Article in the Athletic -- theathletic.com/4141255/2023/02/01/thunder-shai-gilgeous-alexander-josh-giddey-play-in-contender/
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How the Thunder went from rebuild to fringe Play-In contender: ‘It’s starting to take shape’
OKLAHOMA CITY — Vegas set the Oklahoma City Thunder’s over/under at 23.5 wins in the preseason. They passed it before the 50-game mark. When you exceed expectations this swiftly in the NBA, you draw an added layer of attention attached to a pair of bigger picture questions: How is this happening and where is it going?
The Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Thunder are the four youngest teams in the NBA. All entered the season with an average roster age below 24. The Thunder, at 23.14, are the NBA’s youngest team but also the best among that comparable group. The Magic are 20-31, the Spurs are 14-37 and the Rockets are 12-38, all careening toward the lottery, as their growth arc would predict.
The Thunder have emerged into a more advanced stage. They currently sit at 24-26, on the fringe of a Play-In spot in the crowded Western Conference and rising. January was a blossoming. They went 9-5 over that 14-game stretch, putting up the league’s third-most efficient offense (119.8 rating) and seventh stingiest defense (112.1).
So, again, it begs the question: How? The Athletic spent two days around the Thunder this week in Oklahoma City to get a better ground-level sense of what ingredients are allowing this to happen. Here’s a deeper dive.
It starts with Shai
It never took much critical analysis to understand how valuable that 2019 Paul George trade could become for the Thunder. Oklahoma City grabbed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and five future first-round picks for a star with wandering eyes. One of those picks has already turned into Jalen Williams, the polished young wing who is producing as a rookie (12.1 points, 51 percent shooting, more than a steal per game) and profiles as a high-level complementary piece for the next decade.
But every rebuild chained to realistic title aspirations needs a talent capable of turning into a legit top-10 player. Their own high lottery picks were always the clearest path to that, not the LA Clippers’ picks or even Gilgeous-Alexander, a lanky late lottery guard who averaged 11 points per game during an encouraging rookie season for the Clippers before they reluctantly added him into the George trade.
The Thunder have only been out of the playoffs for two years. They had the league’s fourth-worst record both seasons. That produced Josh Giddey sixth overall in 2021 and Chet Holmgren second overall in 2022. Either may one day evolve into a superstar-level talent. But Gilgeous-Alexander already has, lessening the pressure on Giddey and Holmgren to pop as quickly or substantially. This rebuild has found its cornerstone.
“The way he’s handled the situation says a lot about his character,” Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “He’s kind of been a young vet since his second year here. A lot of guys want something else. He’s taken it head on and embraced it. I respect him for that.”
Behind the scenes, the Warriors glowed about Gilgeous-Alexander during and after their 2019 first-round series against the Clippers. Even now, four years removed, they reference it as a we saw it before you saw it warning.
“We saw it in the playoffs,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Supreme confidence in the midrange game. Getting to his spots, pump-faking and making these 12-, 15-footers.”
On Monday night against Golden State, Gilgeous-Alexander shook off an 0-of-5 start to finish with 31 points and seven assists. Twenty-one came in a rapid second-half comeback, when he beat Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Kuminga and Donte DiVincenzo with a variety of patient isolation attacks, scoring over or passing around Green and Kevon Looney when they’d collapse.
“He gets to his spot just as good as anybody in the league,” Green said. “He’s strong as s—. I didn’t realize how strong he’s gotten. Physical, not ducking no contact. Just getting to his spot and getting what he wants. Just delivers his shoulder, gets to his spot and he’s 6-foot-7.”
Here’s a prime example. Gilgeous-Alexander walks Kuminga into the paint with a few dribbles and then hits him with a power spin that sends Kuminga on his heels, too far away to properly contest. Kuminga is an elite athlete known for his advanced strength. Gilgeous-Alexander sheds him and then glides into a soft touch jumper.
This wasn’t an abnormal game from Gilgeous-Alexander. It was almost his definition of normal, from a scoring perspective. Through 44 games, he’s averaging 30.9 points on 51 percent shooting. He went 10 of 10 from the free-throw line against the Warriors. He averages 10.2 attempts per game and makes 90.8 percent of them.
“We had our first experience with him in that Clippers series,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said. “He’s shifty. He plays at his own pace. Nobody can rush him. He’s tall enough to shoot over you. He’s good at drawing fouls. We knew coming into the game he was going to make tough shots. That’s what he does. He ended up with 31 after having two in the first quarter.”
Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 23.7 and 24.5 points the last two seasons. That’s a ton. But 30 per game is an entirely different level. It elevates you into the elite class of scorers that bend defenses and completely change the court chemistry. Only Joel Embiid, Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum are currently averaging more.
Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting 36.8 percent from 3, but he barely takes them. He averages 2.7 attempts per game, fewer than even Antetokounmpo, instead thriving in that midrange. Particularly, Gilgeous-Alexander punctures defenses from the 10-to-14-foot range. In that zone, here are the league leaders in makes this season.
1. Gilgeous-Alexander: 119 of 211 — 56.4 percent
2. Kevin Durant: 110 of 186 — 59.1 percent
3. DeMar DeRozan: 87 of 174 — 50 percent
Thunder center Mike Muscala is one of the beneficiaries of Gilgeous-Alexander’s explosion. Muscala, a 10-year pro, is in his fourth year with the Thunder, the team’s established veteran and still a potent threat from deep. Muscala is 46 of 121 from 3 this season. Of those 46 makes, 29 of them have come via a Gilgeous-Alexander assist.
“Sometimes I think in the modern evolution of the game, sometimes teams and players lose that midrange skill,” Muscala told The Athletic. “Guys are so good defensively in the league. They can see your eyes. They can see what you’re looking for. If they know you aren’t looking for that pull-up in the midrange, they’re able to stay home on their guys more. With his ability for pull-ups, guys have to be there to help and bite. Then he’s making great passes this year.”
Here’s the simplest of examples from that Warriors game on Monday night. Gilgeous-Alexander pushes it in transition and dribbles it to about 15 feet out, typically no man’s land in the modern NBA. But once Gilgeous-Alexander gets there, Looney and Anthony Lamb swarm him, leaving a trailing Muscala to glide into an open wing 3. When you’re shooting it like Durant and DeRozan from the midrange, defenses begin to treat you as that type of threat.
Giddey as the co-pilot
The first couple months of Giddey’s second season weren’t overly encouraging. He wasn’t making enough occasional 3s to stretch the defense, wasn’t pressuring the rim enough to threaten shot blockers and was too often, in Thunder coach Mark Daigneault’s eyes, settling for an inefficient floater with no chance of drawing a foul.
“I try not to micromanage them shot by shot like it’s a video game,” Daigneault said. “But we try to educate them on diet. It’s more about your whole diet. You can have things in your diet that are not necessarily healthy for you. But you need to supplement that with a good base. The same thing goes for your shot diet. I thought, early in the season, he was driving and not overly physical when he got into the teeth of the defense. He was just kind of settling for those (floaters). Then he wasn’t getting enough of the other stuff to be efficient.”
Giddey only made 45 percent of his shots in October and November. In 26 games since the start of December, he’s above 50 percent. That bump in efficiency is directly related to a more aggressive approach and healthier shot diet. In 14 January games, he went 52 of 78 in the restricted area. His assists are up and his turnovers are down.
“He’s been more physical on the drive,” Daigneault said. “His fouls have upticked. He’s getting to the rim more. He’s out in transition more. Then the deeper you get, the more of a threat you are. That’s where his passing comes into play.”
It’s an interesting contrast with the way Gilgeous-Alexander’s shot diet is being utilized and highlighted. Daigneault and the Thunder’s entire braintrust, extending up to longtime general manager Sam Presti, are analytically driven. But they clearly aren’t rigid in their approach, requiring 3s, layups and nothing else. Their best player lives in the midrange.
“You could bomb contested 3s all night and that’s a highly inefficient shot,” Daigneault said. “In fact, I think a contested 3 has become the new midrange. Teams are so sophisticated analytically now that it’s swung where teams are taking 3s to take them. Those are not always great shots.”
Neither Giddey nor Gilgeous-Alexander — their backcourt of the present and future — take 3s at a modern clip. But they’ve surrounded the duo with plenty of shooting and pushed both into a more analytically friendly comfort zone. They’re pushing Giddey to get to the rim more often because the numbers suggest it and embracing Gilgeous-Alexander’s love of the second level because the numbers support it.
“With Shai specifically, his ability to hit that shot forces defenses to pick him up higher, double-team him more, trap him on pick-and-roll,” Daigneault said. “That is downstream efficiency. Because if there’s two guys on him and he moves it out of there, you’re playing four on three. The Warriors know it well. If they’re playing Curry like that, hit Green in the pocket, the efficiency on those plays are ridiculous.”
One of the larger big-picture questions for the Thunder will surround Giddey’s fit next to Gilgeous-Alexander. Both are lead guards. Both average 5.7 assists per game. Both will control action plenty over the course of any game. But the on-ball pecking order goes Gilgeous-Alexander first and Giddey second.
