Welcome to the Week Behind & the Week Ahead, where I’ll recap the most interesting things from the previous week of Thunder basketball and preview the most interesting things in the following week.
The Week Behind
The NBA season is now a week old, and every team has had a few games to digest. Oklahoma City was blessed with 4 games in the first week of the season, but managed to win just 1 of them- an absolute blowout against the Warriors. Their other 3 losses- to Utah, Washington, and Houston- were competitive games late into the 4th quarter before OKC failed in crunch time.
How much can you take away from 1 week of results? Not much- small sample sizes translate into unreliable numbers, and hot starts and cold starts will be long forgotten by February, much less June. But you know what? That’s boring.
Live in the now, baby!
Let’s take a look at some things that have been true through week 1 of the NBA season, small sample size be damned, and guess if those things will continue.
1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is OKC’s leading scorer
It’s been a tough start for the Thunder, but their young star has been a sorely needed bright spot. To say Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been as advertised would be doing him a disservice- Alexander has outperformed what even an optimist would have projected for his sophomore season.
SGA opened his Thunder career by setting a career high in points against the Jazz, then set another career high 2 nights later against the Jazz. Through 4 games he’s averaging 23.8 points a night, and doing it efficiently, shooting 48% from the field and getting to the free throw line over 5 times per game. And it’s how he’s done it that’s been most exciting- a patient, methodical style that goes against everything you expect from the NBA yet works perfectly in getting him where he wants to go.
And where does SGA want to go? In the general vicinity of the rim- where exactly doesn’t matter, because as long as he’s got a touch of space from his defender, SGA will find an angle that almost no other NBA player would try to take, take it, and make it.
There are few players who have a layup package quite like this, and few young guards who are this fearless attacking the rim with Rudy Gobert around. SGA is weird in the best way. Guys like Shai — who play outside the norm — are difficult to predict and exceedingly fun to watch. There is something so delightful about watching a 21 year old man play the way old men like to play at the park. SGA just might make the scoop shot cool.
SGA’s hot scoring start is the result of his own prodigious talent, but also OKC’s decision to employ him almost exclusively as a wing rather than a point guard. SGA has yet to be on the court without one of CP3 or Dennis Schroder. Those 2 have been tasked with getting OKC into it’s offense and setting up others, while Shai has clearly been focused on attacking the rim when he has the ball (with the aid of a screen or occasionally in a pure isolation) and on spacing the floor when he doesn’t (36% on a healthy 5 attempts per game). Yet after a slow start against Utah, SGA had racked up 4 assists in 3 straight games. If he keeps scoring at this level, defenses will have to send more help — which should open up more assists. Is SGA a Point guard or a wing? Who cares. He’s a damn good basketball player — maybe the best one this team has. And while it may only be 4 games, I’m confident that SGA will indeed be OKC’s leading scorer this year — and maybe for years to come too.
2. Hamidou Diallo is a rotation player
Diallo has been a delight on the second unit to start the season. The Thunder no longer have the destructive downhill driving of Russell Westbrook, so they have routinely thrown the ball to Diallo in potential transition situations and he’s gotten some truly vicious dunks when the opportunity has been there. More important, he’s shown good judgement in kicking the ball back to his point guard when the opportunity isn’t there, and has kept himself useful in the half court despite his lack of an outside jumper by cutting hard offball and using his ridiculous leaping ability to snare some offensive rebounds.
Most impressive has been how under control he’s looked when driving to the rim, unlike last season, when he charged the rim at top speed without a plan (watch Darius Bazley attack the hoop if you’ve forgotten what Diallo looked like last year). Diallo now has more finesse finishes and moves when he meets a challenger at the rim. The jumpshot will be what ultimately determines if he can be starting caliber wing, but his leap as a driver and decision maker will serve him well, if it holds. On a team devoid of second unit talent, he’ll have every chance to keep working on his offensive game.
3. The shot clock is OKC’s enemy this year
Say what you will about Russell Westbrook — you’ve probably already said it, and he absolutely does not care — but the Thunder rarely worried about the shot clock with Westbrook running the offense. Actually, that’s not quite true — OKC was often worried about the shot clock, in the sense of “there are 19 seconds left on the shot clock — why did Russ just jack a contested midranger?” OKC averaged just 4.9 shots in the final second 4 seconds of the shot clock last year, last in the entire league.
