When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis (as well as Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova), they acquired a tenacious rebounder and deft passer with polished post skills. But how will Sabonis and his skill set fit in with his new team in OKC?
Despite a somewhat shaky start to the season under rookie head coach Billy Donovan, the Thunder finished the year as one of the league’s best teams before relinquishing a 3-1 series lead against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. During the regular season, the Thunder finished second in the NBA in scoring, averaging 110.2ppg while shooting 47.6% from the field (3rd in the league), en route to the league’s second best offensive rating behind the Warriors.
The Thunder also dominated the boards, leading the entire league in offensive and defensive rebounds respectively. On the defensive side of things, the Thunder were just slightly above league average in terms of defensive rating (13th) despite holding opponents field goal percentage to 43.8% (5th).
From just a look at the raw numbers, it’s clear that Sabonis is stepping into a very good team. But of course, that was already quite obvious. However, it’s easy to infer that the strengths Sabonis brings to the table help strengthen what OKC is already very good at. While Ibaka was lost in the trade that brought Sabonis to the Thunder, his game had been steadily declining over the last two seasons. Bringing Sabonis in to play alongside Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, and Ilyasova gives OKC a frontcourt rotation that could be the envy of the league.
The Thunder were already very good at rebounding, and with Sabonis they will only be better. In fact, I don’t expect OKC to ever miss another rebound opportunity again. While Kanter and Ilyasova are not exactly defensive stalwarts, and Sabonis’s lack of length prevents him from being an elite rim protector, Adams is a stud and has the ability to be the team’s defensive anchor. Additionally, Sabonis has good feet for a big man, enabling him to step out and switch on screens which is vitally important in the modern NBA. Most importantly, with Kanter and Adams ahead of him, Sabonis will get to acclimate to the NBA game at a reasonable pace and without the heavy burdens of producing as a lottery pick for a bad team. The addition of Oladipo also adds an excellent wing defender, which can help hide any defensive deficiencies in the frontcourt as he and Westbrook will form a defensive tandem that will terrorize opposing teams.
On the offensive end, Sabonis wields a polished and traditional big man’s skill-set that the Thunder can use as a like-for-like replacement with Kanter. Last season, OKC’s field goal attempts came from an average of 11.9 feet per attempt, the 7th shortest distance in the league. Sabonis made his living scoring from that distance and in at Gonzaga with his diverse array of moves. He also demonstrated a sound jumper during his time at Gonzaga, and has the mechanics to be a good shooter and provide some additional spacing as he continues to improve. Sabonis is also equally effective running the pick-and-roll with a guard or complementary big man (farewell Sabonis-Wiltjer PNR), which will enable him to comfortably slide into a lineup with Westbrook, Ilysaova, and Durant (provided he doesn’t leave in free agency). Significantly, Sabonis is not a player that needs plays called for him, and will find a way to be impactful even when OKC’s offense devolves into the heavy isolation sets for Westbrook and Durant that could turn other players into spectators. In fact, Sabonis will almost certainly have a much easier time getting easy points playing alongside dynamic playmakers such as Durant and Westbrook.
Fans of Sabonis and the Sonics may not be thrilled that he is now in OKC (and rightfully so), but from a pure basketball standpoint he landed in a great spot. Lottery picks often spend their first few years in the league mired on bad teams in the midst of rebuilding, but Sabonis will get to play on one of the league’s best teams (unless Durant leaves) whose strengths accentuate his own. He will certainly be given opportunities to contribute from the outset, and will get to play on a young team with diversely talented players. While OKC fans may have to wait a little longer to see Sabonis as he reportedly won’t be available to play in the summer league since he’ll be on national team duty at the Olympics, they will be getting a polished and NBA-ready rookie who could turn into one of the best Zags to play in the league.