Showcasing excellence in NBA purgatory

Published November 30, 2022, 9:00 AMMiguel Flores
Miguel Flores

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tyrese Haliburton have been playing stellar basketball this season. But what does that mean for the Thunder and Pacers?

The Oklahoma City Thunder are still bad. They don't have a clear rotation in the frontcourt as they mostly have fringe NBA players splitting minutes at the forward and center spots. No matter what your fantasy league opponents tell you, Aleksej Pokusevski has not been good this season and is not worth a pickup. The Thunder built this roster to feature Chet Holmgren and have him play as much as he wants so his season-ending foot injury threw OKC off balance.

But, there's been one player that's made tuning into OKC games worth it: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

SGA has been making a leap this season into a true superstar. Finally healthy, Shai has morphed into the final form of true hooper ecstasy. He's like Shaun Livingston (if never got injured) with Andre Miller and Rafer Alston’s creativity.

He showed even in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers that he has a weird but effective bag, like a heart surgeon who uses wood-carved tools. When you expect the classic hesi-jimbo, he hits you with the peppa-bluey.

The offense has been ridiculous. He’s shooting a ridiculous 51.5 percent from the field because he's making 67.7 percent of his shots from the paint and 53.4 percent from midrange. A career-high 31.1 points with 4.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists. What elevates his performance from All-Star to All-NBA levels has been his defense – his strength since college that’s only improved as he’s gotten stronger and quicker.

When teams have a player making a superstar leap like SGA is this season, the next steps usually are simple: find a way to get more talent around him and make a deep postseason run. At least in other North American sports, that’s the expected next step. Your quarterback is making crazy plays? An NFL team most likely tries to get him more targets or improve the team’s other weaknesses with trades and signings. You have a generational hitter and center fielder? An MLB team usually becomes a buyer and shores up its roster as much as it can. There's never a guarantee it works out for those teams but those are the risks you should be able to afford to take. After all, the goal is to get a superstar you can sell your fans on. Why not go for it?

This is a similar situation the Indiana Pacers find themselves in with Tyrese Haliburton. Last season, the Pacers made a risky trade at the deadline, swapping All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis for Sacramento’s sophomore guard Tyrese Haliburton. For the Kings, this was an attempt to erase some big swings they took in the 2021 Draft, mainly taking a third point guard in Davion Mitchell with the ninth overall pick. With De’Aaron Fox committed long-term, the Kings thought they had a crowded backcourt.

From the first game Haliburton put on a Pacers jersey, he pretty much proved that he wasn't a piece the Kings should have given up on so quickly and for so little return. In 26 games as a Pacer last season, Haliburton dropped 17.5 points on 59.0 percent eFG with 9.6 assists and 1.8 steals.

This season, Haliburton has been even better.

Haliburton currently leads the league in assists, averaging 11.1 per game with just 2.8 turnovers. He's also dropping 19.6 points on 47/37/87 shooting splits. Rick Carlisle has fashioned a system around Haliburton like the one he had at Dallas with Luka Doncic, and Haliburton has used it to become like a young Chris Paul.

Unlike the Thunder, Indiana has some pieces that could keep them competitive in the Eastern Conference. Buddy Hield and Myles Turner have been solid veteran producers with Hield putting up career numbers with the looks he’s getting from Haliburton. Rookie Ben Mathurin has been the surprise of the 2022 Draft class, needing zero time to adjust his bucket-getting skills in the NBA. The Pacers are deep with good role players like TJ McConnell and Chris Duarte and young frontcourt pieces like Isaiah Jackson and Jalen Smith.

But the Pacers are likely treading the same path as the Thunder. All roads for teams in the NBA’s middle and bottom lead to Victor Wembanyama or other lottery picks. That 14-percent chance to land the top pick and the French wunderkind is enough for most teams in the league to flip their roster.

For a team like OKC that’s hoarded picks for veteran players over the last three seasons, they know that the only sure way out of mediocrity and into the NBA Finals is to get a generational superstar through the draft - tanking isn't new to them.

For the Pacers, it won’t be long until they end up in more trade talks as Hield and Turner haven't been coy about their desire to move on to potential championship contenders. The Pacers are currently 11-8 in the East. In other sports, you look at this roster and see where you can add talent. In the NBA, it's been acceptable for teams to actually subtract talent to get a top pick.

The Thunder aren't going to get Shai more help. This version of the Pacers is most likely the best we’re going to get all season. It’s a shame since that’s probably going to hinder All-NBA campaigns for Haliburton and SGA. The reality is they both need more All-Star level companions to really make a dent at the highest levels.

That’s the reality of NBA purgatory. Teams that are constantly inept are rewarded. The middle of the league isn’t where teams want to be, even if they have great players already. For SGA and Haliburton to take a step up, their teams are likely going to drag them down and hope the 14-percent chance works in their favor.