The Oklahoma City Thunder enter the 2024 NBA trade deadline as buyers for the first time in several years. The Thunder (35-16) will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2020.
More importantly, it’ll be the first playoff trip for OKC’s young core. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed into an MVP candidate. The emergence of Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren has created one of the best trios in the league. Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault has turned into one of the best head coaches in the league.
Even though OKC is fighting for first place, the elephant in the room in its successful season has been Josh Giddey.
The 21-year-old has struggled through his worst season yet, averaging career lows in both traditional stats and advanced metrics. In several stretches of the season, he has sat out crunch time and played few minutes due to opposing defenses ignoring him.
It has made for an awkward situation. The Thunder have to overcome his deficiencies, and Giddey is put in a bad spot where his strengths as a ball-handler aren’t being utilized.
Off the court, Giddey has also dealt with investigations by California police and the NBA regarding allegations of being in an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl.
There are strong arguments to be made on both sides related to whether the Thunder should cut ties with Giddey and move him by the trade deadline. Let’s examine both sides and make a final decision on what they should do with the third-year guard.
The argument against trading Giddey
Despite the regular-season success so far, the playoffs are a different animal. No other franchise knows that better than the Thunder, who spent more than a decade as contenders.
This new iteration of the Thunder is about to get its first taste of the playoffs. Knocking on wood, this will be the first of many playoff trips OKC’s young core will enjoy in the foreseeable future.
There’s no real rush to remove Giddey and risk damaging the current team from a major roster shakeup that would be the changing of its starting lineup. Among five-man lineups with 500-plus minutes logged together, OKC’s is ranked third in net rating. The methodical approach would be to see how this group does in the playoffs before making any drastic changes to the roster.
While Giddey has struggled this season, he was arguably OKC’s best player in its play-in tournament win over the New Orleans Pelicans last season. That game was the toughest test this group has faced yet.
Not letting Giddey sink or swim in the playoffs would be shortchanging the 2021 No. 6 pick who otherwise has had a solid first two seasons. Patience is key for the 21-year-old as he adjusts to playing basketball differently than he’s been asked to do his whole life up until now.
There’s no point in trading Giddey for the sake of it — especially considering his trade market is likely at an all-time low. Bargaining with no leverage has never been in the Thunder’s DNA and that will not suddenly start.
The argument for trading Giddey
Giddey is having the worst season of his three-year career. He’s averaging career lows across the board. Among the five traditional starters, he has the worst on-off plus-minus of minus-2.3.
The 21-year-old has struggled to adjust to his new role, he is averaging a career-low in minutes and has been off the floor in several games during crunch time. He has played the fewest clutch minutes (37) among the starters this season.
The problem with Giddey is he needs to be a primary ballhandler to flourish, and that isn’t going to be the case with Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams in OKC. Instead, he is forced to play an awkward off-ball role that mitigates his value with his poor outside shooting.
Due to Williams’ emergence, Giddey doesn’t even have the luxury of commanding the second-unit lineups anymore. Instead, he goes from third to second fiddle with Gilgeous-Alexander off the floor. That has seldom brought different results.
There have been bright spots with Giddey sprinkled throughout the season, but there hasn’t been enough to confidently say he can be a long-term fit for the Thunder. It’s fairly obvious teams will guard him in the playoffs by completely ignoring him. Heck, it’s already happened in the regular season.
Daigneault can try to experiment his way out of the conundrum, but there’s a limit to how much you can get out of a non-shooting guard who can’t create his shot.
If the Thunder are going to play with an inherent disadvantage in the playoffs because of this, why wait to flame out to know the answer to something that’s already in the back of everybody’s mind?
The Thunder have built something special this season and passed both the statistical and eye tests in terms of being a real contender despite their youthful age. Nobody could’ve seen this coming, but basketball is about making adjustments — both on and off the court. Thursday will give Sam Presti a chance to make his.
Is it worth shortchanging this current group to find out whether or not Giddey can be a high-end starter when the silhouette of an impressive trio is already there with Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams and Holmgren? Probably not.
What the Thunder should do
I think the Thunder stand pat and not make any major changes to their roster with a little over one-third left in the regular season. OKC has been one of the best teams in the league this season, and it’d be risky to change that formula this late into the year.
The Thunder owe it to themselves to see how Giddey does in the playoffs and go from there. Perhaps it will not work out, and the people using foresight about it right now will look smart. However, dealing away a 21-year-old who has shown signs of being a high-end starter in his first three seasons seems reactionary.
Again, all of the data this season suggests Giddey has been negative on the court, but the larger sample of data from his first two seasons suggests he can still be a productive starter.
It’s now about carving out a role for him in this team that benefits both parties — which is easier said than done, but there have been enough bright spots this season to suggest it’s achievable. And if Giddey flames out in the playoffs, then conversations about possibly being moved can appropriately happen in the offseason, when the Thunder will not be rushed to make a decision.