There are drawbacks to that breakneck speed, but benefits too. This season, with Westbrook gone and replaced with the more methodical, notably older and slower Chris Paul holding the controller, the Thunder average 8 attempts per game in the final 4 seconds of the shot clock- 6th in the league. They average a further 9.8 attempts with 4-7 seconds left on the clock, 3rd highest in the league. Combined, 20% of their attempts come with under 7 seconds left on the clock. To be sure, that is NOT what “7 seconds or less” offense means. While OKC has actually been relatively efficient in these late clock situations, these are low efficiency shots almost by definition, as the offense needs to take whatever they can get, lest the turn the ball over.
This one feels likely to hold; OKC’s 3 leading scorers (Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and SGA) are all methodical, slower paced players. OKC can do some things to mitigate this-getting into their offense without first dribbling 10 seconds off the clock would help, but it’s also a natural consequence of running the offense through 2 players on the wrong side of 30.
4. Chris Paul has negative trade value
Danilo Gallinari, who has almost effortlessly averaged 19 points per game on excellent efficiency, remains the most likely player on OKC’s roster to get traded. Plenty of contenders could make use of him purely as a floor spacer (41% from deep so far), to say nothing of the other ways he can score the ball. He’s on an expiring deal and not in OKC’s long term plans. A trade makes too much sense not to happen. In other words, don’t buy an OKC Gallinari jersey, unless you’re hoping to win your local sports bar’s “most Ironic Jersey” contest 5 years from now on (and you’ll lose to the guy with the Dion Waiters OKC jersey anyways).
After Gallo though, you would’ve expected CP3, aged but still a force, to command the most interest in a trade, with only his mammoth contract standing in the way. Through 4 games though, Paul’s dreadnought of a contract is less of a problem than his dreadful play.
Paul is shooting just 41% from the field, a number that is actually raised by his 3 point shooting, which is unsustainably high at 50%. He has somehow shot just 36% from 2-point range, a consequence of his inability to get to the rim (just 9% of his shots have come at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass) and his struggles creating as much separation for his midrange shot as he once could. Perhaps most troubling of all — CP3, the Point God, challenger to the Greatest Point Guard of all time, has averaged just 3.3 assists per game. Is Paul washed?
Perhaps. But CP3 has earned the benefit of the doubt over his long career. He’s averaging 7.5 potential assists per game, and has been the victim of some flubs from his teammates, including pick and roll partner Steven Adams, who has had severe early season struggles of his own. The assist numbers will creep back up, and Paula acquitted himself well scoring the ball in crunch time against Houston, including generating a 3-pointer out of virtually nothing. Paul still has the skill and touch for plays like that, but his ability to blow past bigger players on switches has abandoned him.
So why play that way? His time in Houston was all about that, but Paul did not always play that way, and as he ages, he would be better served by attacking the other side of mismatches — trying to set up the teammate who has a smaller player on him rather than attacking the big man guarding him. He would be helped in that endeavor if OKC had more movement and secondary options in their offense, instead of sticking talented guys like Shai and Gallo in the corner while CP3 and Adams run pick and roll.
There are adjustments that can be made, but the loss of speed is real. If OKC and Paul can’t find more creative ways to use him that accentuate his strengths, he may be stuck in Oklahoma for longer than either party would like.
5. OKC is still great on defense
The thunder are 1-3, and as expected their offense has struggled with Westbrook and Paul George gone. The departure of George and the perennially underrated Jerami Grant should have caused a similar collapse on defense, but through 4 games, OKC is getting stops.
The Utah Jazz’s vaunted new look offense was stymied and the Jazz were reduced to beating OKC in a rock fight (just like old times!). The Washington wizards were held to just a 93.3 offensive rating against OKC, which may not be something to brag about given that the Wizards are starting Isaac Bonga and Ish Smith, but is still an impressive mark (that the Thunder weren’t able to get a win is illustrative of their offensive struggles).
The Warriors, the Thunder’s old tormentors, were run off the court in a cathartic moment before OKC had their first bad defensive performance against Houston. Even then, OKC held them to about their average offensive efficiency (111 vs OKC versus 110 for the season as a whole). The upshot: OKC has the 6th best defense in the league, per Cleaning the Glass, and their net rating is positive despite being 1-3. Can OKC force themselves into the playoffs on the back of an elite defense?
