When it comes to the NBA, fit and system are incredibly important for any player to reach their ceiling. Often times, there’s players that also need a change of scenery to get their careers back on track.
In either case, it’s not uncommon for players to see an uptick in production and impact when joining a new team.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, reclamation projects have been a specialty over the past few years. Given the team was open to taking on unwanted contracts to make trades happen, being able to extract value out of each and every player has been important.
While there’s numerous examples of reclamation projects over the course of the franchise’s time in Oklahoma City, there’s a few that immediately come to mind.
For starters, Kenrich Williams was a throw-in as salary filler in the trade of Steven Adams to the New Orleans Pelicans. Before joining the Thunder he was incredibly inefficient and didn’t have the trajectory of being a key piece of a contending team. Now, he’s one of the most desirable 3-and-D veterans in the league and would be in the playoff rotation if the Thunder was to make it this season. This isn’t too far off from what happened with Isaiah Joe, who was never able to find a consistent role with the Philadelphia 76ers early in his career but instantly became one of the league’s best 3-point shooters when joining the Thunder as a free agent last season.
Take Al Horford as another recent example. Oklahoma City was compensated for taking on his salary following a really down year with the Philadelphia 76ers, then flipped a year later for more assets after putting him in a position to thrive with the Thunder. Similarly, OKC traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul and significant draft capital in 2019. At the time, Paul appeared to be trending downwards in his career and Westbrook was viewed as an upgrade for the Houston Rockets. However, Paul was able to revitalize his career with the Thunder with an All-NBA season before being traded to the Phoenix Suns and taking them to the NBA Finals.
While each of these situations were all quite different, what’s clear is that the Thunder is great at getting the most out of its players. Oklahoma City always finds ways to put its athletes in positions to succeed and has a flexible system that allows players to leverage their respective strengths.
Entering the 2023-24 season, there’s several players that could be next in line as a successful reclamation project. It’s difficult to even predict who will ultimately make the 15-man roster this season given how much talent will be fighting for spots in training camp, but these three players have a real shot at having a positive season.
Getting Back on Track: Davis Bertans
Following a breakout 2019-20 campaign in which Davis Bertans averaged 15.4 points per game while shooting 42.4% from deep on 8.7 attempts, he signed a five-year, $80 million deal to remain with the Washington Wizards. Since then, he hasn’t lived up to expectations.
In the 158 regular season games since signing that deal, he’s averaged 7.4 points per contest while shooting 37.7% from beyond the arc. Furthermore, the Latvian forward was traded to the Dallas Mavericks during the 2021-22 season and essentially never cracked the rotation on a regular basis.
Entering the upcoming season, Bertans will be 30 years old and on a roster loaded with young talent that will need developmental minutes. However, given he stands at 6-foot-10 and can provide spacing, there is a real chance he carves out a role. Oklahoma City lacks frontcourt depth and will need spacing for guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey who are best driving to the rim.
New System for Young Prospect: Usman Garuba
Although he has only spent two seasons in the NBA, Usman Garuba still has somewhat of an unknown outlook on his career. The former first-round pick has played 99 games for the Houston Rockets to this point, but has only notched three starts.
The Spanish forward is 6-foot-8 and primarily plays power forward and center. While somewhat undersized for those positions, he’s extremely strong and is a proven impact player on defense. If he ends up making the roster in Oklahoma City, he could really gain momentum playing small ball center, which is a role the Thunder has proven successful at rolling out.
The swing skill for Garuba will be the 3-point shot and his offense holistically. As good as he is on the defensive end of the floor, he will need to make some impact as a scorer. While it was on low volume, he knocked down 24 of his 59 attempts (40.7%) from beyond the arc last season which is promising.
Injury Recovery Project: Victor Oladipo
After a successful first stint with the Thunder back in the 2016-17 season, Victor Oladipo is officially back on the roster. While he would be an easy cut candidate to trim the roster down to 15 in October, there could also be value in keeping him around.
Oladipo has suffered several significant injuries over the past few years, most recently a torn left patellar tendon. The procedure on that knee was his third major surgery in just over four years. He’s set to have a chance at returning to the floor early in the 2023-24 campaign, but likely won’t be ready by opening night.
Not only is his expiring $9.45 million salary a quality asset to hold onto for a potential trade deadline deal, but Oladipo is also a solid player. He just turned 31 years old and averaged roughly 20 points per game just two seasons ago. It will certainly be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome all of these injuries and get back to playing at that level, but Oklahoma City would have the luxury of staying patient and bringing him back slowly.
Again, all three of these players could be cut ahead of the 2023-24 season. However, they each have value for various reasons and could be potential reclamation projects to help push the team forward or emerge as a positive trade asset.