January 30, 2023

Far from Victor Wembanyama’s sweepstakes, OKC is too good a basketball team to throw in the towel. Meanwhile, the rest of the West is riddled with discord as some of the projected top teams struggle with injuries, are resting and, more noticeably, are under-performing.

Sneaking into the play-in tournament could sell the youngest team in the league. Why can’t OKC bypass the prelims altogether?

The franchise has its superstar. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has maintained his 30-points-a-game pace every month this season with notable efficiency splits for a busy point guard.

Gilgeous-Alexander has downed 57.9% of his two-pointer drivers this month and is a certified Tier 1 driving threat across the Association. We already know that, though, and rather than rehash the same points, I’d refer you to Mat Issa’s excellent breakdown of SGA’s unique ride characteristics at The Analyst.

And while SGA is a proven finisher and pullup scorer, he actually had a little more help this month. According to Cleaning the Glass, 42% of his at-rim buckets were assisted versus his 27% rate all season.

OKC did a better job of moving the ball and kicking to his centerpiece. In turn, he’s made quicker decisions to catch and drive himself, providing a worldwide pressure point against a tilted defense. Josh Giddey has taken on more responsibility as moderator, but help really does come from everywhere, as shown above.

The results are shown in this table. The number of times Gilgeous-Alexander has attempted shots to the rim with two dribbles or fewer, and his efficiency according to PBP stats:

season genital mutilation FGA FG% frequency (% of total FGA)
2018-19 64 100 64% 13.99%
2019-20 93 155 60% 15.33%
2020-21 21 37 56.76% 6.56%
2021-22 55 79 69.62% 7.52%
2022-23 59 82 71.95% 9.47%

During those first two seasons, SGA was a supplemental player with the Los Angeles Clippers and a second option with OKC alongside Chris Paul. He then became one of the most-played No. 1 options in the league. Now in his third year on the role, Gilgeous-Alexander has less to do with his dribbling, which equates to an increase in efficiency.

They can even extend to middle tier, where he hits 4.6% of his shots with two dribbles or fewer (highest in the last three years) and hits a paltry 62.5% of those shots (by far a career high). . Though Gilgeous-Alexander still does most of his scoring work by himself, the supporting cast are beginning to make life easier.

As previously mentioned, Giddey has played a large part in the Thunder’s offensive improvement and overall rise. (Our Nekias Duncan detailed what works for the Second Year Watch and I highly recommend checking out his breakdown.)

Now let’s move on to two groundbreaking role players: Isaiah Joe and Kenrich Williams.

I wrote last summer that OKC needs to improve on its worst catch-and-shoot three-point clip in the league of 32.6% to really help its offense around Gilgeous-Alexander. So far this season, the team is in 15th place with a very good hit rate of 37.2%. Several Thunder players have improved, including significant jumps from Giddey, Lu Dort and (when healthy) Aleksej Pokusevski.

But Joe and Williams really turned the tide. They lead the roster in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage and rank in the top 15 off-the-catch in the entire league, per second spectrum.

After being released by the Philadelphia 76ers in October, Joe has increased his playing time each subsequent month of the season. He averaged 12.1 points in 21.1 minutes per game in January while hitting 44.6% of his triples. I don’t like playing the on/off stats game too often, but it’s telling that the Thunder outperformed their opponents by 19.9 points per 100 possessions with Joe on court, according to Cleaning the Glass. That ranks
third party among all NBA players.

The former Arkansas Razorback entered the NBA with perimeter marksmanship as his calling card, and it’s unfortunate for the Sixers that they didn’t see things through. Straight away in his third season, Joe became one of the best shooters in the league.

These buckets may not look flashy, but they are invaluable to what OKC is trying to achieve. Gilgeous-Alexander will consistently seek help with his drives, and several other players like Williams and Darius Bazley can attack the catch or rely on cuts. All Joe has to do is make the defense pay for the help by moving and connecting. He hits 48.4% of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers, which puts him fifth among all players with at least 75 such attempts.

Unlike Joe, Williams wasn’t entirely sure. He made 44.4% of his three-pointers in 2020-21, but then only 33.9% in 2021-22, including 34.0% on catch-and-shoot attempts. This year he’s roared back with an overall clip of 42.9% and is shooting a staggering 52.8% from long range in January.

Most of the resurgence comes via a massive year of recovery from the corners. The 28-year-old shoots 54.5% in turn three after just 35% last season. He’s also a bigger threat than Joe when it comes to tackling a closeout and making the right pass.

Williams isn’t a shady advantage creator, but he’s confident in getting the ball on the ground enough to compress sides of a defense. So far this month, Williams has 27 assists against just 5 turnovers, which alongside his hot shooting provide stability when moving the ball.

It’s fair to wonder at the shooting of regression for Williams, Joe, and some of the other roleplayers on OKC’s roster. At the same time, however, this roster has a top-10 defense that builds on a solid 2021-22 and offers some cushion when parts of the offense take a downturn.

Currently, to make a top 6 seed, the Thunder would need to pass the Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and at least one of the Mavericks or Clippers. That looks daunting on paper; Most of these franchises are packed with playoff experience and have already proven themselves.

The positives: According to the Tankathon, Oklahoma City has the easiest remaining game schedule in the NBA. In their last 35 games, the Thunder have played the Houston Rockets three times, the Los Angeles Lakers three times, and the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors once each. They only face one of the Memphis Grizzlies’ Tier 1 regular season rosters. Additionally, OKC is down to three back-to-backs and a massive six-game homestand at the end of February.

Adding to this favorable schedule, the above playoff race opponents each have their own issues with injuries and inconsistent basketball. We don’t have to wave Golden State, Phoenix or LAC through the regular season just because we know it’s going to be tough in the postseason. We also no longer have to imagine what the youngest team in the NBA could be.

The Thunder have legitimately high-level defense, an incoming offense, and a group of supports that support their Superstar better than ever – and they just keep getting better.

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