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How can a team designed to lose keep winning?
The Thunder aren’t supposed to be here.
Guided by general manager Sam Presti, the Thunder have traded away virtually all of their talent and stockpiled an insane number of other teams’ draft picks (19 first-rounders alone in the next five years!) in the hopes of finding a generational superstar. They’ve assembled one of the least-experienced rosters in the league to tank for better odds on their own draft picks.
And, if the season ended today, the 6-8 Thunder would battle the Blazers in the play-in tournament.
How is this possible? The average NBA fan could not name three players on the Thunder’s roster. Hilariously, Ty Jerome, he of the 33% FG%, is their leader in on/off point differential by an outrageous margin. But just like last year, the Thunder are squeaking out wins in crunch time.
First, let’s cover the basics. OKC has the 26th-best point differential in the league, getting outscored by an average of -8.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s abysmal.
They have the 28th-ranked offense, which is somehow better than I expected. They are last in the league in finishing at the rim and 29th in three-point percentage, shooting just 31.2%. It can be gruesome to watch.
The defense, however, looks a lot better. The Thunder are 14th on the season in defensive rating and sixth in the last two weeks, which coincides with their surge.
Check out this log of all of OKC’s games this season from Cleaning the Glass (the colored boxes are the percentile for all games played this season; orange is good and blue is bad):
It’s clear that the offense still stinks. But the defense has come alive since the calendar flipped to November. How and why?
The Thunder have a lot of rangy, try-hard defenders. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the newly minted maximum-contract man, has a ridiculous 6’11” wingspan that envelops opposing point guards. Hulking wing Lu Dort is the biggest defensive name on the roster after his remarkable performance against James Harden in the bubble playoffs (can you believe the Thunder, led by Chris Paul, were in the playoffs just one calendar year ago?).
Coach Mark Daigneault has done a heck of a job getting these guys working together against superior opponents. Watch the following clip. Rookie Tre Mann (#23 in white) does an excellent job getting over not one but two different screens set by the Kings’ Richaun Holmes. He harasses his man Terence Davis and almost strips the ball from him, but oops! Mann saves it, but Davis recovers, initiating a five-on-four. The Thunder’s Derrick Favors corrals him and forces him under the basket, and Kenrich Williams is able to help and rotate quickly to the corner.
This is an excellent example of the Thunder blowing up the first action and still playing on a string even when things get chaotic.
The Thunder never foul people and rarely give up shots at the rim (and the layups that are attempted are well-contested). They do give up a lot of threes as a result, which can lead to problems against hot-shooting teams (they’re 0-2 against Golden State, for example), but they’re comfortable with that trade-off. Transition defense has been superb, and the Thunder never sulk or loaf around on turnovers. If someone makes a bad pass, the whole team races back to stymie the fast break:
After a bafflingly poor pass from OKC’s string-bean point-forward Pokusevski (“bafflingly poor” is a pretty good description of his general career thus far, sadly), the Heat look like they have a wide-open three. Then Kenrich Williams, aptly nicknamed “Kenny Hustle,” comes flying out of nowhere to disrupt Max Strus’ shot and force him to pass it off.
To be clear, this defense still isn’t great. The schedule has undoubtedly helped OKC’s defense look better than expected. Four of their wins have come against the Pelicans, Spurs, Rockets, and Kings, not exactly a murderer’s row, and they’ve also inexplicably won twice against the offensively-challenged Lakers. Any defense led by such young players will make mistakes, ball-watch, or lose focus at times.
All that said, the Thunder have only been favored in a single game this year (their most recent win against the Rockets), and their 6-8 record far exceeds national expectations.
According to NBA.com’s “clutch” stats, the Thunder have gone 5-1 in closely contested contests, and are shooting 54% in crunch time, the fourth-best rate in the league. For a young team, they certainly aren’t scared of the moment.
So what’s next? Well, the Thunder players presumably won’t keep shooting like Kevin Durant in close games. A decent defense can only do so much to cover up for an offense that has almost no shot creation outside of SGA, so it seems unlikely that the Thunder can keep up their recent successes, and good teams have had no problems with the Thunder so far.
But Sam Presti might not leave it to chance. Last year, the Thunder similarly enjoyed a better-than-expected (and better-than-desired) start, so when SGA suffered a foot injury in the middle of the season, the Thunder were quick to shut him down for the year. OKC went 16-19 last year when Gilgeous-Alexander played and just 6-31 when he didn’t.
They ended with the fourth-worst record but only ended up picking sixth, not as high as OKC would’ve liked. The Thunder have constructed this roster and made the trades they have specifically to get better picks than that, so it’ll be interesting to see what moves they make to get worse throughout this season.
At some point, players want to play basketball, especially young guys like SGA, who are eager to build up their statistical resumes and enter the All-Star conversation. OKC can’t keep shutting down players forever, but they certainly won’t be looking to improve the team this year. Instead, they will be losing games in the name of “player development.” Established veterans like Mike Muscala (who might be the third-best offensive player on this team) and Derrick Favors will see minutes reduced even further. Their youngest players will be asked to shoulder too much and will learn by doing.
Rookie Josh Giddey has been a pleasant surprise to start, a huge rebounding wing with point guard vision who has looked fearless driving and dishing. SGA continues to improve each year and is a borderline All-Star already. Lu Dort is having the most consistent offensive season of his career to date, although the three-point shot is still a work in progress. The Thunder will be prioritizing the development of these three players. They also will be looking closely at the other young players on the roster to see who can be a contributor on a real playoff contender in the future.
If nothing else, the SGA/Coach Daigneault combination seems to be enough to ensure that OKC won’t be the worst team in the league. But when will they start trying to actually win games?