NBA

Oklahoma City Thunder 2022-23 NBA preview: Key injuries have OKC eyeing the lottery yet again

Just when you thought the Thunder were ready to emerge from their two-year tank as one of the NBA‘s most exciting young teams, the injury gods decreed that Oklahoma City would spend one more year in lottery land. No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren lit up Summer League … and then suffered a season-ending injury in a pro-am game. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander appeared primed for his first All-Star appearance … and then he suffered an MCL sprain. No wonder the Thunder held folk hero Aleksej Pokusevski out of EuroBasket. They couldn’t risk any more losses. They’ll see plenty of those on the scoreboard over the next seven months.

That won’t bother the Thunder all that much, of course. We’re talking about a team that is currently hoarding 15 first-round picks spanning the next seven drafts. They won’t say no to a few more ping pong balls, especially when they might yield Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson. But that does temper some of the fun this season could have provided.

So what will Oklahoma City’s final gap year look like? With Holmgren out and Gilgeous-Alexander hobbled, what is there to watch for on one of the NBA’s youngest rosters? Here are three key storylines as Oklahoma City embarks upon what will hopefully be its last tank for a long, long time.

Key changes

  • Drafted Chet Holmgren No. 2, Ousmane Dieng No. 11, Jalen Williams No. 12 and Jaylin Williams No. 34.
  • Signed Lu Dort to a five-year, $87.5 million extension.
  • Signed Kenrich Williams to a four-year, $27.2 million extension.

Roster

Player

Position

Age

Darius Bazley 

Forward

22

Ousmane Dieng 

Forward

19

Luguentz Dort 

Forward

23

Derrick Favors 

Center

31

Melvin Frazier Jr. 

Guard

26

Josh Giddey 

Guard

19

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 

Guard

24

Jaylen Hoard 

Forward

23

Chet Holmgren 

Forward 

20

Ty Jerome 

Guard

25

Georgios Kalaitzakis 

Forward

23

Vit Krejci 

Guard

22

Theo Maledon 

Guard

21

Tre Mann 

Guard

21

Mike Muscala 

Center

31

Eugene Omoruyi 

Forward

25

Aleksej Pokusevski 

Center

20

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl 

Forward

21

Lindy Waters III 

Forward

25

Aaron Wiggins 

Guard

23

Jalen Williams 

Forward

21

Jaylin Williams 

Forward

20

Kenrich Williams 

Forward

27

Top of the key: Shai it ain’t so

For now, the Thunder have only said that Gilgeous-Alexander will be out for the beginning of training camp. Beyond that, we’ll just have to wait and see. He’s dealing with an MCL sprain, a tricky injury that hobbles some players longer than others. A useful Reddit post from 2018 tracked the length of the absences of several players afflicted with an MCL sprain and found that they differed wildly. In that group, a return came as quickly as 34 days and another took as long as 75. Typically, the timeline is roughly six or seven weeks. That’s how much time Kevin Durant missed with the same injury a season ago.

More importantly, this marks the third consecutive season that has either begun or ended with an injury for Gilgeous-Alexander, who has played just 91 games over the past two seasons. Granted, some of those missed games might have come out of an … erm … abundance of caution as the Thunder were … let’s say out of the playoff race, but 24-year-old guards frequently missing time due to lower-body injuries is never a good sign.

The Thunder will surely be cautious again this season. With Holmgren already out, the play-in isn’t a sensible goal. But once Gilgeous-Alexander returns, it would be encouraging to see him play out the whole season and put some of these injuries behind him. 

Next up: Giddey with excitement

The (very slight) silver-lining to Gilgeous-Alexander’s absence? More ball-handling duties for 2021’s No. 6 overall pick, Josh Giddey. Here’s a fun fact for you: Giddey, with just 54 games under his belt, already ranks third in Thunder history with four career triple-doubles. He’ll pass Kevin Durant’s seven at some point this season, and while he has a long way to go to get to Russell Westbrook’s 138, expect to see him slowly chip away at the 2017 MVP’s lead over the next several years.

Giddey’s shooting should come along nicely with legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland joining the staff. He’ll likely improve as a rebounder too as his body continues to fill out. But the main attraction here is the passing. I mean … what on Earth is a defense supposed to do about this?

There’s only one other 6-8 forward in the NBA consistently threading no-look passes through four defenders and he wears No. 23 for the Lakers. Giddey may not have LeBron’s athletic gifts, but it won’t be long before he’s claimed James’ two-decade-old title as the NBA’s best passing forward.

One more thing: Everyone gets an extension!

There were some raised eyebrows when the Thunder gave stalwart defender Lu Dort a five-year, $87.5 million extension. They didn’t need to pay him right away. With a team-option on the books for this season, they could have kept him at a bargain-basement price and dealt with him a year from now. Later in the offseason, they inked Kenrich Williams, also making next to nothing by NBA standards, to a four-year extension of his own. Gilgeous-Alexander is just starting a five-year extension. A trend is emerging here.

The Thunder have so many young players that they’ll eventually need to pay that they seem to have taken an approach that is simultaneously proactive and conservative in order to retain their talent: extend everybody as soon as humanly possible betting that it will cost them less in the long-run than letting those players hit the open market. Case-in-point: Williams, a two-way wing that was highly coveted at the trade deadline, is essentially making taxpayer mid-level money to play the NBA’s most important position. The idea here is that the Thunder can not only get discounts right now, but potentially very steep discounts at the end of these deals once the projected 2025 cap spike kicks in.

So who’s next on the docket? Darius Bazley is the last 2019 rookie in need of an extension. Oklahoma City still has time to give him one, and if it does, it will cement their strategy of locking players up and figuring the rest out later.

Key games

Thunder at Knicks, Nov. 13: There’s no indication that Gilgeous-Alexander is available through trade. Sam Presti himself shot down those rumors. But we know how Knicks fans are. With Donovan Mitchell off the table, they’re looking for another young star to pine after. Reports have suggested New York’s interest in Gilgeous-Alexander, so expect a warm reception when he pulls up to the Garden. The Thunder would surely love to quiet the crowd with a victory. 

Thunder at Rockets, Nov. 26: It’s not clear how close the Thunder ever came to selecting Jabari Smith Jr. when he surprisingly slipped past No. 1 on draft night, though an erroneous report that he would be the selection at least hinted that he was on the table. But with Holmgren out, Smith will surely want to show Oklahoma City what it’s missing, and when Holmgren does eventually return, he will likely be compared to Smith throughout his career after the two were drafted back-to-back.

Lakers at Thunder, March 1: Is this an especially important game for the Thunder themselves? No. But Russell Westbrook is the greatest player in their franchise history, and if last year was any indication, he’s probably not in for a fun season now that it appears as though the Lakers will keep him. It will mean something to Oklahoma City’s fans to have a chance to cheer on their former hero if nobody else will.



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