As we approach the middle of this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder sit at 14-27 (a 28 win pace) and 14th in the Western Conference standings. Though this may not be the result that some fans wanted coming into this season, the Thunder are positioning themselves well to secure a high lottery pick in this year’s draft to add to their core of young talent.
Despite the bad overall record, this team is actually better than one may believe just by looking at the standings. With both SGA and Dort playing, the team is 14-19, or a 35 win pace. Though this probably still isn’t enough to make the Play-In Tournament, it is considerably better than the teams record now. Much like the rest of the league, the Thunder have lost lots of players to COVID protocols and other various injuries.
One major pitfall this season has been shooting, as the Thunder rank dead last in the league when it comes to three point shooting, a skill that is very necessary in the modern NBA. As a whole, the team is shooting a terrible 30.8% from three. This lack of shooting clogs up driving lanes for players such as SGA and Giddey that need space. Combine this lack of shooting with the fact that the Thunder drive inside more than team in the league and it is very clear where this teams offensive struggles come into play.
On the other hand, the Thunder’s defense has been pleasantly surprising. The team currently sits at 14th in the NBA in DTRG. Young players usually struggle on the defensive end of the floor, so it is great that this team has instilled hard work and hustle into their young squad.
Despite struggling, this team never looks dejected. The Thunder have had a multitude of comeback wins after trailing by 15+ points and are currently first in the league in those comeback wins. This team seems to fight at its hardest when down in a game. This isn’t very common with young teams in tanking seasons, as sometimes it seems like players will just give up in these situations. The Thunder are clearly well coached and know how to fight, something that will pay its dividends once this team is attempting to make more serious runs in the (hopefully) near future.
It will be interesting to see this team after the trade deadline, as there is a good possibility it struggles harder in the second half should the Thunder choose to unload veterans such as Kenrich Williams who are uplifting the team off the bench.
Shai Gilgeous Alexander (C)
I think its safe to say most of us were expecting more from Shai this year. In a similar sample size to last year, he has been much less consistent and efficient this season than he was last time around. His scoring is down, assists are down, field goal percentage is down, and his three point percentage currently sits at an abysmal 27% on over 6 attempts a game. His shot selection seems to have taken a hit. He cannot drive by people with the same ease as last season.
It is unclear as to why he has struggled so much offensively compared to last season. It could be that he never fully recovered from his injury or could possibly be the lack of talent and spacing around him preventing him from playing at his best. The Thunder as a whole are the worst 3pt shooting team in the league, which really affects a heavy driver such as Shai that relies on space.
Beyond his scoring struggles, though, Shai has also struggled to be effective off ball offensively. When playing with another ball-dominant player such as Josh Giddey, it is important to be able to move in space to generate good offense for the team. Yet, when off-ball Shai often looks uninvolved or uninterested. This is certainly something I would like to see Shai work on in the second half of the season. His shots may not fall which is fine, but this is something he can easily remedy. If the Thunder can start combining his actions with those of Giddey, this team’s offense could make a big leap.
Yet, it hasn’t been all bad for Shai. He is still showing that he can perform in the clutch. Shai currently ranks 19th in the league in clutch points per game and the Thunder are 10-8 in these clutch games. When the game gets tight, this team still turns to Shai and he is showing that he can deliver.
Play of the Season: Lakers Logo Shot
Josh Giddey (A-)
Josh Giddey has quickly become a fan favorite for a good reason. He’s got the hair, he’s got the flair, and he certainly knows how to share [the rock]. We are quickly starting to see the potential that Giddey has as he is already a high impact player as the second youngest player in the entire league. His vision and understanding of the game on offense parallels that of a seasoned veteran playmaker as he finds opportunities for his teammates than nobody else on thee floor or even in the audience can see.
The first thing that should be brought up when talking about Giddey should always be his passing, as it is far and away his best attribute. His superb vision allows the Thunder offense to run super smoothly to the point where I trust him more as the primary ball handler and decision maker than SGA. Giddey is currently leading rookies in assists per game at 6.4 and is also averaging 11.6 potential assists per game.
One concern that I and many others still have about Giddey is his shooting. He started the season shooting quite poorly from three and even now he only sits at 28% on the year. Yet, his shot has been looking much better recently. He’s shot 39% from three in his last 10 games and is shooting over 50% from deep in January. He has also been attempting many more off-dribble threes than before and they have been dropping, as his patented through the leg dribble into a three has been catching defenders off guard recently. If he can find consistency in his shot and even get to around 33% from deep it will open up other aspects of his game like his driving and playmaking.
