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Thunder at 50: A midseason review

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Oklahoma City have beaten pre-season expectations, but how will they close out the season?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season’s start, there were a lot of questions surrounding the Thunder:

  • The attitude and commitment of Chris Paul, as it is common knowledge that the former Wake Forest guard would prefer to be on a contender during the closing years of a wonderful career.
  • Doubts about the roster’s depth and whether the Thunder had enough top-level talent to hang around against some of the league’s heavyweights.
  • Questions about whether Sam Presti might blow it all up mid-season and plan for the future.

It is fair to say that the Oklahoma City have beat all pre-season expectations.

At the beginning of the season, it did not look like the Thunder would be a playoff team. Oklahoma City struggled to get over the line in close games and their road form was iffy — the only road victory came against the Warriors who were missing Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. It was believed by many and myself that this would be a transitional year where the Thunder would win around 30 games and get a lottery pick before the teardown started in earnest.

Instead, Oklahoma City have found their groove, and there is a strong possibility that the Thunder could finish better than last season’s win total. Last season, Oklahoma City had two top-15 players and quality complementary players. This season, there are no distinct star players, but a collection of versatile, very good players who just play hard every single night.

Chris Paul leads the way

Chris Paul has embraced leading the team, and the calling signs of a CP3-offense are everywhere. Every player is willing to move the ball, and the offensive scheming is more than just one man standing at the top of the key dictating the action. Chris Paul is a floor general in how he moves players around the court to create wide open scoring opportunities; it is almost like watching a game of chess when Paul is on the court.

The Thunder are ranked 14th in the league in offensive efficiency, but the biggest invention Donovan and Paul have devised in Billy Donovan’s offense, which captures Paul’s abilities as a leader in the fullest, is when the ‘Three Amigos’ lineup is on the court together.

Paul has never been on a team where there are so many competent ball-handlers — in Houston there only two other players who could create shots for others. In Los Angeles, it was a similar story, where Paul has always been relied upon to quarterback the offense.

But in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have the flexibility to play with two other play-making guards along with a stretch-4 in Danilo Gallinari and a big man in Steven Adams who is comfortable with passing out of hand-off situations and in the high-low post. Paul can rest off-ball and relax mentally while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Dennis Schroder take care of the offense, knowing that the 3 guards will rotate to the point whenever one of them has the matchup advantage.

This set has meant that the Thunder has the ability to fight back from deficits to win in 4th quarters. In a way, Paul learned the artful which many All-Stars learn as their careers wind down, the ability to go through the gears when it is required rather than constantly playing at full speed. There are a lot of similarities between Paul this season and Dwyane Wade in his last few seasons for the Miami Heat. ‘Father Prime’ may be average in their play for the first three quarters but come the fourth, it is a totally different story.

Chris Paul has also been a leading voice for the Thunder in developing younger players. He has built a strong relationship with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander based off the fact that both players are hoops junkies. It even has become common to see CP3 and Shai sitting court-side at Oklahoma City Blue games.

It is not only Shai which Paul has taken an active interest in mentoring; Darius Bazley has been open in media sessions about Paul providing a lot of help in terms of eating right, preparing the body correctly and finding ways to be effective on the court. These little teaching moments are the most noticeable examples of Paul’s leadership, he will often pull players aside during games and talk to them. This is a small example but it is valuable for younger players as it provides them with the knowledge needed to be elite.

Billy Donovan’s growth

Billy Donovan has had a winding road since his appointment as Thunder coach. Donovan has previously played his main players too much and he over-experimented with his lineups. He would seemingly find a productive unit that did well on the court before going away from that idea in favour of finding another lineup that could be even better. That kind of curiosity can be valuable, but it is detrimental when a team is trying to build chemistry for a championship run. Donovan’s laid-back, laissez-faire style of coaching where he lets players establish the culture did not work for the Thunder last season. Oklahoma City would be dreadfully inconsistent against lottery teams, games which should be layups for a play-off team.