“The best thing about it is we’ve both learned to play off one another,” Giddey said. “Those things take time. It was never going to be smooth from Day 1. Two guys that are better with the ball in their hands had to learn how to give it up, get it back. We’ve figured that out. A lot of that is playing off. I’m learning to cut and play out of the dunker a little more, space the floor for him but at the same time be aggressive when it’s in my hands.”
Giddey has finished off 69 possessions this season with a cut, according to Synergy. They’ve produced 82 points. Here’s an example from a home game against the Toronto Raptors. Gilgeous-Alexander operates from up top, carves his way into the middle and Giddey, stationed in the left corner, times up a cut and easy lefty layup.
The defensive-minded supporting cast
Last season, Kerr was impressed watching the Thunder. He’s a fan of Daigneault and occasionally communicates with him via text. He liked the direction OKC was going but had the same thought many did when the news of the summer popped their balloon.
“I could see last year what a good job they were doing,” Kerr said. “It’s hard to tell when everything is gonna come together. Then I thought when Chet Holmgren went down it was really gonna slow them down.”
Holmgren, over the long term, projects to be the exact defensive ingredient they’re missing. The Thunder don’t have a true rim protector. While Holmgren recovers from a Lisfranc injury, they’ve started Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Muscala and, of late, Jaylin Williams at center. None of the three are feared in the paint.
But the Thunder have still found a way to generate more stops than most modern defenses. Their 112.1 rating entered Tuesday as the league’s eighth-ranked unit. Luguentz Dort is a powerful stopper able to switch between guards and wings. Jalen Williams has good size and is advanced for his age on that end. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. Giddey is getting better on that end. Kenrich Williams competes.
“Collectively,” Muscala said. “We have really good, young individual defenders. Guys that are quick. But I think we are helping each other really well on defense. That’s been big for us.”
Daigneault has also shown night-to-night creativity, switching up scheme and rotation depending on the matchup.
“Lot of length at every position,” Kerr said. “Not many weak spots in their defense. They have a good scheme. You can see that they’ll switch with a lot of guys but not everybody. They’ll throw different looks at you. They’ll play some zone. They’ll play a smaller lineup against your bigger lineup. Which they did against Atlanta. Switched everything with the five when Clint Capela was out there and stayed home with other guys. It was impressive. I feel like they’re putting together a foundation on both ends.”
Where is this going?
The Sacramento Kings haven’t made the playoffs in 16 seasons and have made their organizational priorities clear. They’re all-in on chasing down a playoff spot to end the drought. The Minnesota Timberwolves had similar thirst to enter the picture as quick as possible last season. They did it and then opted to speed up their timeline this summer with the all-in Rudy Gobert trade.
That isn’t how the Thunder are operating. It’s not an organization that’s been wandering in the lottery wilderness for long. Beginning in 2010, they made the postseason 10 out of 11 seasons, reaching the conference finals four times. They’ve only been out of the playoffs for two seasons, allowing patience for Presti’s grander approach. He has as much autonomy as any other NBA executive.
But playoff basketball can be invaluable for a young core. They should know. The golden era Thunder with Durant and Russell Westbrook reached the playoffs before anyone expected. They slipped in as the eighth seed back in 2010 when Durant and Westbrook were 21, losing to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games. In the years after, they’d regularly reference that series as an informative welcome to what winning NBA basketball is about.
Don’t expect the big swing at the NBA trade deadline that mortgages any of the future for the present. But if the growth of the Thunder’s young core and the parity of the conference keeps that playoff door ajar, they’ll gladly walk right through.
“Coach challenged us at the beginning of January,” Muscala said. “He said, ‘Hey, this is when a lot of teams are in the quote-unquote ‘dog days’ of the season. There’s kind of a tendency to let down. Let’s really challenge ourselves to be in the moment, do the little things, take care of our bodies, do skill work. It’s shown this month.”
The Thunder have jolted into the playoff picture, creating some nightly stakes that many of their young players have never experienced. Giddey admitted that it’s fun to enter a late January game with something on the line. Had Oklahoma City beat Golden State on Monday night, they would’ve tied the Warriors in the standings. But the Thunder’s leadership group prefers to keep the current expectations and pressure relatively suppressed.
“Sam talked to us a few days ago,” Muscala said. “The continued challenge is keeping the same (day-by-day) mindset. That’s the challenge of the NBA, but it’s also the beauty of it.”
Everyone is eventually a victim of their success. Gilgeous-Alexander is blossoming into the type of talent that almost always delivers a team into the playoff picture. A few of their recent draft picks are contributing right away. The once robust conference is losing much of its vigor. The Thunder are growing their way into relevancy quicker than imagined.
“That’s sped up the process for sure,” Kerr said. “Then obviously they have a million draft picks. So it’s starting to take shape.”