single handedly changing the defensive landscape for a team with new aspirations. The litter of perimeter defenders OKC can point to are only as comfortable as Holmgren is. They only have as much freedom as he gives them.
In the moments Holmgren is out of play, forced to greet drivers or make an impossible play, the Thunder is left vulnerable on the backside. In the minutes he’s gone, his presence is missed.
It’s even contributed to the rebounding issues, thus contributing to second-chance points. How can the team relieve the weight of his responsibilities?
Solution: Even following weeks of a clear transition as a shot blocker, Tuesday was exemplary of Jaylin Williams’ deficiencies. As helpful as he’s been in spot minutes as a floor spacer and in effort, his physical abilities limit him. His size, his length, his athleticism. There are coverages he’ll probably always struggle in. That level of dropoff from Holmgren will likely only get heavier as time passes.
Some have suggested the addition of Nic Claxton, a non-shooting but athletic rim protector. He’s 6-foot-11, mobile, averages 2.4 blocks and certainly can raise hell as an inside presence. But his lack of shooting doesn’t fit.
Could he be brought on as that change-of-pace, inside big that gives OKC a rare different look? Sure, but how many assets would Claxton be worth to play a reduced role? It’s difficult to imagine OKC deploying a non-shooting threat for 15 to 20 minutes each night when Josh Giddey has already challenged its offensive identity.
Smith is the spot-up threat and rangy player that could slot here, though not a similar defender to Claxton. Carter Jr. is a big body. There probably isn’t a perfect fit available for this purpose solely at the deadline.
Alternate reality: There’s a world in which Presti, again, doesn’t act. It feels wise to at least add another situational big man to fluctuate with Williams for the sake of Holmgren’s durability. But Presti not lifting a finger wouldn’t be all that surprising.
As limited as he is, Williams has been solid in recent weeks in the niche role he’s carved. Will the same issues from Tuesday arrive in the postseason? Possibly. But it feels like Presti to want to wait and see that then.
Josh Giddey’s longterm fit
The Australian guard’s season has been a rollercoaster. The off-court investigations, the on-court unraveling.
The troubled spacing and decision making, the blatant disrespect from opposing defenses. Even in Giddey’s most efficient shooting year of his career, he’s often been alienated as the below average shooter he is inside OKC’s sharpshooting lineup.
Even the lively, well-oiled offensive machine coach Mark Daigneault built has seen friction at times with Giddey on the floor.
If his fit holds the key to the Thunder’s ceiling, what will it do?
Solution: Trading Giddey, even if not by Thursday, feels like the obvious solution. There was a multi-week stretch where Giddey had been slowly phased out of late game situations, becoming incredibly difficult to play when teams choose to defend him how they have.
Then there are other games, like Sunday’s outburst, that likely keep some hope alive inside the building.
The common denominator is that teams will continue to defend him with infinite space and invitations to shoot. With room that’ll cramp driving lanes for players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams. With a lack of attention that funnels toward helping out at the rim or in the gaps.
It’d be different if he wasn’t the worst defender in the starting lineup by a considerable margin. But Giddey is who he is at the moment — a third-year player that can still blossom elsewhere but has seen his inadequacies highlighted. The fit in Oklahoma City just hasn’t felt perfect as the team picks up steam.
Alternate reality: You guessed it — Presti stays put. Of the three things to address, this seems like the least likely to occur at the deadline.
Even with all of Giddey’s new challenges, OKC has exhausted efforts to combat them. Using him as a screener, putting him in the middle of the floor, etc. While the downsides have outweighed any positives, does it feel like Presti to abandon a starter midseason? To give up on the challenge of making this thing work?
It feels like Presti to see a team that’s won 35 games enter the postseason as is. To wait and stress test a successful young team and truly magnify its issues then. Brutal stretches aside, Giddey remains part of that process that got the team here.
Is there upside to waiting until the offseason to move him? Maybe not. If he’s being forced out of games now, the preparation and game planning that comes with a playoff series will probably only target him more. It might even push him off the floor entirely. Then any waiting around could plummet his value further.
But forfeiting the hopeful flashes for a less-than-ideal return probably isn’t work much, either.
Presti won’t have to make the decision until the summer anyway, when Giddey approaches extension talks. Whether or not that’s the right timing is something Presti is likely willing to live with.