Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Injury Gives the Oklahoma City Thunder a Chance to Fully Embrace the Tank

The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the second year of rebuilding, as reflected in their 17–35 record, second-worst in the Western Conference. General manager Sam Presti’s team has three first-round picks in June’s NBA draft. With star point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander out until at least after the All-Star break with a sprained ankle, the Thunder have a chance to maximize their lottery odds.

SGA averaged 22.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.1 steals in 34.6 minutes per game before injuring his right ankle in a loss to the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 28. Given how poorly Oklahoma City played without the 23-year-old, it seemed a prime opportunity to play for some extra ping pong balls.

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t often win anyway

Even with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander available, the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t win regularly. Before his most recent injury, the Thunder were 14–29 with SGA and 0–5 without him.

Last season, the 11th overall selection in the 2018 draft missed the final 29 games with plantar fasciitis. The Thunder had already shut down veteran Al Horford at that point and finished 3–26 with their point guard sidelined. On the season, OKC was a competitive 16–19 when Gilgeous-Alexander played and a woeful 6–31 without him.

SGA’s latest injury presented both opportunities for other young players, according to Joe Mussatto of The Oklahoman. Still, it also gave the Thunder a chance to pile up some losses in the chase for a bottom-three spot in the NBA. Teams in those positions have a 14% chance of capturing the first overall pick. Currently, with the fourth-worst mark, OKC’s lottery odds are 12.5%.

In the latest mock draft from Jonathan Givony of ESPN, that’s the difference between much-hyped big man Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga and Memphis center Jalen Duren.

But the Thunder locker room might have missed the memo.

The Thunder no longer winless without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Perhaps the most immediate impact of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s ankle injury came on offense. Rookie Josh Giddey took over the primary ballhandling responsibilities for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In early January, the Australian teenager made some history, becoming the youngest player to record a triple-double in an NBA game. Giddey is a 6-foot-8 hybrid guard with solid playmaking skills, averaging a team-best 6.1 assists as a secondary handler this season.

The Thunder were dreadful without SGA earlier in the season, losing all five games he missed because of a previous ankle sprain, two games in concussion protocols, and one night off for rest. One of those games was a historic loss on Dec. 2 at Memphis. OKC absorbed a 152–79 loss to the Grizzlies that was the most-lopsided decision in NBA history.

But the Thunder won their first three games after Gilgeous-Alexander’s latest ankle injury, including road wins at Dallas and Portland. The streak ended with a 10-point loss at Sacramento on Feb. 5 on the second night of a back-to-back.

Giddey put up 17.0 points, 7.5 boards, and 6.3 dimes in 35.7 minutes a night in those four games while dropping 60.5% (26-of-43) from inside the arc. The deep ball continues to evade the rookie; he was 3-for-16 (18.8%) in that span.

The 3–1 run leaves OKC two games ahead of Houston. The Thunder are five up on Detroit and six clear of Orlando in the race for a bottom-three spot.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the key for the Oklahoma City Thunder rebuild

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays like a future All-Star, but his sprained ankle gives the Oklahoma City Thunder a chance to chase lottery balls.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays like a future All-Star, but his sprained ankle gives the Oklahoma City Thunder a chance to chase lottery balls. | Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in July 2019 as the critical piece in the trade that sent Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers. He played off the ball during his first season in OKC but moved to the point when the Thunder traded Chris Paul to the Phoenix Suns.

OKC added Giddey with the sixth pick in 2021 and has eight players in their first or second seasons. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl started at center until breaking his foot, with another rookie, Tre Mann, getting regular rotation minutes.

The Thunder have their pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. They owe the Atlanta Hawks a first-round choice from the Carmelo Anthony salary dump in July 2018. But the selection is lottery protected. OKC also owns the first-round picks of the Clippers and Suns (top-12 protected; in other words, it’s going to the Thunder).

They have Detroit’s first-rounder, but it is top-16 protected. The selection remains protected for several years. The Pistons keep it if it is in the top 18 next year and 2024. The protection is top 13 in 2025, top 11 in 2026, and top nine in 2027.

It’s part of an enormous cache of draft picks assembled by Presti. OKC has 21 selections through 2028.

Meanwhile, after signing a max extension in August, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is signed through 2026–27. The Oklahoma City Thunder have the draft assets and young players in place for a successful rebuild. Presti did this before. After all, this franchise landed Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in consecutive drafts from 2007–09.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference. Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.

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