His other scoring has been a nice surprise though. When he is assertive and driving to the rim his big frame and physicality make him hard to stop. He also has a nice floater that comes into play when defenders try to take away the rim from him. I would definitely like to see him drive more aggressively in the second half of this season.
One area where Giddey can work on going into the latter half of his rookie season is his defense. He plays great one on one defense, but struggles sometimes in off ball defense, which is very normal for rookies. He often gets caught ball watching or sagging too far off of his man leading to easy threes for opponents. This is not something to be overly concerned about, as some more time watching film should give him more instinct on defense.
Play Of The Season: Giddey sets the youngest to record a triple double record
Luguentz Dort (B)
Sweet Lu Dort. The undrafted Canadian continues to impress us, this time with the development of his offensive arsenal. Albeit streaky, he has shown that he can deliver on the offensive end as his role on that end of the floor has increased. Dort is currently averaging 16.3ppg, a 2.3 point increase from last year. However, he is only shooting 30% from three on the year as he has been very streaky from beyond. Nonetheless, the difficulty of his shots is improving and once the team gets better I expect his percentages to rise as well.
Beyond shoooting, he has also found offense at the rim this season. He has been driving much more than in recent years and has had some very impressive finishes. Though he is not the most skilled finisher, his strength and build allow him to finish over centers quite often.
Unfortunately, this offensive revolution has come with a cost. His stellar defense and grit that we are so used to hasn’t been as featured in his game this season. He hasn’t been fighting over screens defensively or staying with perimeter plays as well as he has in years past, especially his rookie season. Don’t get me wrong, he can absolutely turn on the defense when he wants to but his increased burden on offense is definitely tiring him to the point where his defense has slipped from what we’re used to. As the team gets better, I don’t think Dort’s role will require him to really be this productive/high volume on offense, so we should see a return to form in his defense as we add talent.
Play Of The Season: Game winner vs Kings
Darius Bazley (B-)
Bazley has been woefully inconsistent on offense this season but has made up for it with stellar defense, especially in the rim protection department. His role has also changed multiple times, as he went from struggling starter to center to very impactful bench player.
Much like the rest of the Thunder, he is struggling from three as he’s currently at 27.5% on the season. Beyond shooting, his offense definitely gets hurt by his decision making. When he puts the ball on the floor on the perimeter he often ends up turning the ball over or creating a shot for himself that is way too tough and low percentage. This has become less of an issue as of late, but still occurs once or so a game. Moving him to the bench has had a positive effect on his game as he is starting to play within his own limits more than before.
Instead, Bazley should be used as more of a roller on offense. This has become very evident as of late, as playing Bazley at center more often has given him more opportunities to play in the pick and roll and get easy drives the the rim without dribbles involved. His finishing at the rim gets a nice boost from his superior athleticism and length, even though he struggled in that department in the beginning of the season. Playing him at center best maximizes his potential on offense.
It really is his defense that allows him to be played at center, though. Bazley’s rim protection has been elite recently and he’s come up with some truly spectacular blocks. He has crazy athleticism and has emerged as a premier shot blocker. I’m excited to see Bazley solidify his role on the team in the second half of the season and finally find some consistency.
Play of the season: Block on Corey Kispert
Tre Mann (B)
Tre Mann is definitely one of the most exciting players to watch in this roster and maybe in the entire league. He’s only averaging 7 points but has quite the bag of moves. He creates ridiculous space on his stepbacks, has a tight handle, a nice floater, and is starting to find consistency finishing at the rim. He also has sneaky good athleticism and bounce. As he develops more physically, I expect his finishing to get better and his offense to really take off in a sixth man Jordan Clarkson type of role. His shooting has also been decent at 35%, making him look like Curry in comparison to the rest of this Thunder roster.
Defensively he struggled early in the season, leading to him ending up in the G-League among the whole skittles-broccoli debacle. Since coming back, he has looked much more active on defense. He will always be limited by size on this end of the floor, but being active will keep him on the floor. Unfortunately, this limitation will probably keep him from seeing the floor in critical moments until he can put on some size.
Play of the season: Dunk on the Lakers
Jeremiah Robinson Earl (B)
Robinson-Earl has been a pleasant surprise this season coming from the early 2nd round of the NBA draft. He definitely looks like a more experienced player than a rookie and I strongly believe he has promising role player potential in this league. He’s got a nice looking shot for a big man as he is currently sitting at around 34% from three on the year. Defensively, he is often outclassed in size but has shown an ability to use positioning and timing to come up with some stops on bigger players. Additionally, he has shown that he can switch out onto the perimeter and still defend at a solid level, a valuable skill for any big man to have. All of that said, there are definitely some places he can improve,
One place JRE can really improve is his rim finishing. According to NBA Shot Chart Data, he is shooting 43/73 at the rim this season, a subpar 59% at the rim for a big man. He is definitely limited by his size and wingspan against bigger centers and is probably more effective just staying in the mid range area and around the three point line, much like PJ Tucker. Additionally, his size makes the team lose out on many rebounds when he is in at center. I think that if JRE is with this team long term, it will be as a power forward rather than a center.
