The Thunder had one of the craziest offseasons of any team in the league. Although they had just signed Paul George to four-year, $137 million max contract last summer, George had requested a trade in the hopes of teaming up with Kawhi Leonard.
Once Thunder general manager Sam Presti pulled the trigger on that deal, Russell Westbrook–franchise mainstay and former league MVP–also requested a deal, unwilling to play a part in yet another rebuilding phase.
A new era has begun in Oklahoma City. Although the brunt of their moves this summer were made in looking towards the future, there will still be an inkling of hope that the Thunder can be competitive in the Western Conference.
Here are the three Thunder players facing the most pressure heading into the 2019-20 NBA season.
3. Shai Gilegous-Alexander
Even though the Thunder acquired Paul in exchange for Westbrook, it is Gilgeous-Alexander who is going to be the point guard of the future.
The Los Angeles Clippers acquired the rights to Gilgeous-Alexander on draft night in 2018, where he was selected with the No. 11 overall pick. While the likes of Luka Doncic and Trae Young dominated the rookie spotlight, SGA was quietly one of the more promising youngsters in basketball, playing all 82 games and averaging 10.8 points, 3.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds while being named to the All-Rookie Second Team.
Blessed with excellent size and length for a point guard, Gilgeous-Alexander also has an incredibly quick first step off the dribble, and he has shown that he is capable of knocking down perimeter shots.
However, the heir apparent to Westbrook will need to do more than merely play at a high level. Thunder fans want someone that competes every possession, and Gilgeous-Alexander ranked 389th out of 515 players (minimum 50 games played) in defensive rating, and 198th out of 258 qualified guards.
Executives around the league are extremely high on Shai, but he has some big shoes to fill and needs to make massive strides especially on the defensive side of the ball.
2. Darius Bazley
The Thunder traded down from the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft in order to select Bazley at the No. 23 spot, which came as a bit of a shock.
For those that need a refresher, Bazley was a heralded high school product out of Cincinnati, OH that elected to forgo playing at Syracuse University in favor of interning with Under Armour, taking essentially a full year off from playing competitive basketball.
Not only will Bazley continue to face scrutiny for his decision to skip college, but he is also a Rich Paul client (Paul is the agent for LeBron James, amongst other NBA players). He has already garnered plenty of attention for off-court decisions, but how will he perform when he takes the floor for the Thunder?
Bazley averaged 15.8 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.5 steals per game as a senior in high school, but the NBA is an entirely different animal.
The Thunder are betting on Bazley’s natural talent, and he will have to perform immediately.
1. Chris Paul
As one of the best point guards of this generation, Paul has little left to prove in his career. Yes, he has yet to win an NBA title, but he is unlikely to win one with this Thunder team.
Instead, Paul faces pressure as a “buffer” of sorts for a young Thunder roster that is supposed to be built for the future. Considering that Paul was part of contending teams in Los Angeles and Houston, this is an entirely new situation for him.
Can Paul swallow his pride and be a leader for this Thunder team?
If he were to somehow drag the Thunder to the playoffs, he would reestablish himself as an elite point guard and continue to cement his legacy.