Donovan has gone some way to allay these criticisms with this current Thunder roster. He has found the ‘Three Amigos’ lineup and has stuck with it, without feeling the need to change anything. It was a bold decision by Donovan to sacrifice the length and defensive effort of Terrance Ferguson in favour of Dennis Schroder. But in crunch time, the 3-guard attack is nearly impossible to effectively defend.

Before this season, Dennis had not been a committed or engaged defender, and there were concerns about putting him into the closing lineup where he would have to switch on taller wings. The performance of the lineup has proved a good decision by Billy; the Thunder are hugely efficient offensively while Dennis’ buy-in on defense has meant that Oklahoma City do not leak points when it matters. Billy is no longer messing around with the rotation, and as a result everyone knows what their role will be with the game on the line.

Coach Donovan does still have flaws. His minute management needs work, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander playing so many minutes at this stage of his career can be detrimental to his long-term health. I also think that Coach Donovan has benefitted from having a player like Chris Paul who is more than willing to tell a coach exactly what he is thinking. For all of Russell Westbrook’s leadership, he rarely called the coach out when Billy was messing up.

The craziest aspect of the Thunder’s current success is that the front office made trades in the summer which brought back players who has not played with each other. The last starting lineup used by the Thunder against the Phoenix only had one player who had spent more than one season with Oklahoma City. Yet the roster has gelled quickly behind the basis principles of passing the ball and playing smart basketball.

The mid-range jumper has been widely discouraged by a lot of teams over the last few years, while Houston Rockets have taken it to the extreme. But OKC’s coaching staff and players have realised that they have players who can score efficiently from these spots. A lot of team defensive coverages are now designed to funnel players into the mid-range area, these are great opportunities for the Thunder to make defenses hurt. Most important, all 3 guards — Paul, SGA, and Schroder — thrive in the mid-game, and because defenses still have to worry about Gallinari on the perimeter, they often neglect the middle of the court and the advanced-metrics-maligned mid-range jumper.

Second half outlook

There are a lot of numbers being discussed on Twitter regarding the Thunder, but most important number is the team’s record since Thanksgiving. OKC have 24-9 from Thanksgiving to February 1st — there are very few teams who have managed to sustain that level of winning over this time period. This number needs further context, as a number can be misleading, especially if a team has played through a soft stretch. This was a true statement for the Utah who looked outstanding over December but now look less like true contenders over the last few weeks due to the Jazz playing tougher competition. Oklahoma City have arguably played the hardest portion of their schedule from December onwards, and yet the team has produced a stunning run of results. Oklahoma City have gone 12-5 in January where the team was away from home a lot, and played teams like the Raptors, Heat and Sixers. The numbers above suggest that the Thunder belong in the chasing pack for a title but whether the regular season success translates to post-season victories is a different story.

We have seen teams in the past such as the Atlanta Hawks in 2015-16 who have a brilliant regular success but get waxed by better teams in the post-season. That Hawks team, a beautiful blend of passing and speed, was battered by LeBron James and Cleveland’s army of shooters. There could be an argument made that the Thunder will fall into this category because they lack a top-tier talent like Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. But I cannot see Oklahoma City falling into this category; if anything I see the Thunder as a slightly better version of the Los Angeles Clippers from last year. That Clippers took two games off the Warriors before eventually bowing out, but it was a team built in a similar sort of fashion. It lacked a superstar, but the team was collectively better than a sum of its parts. An upset in Round 1 is not a wild prediction, the Thunder would have a good chance against a team like Utah or Houston.

It is highly probable that Sam Presti will tear this team down at the end of the season. Presti is an executive who builds with the long view in mind — it is one of the reasons why he kept on taking raw projects in the draft when the Thunder had a competitive core. His perspective as an executive is not ‘championship or bust’ but is consistent success over multiple years while bringing along young players who can contend in the next era.

This current Thunder team will have a low ceiling if the front office decides to continue with this group. Honestly, I just want to watch these guys play hard night in and night out. It has been refreshing watching a Thunder team play as a team without any expectations. The Westbrook Era was enjoyable as a fan but there were expectations of deep post-season runs which inevitably brought disappointment. I have no expectations of this group so this version of the Oklahoma City potentially winning fifty wins is highly enjoyable.