Beware the small sample size on this one most of all. OKC has some real positives on defenses. Billy Donovan has abandoned his traditionally aggressive scheme for a “Drop” scheme where bigs like Adams and Noel drop low in pick and roll coverage and lie in wait for ballhandlers rather than trying to corral them at the level of the screen, a sign that he recognizes the reality of this roster. And Terrance Ferguson has been a beast, fighting through screens on and off the ball and making life miserable for James Harden and Bradley Beale.
Yet OKC’s defense has also been the beneficiary of some good old fashioned luck. OKC is ceding 19.5 “Wide Open” 3 Point Attempts per game, the 6th highest mark in the league, yet opponents are shooting just 23.1% on those attempts, by far the lowest in the league. Maybe Billy Donovan’s coaching staff and the bench are very good at yelling just as opposing shooters are releasing, running their concentration. But it’s more likely that his is pure statistical luck- and if the luck changes, OKC’s defense might fall to league average or worse.
The Week Ahead
OKC faces Portland, New Orleans, and Orlando in the coming 7 days. Your humble writer hasn’t watched the Blazers yet this year (because my feelings are still hurt) but here’s some quick early season thoughts on the other 2 teams:
New Orleans: It’s going to get better
The Pelicans, a team that drew a lot of preseason love for drafting the next face of the league in Zion Williams and surrounding him with other exciting young players and some talented veterans, have struggled mightily to start, dropping to 0-4. That could mean New Orleans doesn’t return to the playoffs this year, but I don’t think it means they’re a bad team.
To be more accurate, I don’t think it even means the Zion-less version of the team is bad. They’ve lost to 4 tough teams (the Warriors may no longer be *the Warriors*, but they also aren’t as bad as the blowout loss to OKC suggested). I have been reasonably impressed with the start to the season for Lonzo Ball, who is jacking it from 3 (7.5 attempts a game!) and hitting at 36%, alongside his excellent passing (playing in Alvin Gentry’s run-run-run system is good for him). The Pelicans should settle down soon and in fact the contest against OKC could be the get-right game they need. It will also be the first NBA face-off between SGA and his cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Nickeil is just as fun to watch as his cousin, and while he shares same of SGA’s methodical game on the dribble drive, he mixes in a dash of good old fashioned chuckery, being willing to fire it up the second he touches it if he thinks he has room. The Pelicans have a lot of young guards, but NAW has a chance to force his way into their plans ahead of schedule, just as his cousin did in LA.
Orlando: this defense might be for real
Markelle Fultz has gotten a lot of notice for this frisky Orlando squad, and his ongoing comeback has the chance to be the feel good story of the year. But Orlando also owns the second best defense in the league, per Cleaning the Glass, a continuation of last season, when they had the league’s best defense, post All-star break. Sometimes that sort of thing is a flash in the pan, but Orlando, powered by it’s supremely long and athletic forwards Jonathan Issac and Aaron Gordon (perennially underrated), has managed to continue its success on that end so far.
State of the tank:
OKC currently has the 4th worst record in the league, tied with Charlotte, Chicago, and New York. The Kings and Pelicans, preseason darlings and sexy playoff picks, are both 0-4 (the Kings have been dreadful), and the new look Pacers, 0-3. Missing from the upper echelon of the tank are, stunningly, the Phoenix Suns, who are 2-2, with their 2 losses coming by 1 point each. My favorite early season stat: the Suns have the best net rating in the league at +10.1, per cleaning the glass, which is the net rating we would expect for a 65 win team! The Suns may not be that good, but they are better than many, myself included, gave them credit for.
The current standings give OKC a 9% chance at the #1 pick in the draft. OKC doesn’t need to think about that sort of thing right now, but if you, as a fan, are getting worked up by these early season losses, console yourself with the thought that Sam Presti, the man who drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in consecutive drafts (never mind what happened after that) will soon have another chance to pick a franchise level talent.
My tankathon simulation this week gave OKC the #3 pick- the very pick Presti once used to draft James Harden. Hopefully this time OKC extends the guy they get with this pick.
Who has surprised you the most after one week?
This poll is closed
SGA - better than expected!
Danilo - can’t wait to trade him for more picks!
CP3 - OMG
other - write in below