Play of the season: Defense on James Harden
Kenrich Williams/Mike Muscala (A++)
It’s only fitting to combine these two players into the same section; they’re partners in crime to the fullest extent. Finding a thunder lineup with a good net rating that doesn’t feature one of these two players is nearly impossible. Currently, Kenrich Williams’ +/- is +30 and Mike Muscala’s is +48. This is very impressive for a team that is currently 14-27. Whenever they are called upon, these two veterans bring necessary shooting, intensity, and fight.
Kenrich Williams, or Kenny Hustle, has emerged as one of the bona fide role player wings in the league. He’s averaging a modest 8 points on a respectable 38% from three, but his impact goes far beyond what the box score will tell you. Every time he checks in, the entire team just seems to fight harder. He comes up with deflections, gets almost every loose ball in his vicinity, and comes up with offensive rebounds regularly. He has singlehandedly kickstarted multiple comebacks for this Thunder team through his strong defensive play.
Other teams are starting to take note of Kenrich’s play, too. There’s been many rumblings and conversations starting to be had about him by other organizations and their writers. Williams will easily boost a contender’s odds to win the title as he is the classic glue guy. Trading Kenrich is quite a polarizing topic for the Thunder, however. It would certainly impact the locker room, as Kenrich is one of the most respected players by the rest of this roster. Keeping a strong locker room and culture is very hard during a rebuild, and trading Kenrich will weaken the overall chemistry of the team. On the other hand, trading Williams would also boost this Thunder team’s lottery odds, as he contributes to many wins. It will be interesting to see what the team decides to do with him at the deadline.
Mike Muscala is one of the premier big man shooters in the league today. He is third in 3p% for centers, only behind Bobby Portis and Karl-Anthony Towns. In short stints such as those that the Thunder play him in he can be absolutely lethal. In only 13 minutes a game, he averages 8 points and makes 1.5 3s on average. This boost could be great for a team trying to add some shooting without dedicating too many minutes. Defensively he’s been alright, but hasn’t shown anything crazily impressive. He can hold his own against other big men sometimes but also gets overpowered on the interior sometimes.
Play Of the Season: Muscala Game Winner vs Toronto
Aaron Wiggins (B+)
Aaron Wiggins looks like one of the most NBA ready rookies in the league, which is very impressive coming from the 55th pick. His numbers won’t wow you, but he is putting together some really solid games on both sides of the floor. He’s been playing his best basketball as of late, as he’s averaged about 14 points over the last 8 games including two 20+ point performances.
Not only has he shown some consistency offensively, but his defense has been solid as well. He has a knack for being in the right spots and coming up with deflections. His NBA ready frame also helps him with the physicality that comes with the defensive end of the game.
Wiggins being 23 has certainly helped his ability to be NBA ready but it also brings some question into how he fits into the future plans with the organization. Nonetheless, he is clearly a solid player and has long term role player potential which is more value than one should ever expect to receive from the 55th pick in the NBA draft.
Play of the season: Poster dunk on Cam Johnson
Aleksej Pokusevski (C-)
Aleksej Pokusevski is the epitome of a rollercoaster player. Unfortunately this season there has been more lows in the ride than highs by a pretty big margin. He’s shooting a less than ideal 23% from three and 35% from the field on about 2.5 and 5.5 attempts, respectively. His shot selection is still questionable but he’s shown better ability around the rim this year than he did last year. With the advantage of his length and wingspan, he should be looking for rim opportunities much more often than he currently is.
Defensively, he has done a better job using his length this season but can still work on things like positioning and awareness to unlock his full defensive potential. Poku has just been assigned to the G-League. Hopefully his increased reps and responsibility in the G-League can translate over into NBA play.
Play of the Season: This array of moves vs Minnesota
Derrick Favors (C+)
There really isn’t much to say about Favors this season. He’s averaging 5/4.5/.8 and has appeared in 29 games this season. He certainly feels like the odd man out at times as the team is trying to get younger. His mid range has been a nice surprise for the team and he seems to always be in the right spots on offense. He certainly knows his limits and plays within himself. It is currently unclear if the Thunder will be able to move him at the deadline but I would not be surprised if he is bought out after the deadline if no deal is found.