Making the Oklahoma City Thunder’s case as a top-6 NBA playoff seed

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OKC is far removed from the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes and
too good of a basketball team to throw in the towel. Meanwhile, the
rest of the West has been riddled with inconsistency, as some of
the projected top teams battle injuries, manage rest and, more
plainly, underwhelm.

Sneaking into the Play-In Tournament might be selling the
youngest team in the league short. Why can’t OKC bypass the
preliminary round entirely?

The franchise has its superstar. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has
maintained his 30-point-per-game pace in every month this season on
remarkable efficiency splits for a high-usage point guard.

Gilgeous-Alexander has knocked down 57.9% of his two-pointers
this month and is a certified Tier 1 driving threat across the
Association. We know that already, though, and instead of rehashing
the same points, I’d like to direct you to Mat Issa’s excellent breakdown of
SGA’s unique driving gifts over at The Analyst.

And though SGA is a proven finisher and pull-up scorer, he’s
actually had some more help this month. According to Cleaning the
Glass, 42% of his at-rim buckets have been assisted, up from his
27% rate on the whole season.

OKC has done a better job moving the ball around and kicking out
to its centerpiece. In turn, he has made quicker decisions to catch
and drive himself, which puts an all-world pressure point against a
tilted defense. Josh Giddey has taken on more responsibility as a
facilitator, but the help is really coming from everywhere, as
shown above.

The results show in this table. Here’s how often
Gilgeous-Alexander has attempted shots at the rim with two dribbles
or less, and his efficiency, per PBP Stats:

Season FGM FGA FG% Freq. (% 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%

Those first two seasons, SGA was a complementary player with the
Los Angeles Clippers and a second option in OKC next to Chris Paul.
Then, he became one of the league’s highest-usage No. 1 options.
Now, in his third year with the role, Gilgeous-Alexander is having
to create less with his dribble, and it’s corresponding to an
increase in efficiency. 

You can even extend out to the mid-range, where he’s taking 4.6%
of his shots with two dribbles or less (highest of the past three
years), and hitting a ridiculous 62.5% of those shots (by far a
career-high). So though Gilgeous-Alexander is still doing the vast
majority of his scoring work by himself, the supporting cast is
starting to make life easier. 

Giddey, as mentioned, has been a massive piece to the offensive
improvement and the Thunder’s overall rise. (Our Nekias Duncan detailed what’s
working for the second-year guard
and I highly recommend you
check out his breakdown.)

Now, let’s slide over to two game-changing role-players: Isaiah
Joe and Kenrich Williams. 

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

But Joe and Williams have truly turned the tide. They lead the
squad in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage and are among the
15 best off the catch in the entire league, per Second
Spectrum.

Joe, after being waived by the Philadelphia 76ers in October,
has increased his playing time in each subsequent month of the
season. He’s averaging 12.1 points in 21.1 minutes per game during
January while canning 44.6% of his triples. I don’t love playing
the on/off stats game too often, but it’s telling that the Thunder
have been 19.9 points better than opponents per 100 possesssions
with Joe on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. That ranks
third 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. Joe has very
immediately become one of the best shooters in the league in his
third season. 

These buckets might not look flashy, but they’re invaluable to
what OKC wants to accomplish. Gilgeous-Alexander will consistently
draw help on his drives, and several other players like Williams
and Darius Bazley can attack off the catch or leverage themselves
on cuts. All Joe has to do is make the defense pay for helping by
relocating and connecting. He’s hitting 48.4% of his
catch-and-shoot threes, good for fifth among all players with at
least 75 such attempts.

Unlike Joe, Williams has not been quite the sure bet. He made
44.4% of his threes in 2020-21, but then just 33.9% in 2021-22,
including 34.0% on catch-and-shoot attempts. This year, he’s roared
back with a 42.9% overall clip and is shooting an eye-popping 52.8%
from distance in January. 

Most of the resurgence comes via a massive bounce-back year from
the corners. The 28-year-old is shooting 54.5% on corner threes
after hitting just 35% last season. He’s also a bigger threat than
Joe to attack a closeout and make the right pass.

Williams isn’t some shifty advantage-creator, but he’s confident
in putting the ball on the floor to the point where he can compress
sides of a defense. So far this month, Williams has 27 assists
against just 5 turnovers, providing stability moving the ball in
addition to his hot shooting.

It’s fair to wonder about shooting regression for Williams, Joe
and some of the other role-players on OKC’s roster. But at the same
time, this squad has a top-10 defense that builds on a solid
2021-22 year and gives some cushion if pieces of the offense hit a
downturn. 

To reach a top-six seed, the Thunder would currently 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 those franchises are loaded with
playoff experience and have proven themselves already.

The positive: According to Tankathon, Oklahoma City has the
easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. The Thunder play the Houston
Rockets three times and Los Angeles Lakers three times, plus the
Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto
Raptors once each in their final 35 games. They only face one of
the Tier 1 regular season squads in the Memphis Grizzlies. In
addition, OKC has just three back-to-backs left and a massive
six-game homestand at the end of February. 

On top of that favorable schedule, those aforementioned foes in
the playoff race have all been battling their own problems with
injuries and inconsistent basketball. We don’t need to wave Golden
State or Phoenix or LAC through the regular season just because we
know they’ll be tough outs in the postseason. We also don’t need to
imagine what the youngest team in the NBA could be anymore.

The Thunder have a legitimate high-level defense, an arriving
offense and a cast of supporters that is bolstering their superstar
better than ever before — and they’re still getting better.





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