Take a look at the 2020-21 leaderboard of "wide open" threes generated per-game, and it's mostly what you'd expect. Offensive dynamos like the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks; eschewers of the mid-range such as the Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets. But resting high on this list — and sticking out like a sore thumb — happens to be none other than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Yes, that Oklahoma City Thunder. The franchise that openly punted on the present to short the futures of other teams, didn't name a coach until three weeks before training camp in 2020, and whose roster was referred to as the "Mad Libs" of the NBA.
While Second Spectrum's classification of "open" (closest defender 4+ feet away from the shooter) shouldn't be taken for gospel, further scrutiny reveals that Oklahoma City fed on a rather healthy diet of shots in 2020-21. Per Cleaning the Glass, the team attempted 36.5% of its field goals at the rim (7th highest frequency) in 2020-21, along with 36.7% from three (14th highest frequency). This led to the Thunder accumulating an "expected" eFG% of 55.2%, good for 6th in the league. So how did this motley cast of characters get it done?
First off, there's a big difference between taking and making shots (as Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets can attest). Oklahoma City's profile may be clean and shiny, but it was still the worst offense in the league by a country mile -- largely due to ghastly shooting from deep (34.8%).
On the other hand, these numbers greatly overstate the struggles of the Thunder. Everything from the final two months or so - when the organization conspired to the most blatant tanking job this side of Philadelphia - can be discarded. With franchise cornerstone Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor — and thus when Oklahoma City trotted out a (mostly) legitimate team — its half-court offensive rating was remarkably solid, at 97.9.
Only Harden's Rockets, Nash's Suns (in 2005-06, the season Amar'e Stoudemire went down), a few Dwight/SVG Magic squads, the 2003-04 Sonics, and last year's Jazz team have ever approached this volume of three-point shooting from both above-the-break and the corners in recent years. Let's dive deeper...
Second-year head coach Mark Daigneault's offense isn't particularly complex, nor does it incorporate much side-to-side ball movement. It does, however, play to the strengths of this Thunder roster. The team initiated many possessions with quick "21" or "pistol" actions, where the guard bringing the ball up orchestrates a handoff with another guard on the wing while the big is trailing or stationed around the elbow.
With teams often switching between like-sized players, Gilgeous-Alexander had plenty of chances to seek out the match-up against a weaker defender. These quick-hitters allow Shai to play without the pressure of the shot clock ticking -- conducive to his meandering play style.
The next aspect of this ballet: the center, who often receives the ball behind the play (otherwise known as "delay"). Between waning rim-finishing and mobility, injury concerns, and a bloated contract, Al Horford has undoubtedly endured a fall from grace since his final season in Boston. But the man can still scan the floor and make decisions like few centers in the league. Combine Horford's facilitating accumen — he ranked 4th on the Thunder in touches per-minute (behind Gilgeous-Alexander, and two point guards in Theo Maledon and Ty Jerome) — with a stable of young, energic perimeter players; and you get plenty of moments like this.
While Daigneault deserves praise for putting his guys in positions to succeed, it all takes a backseat to the main event. The Oklahoma City Thunder generated so many open threes - and thus punched above their weight for a large chunk of the season - thanks to the brilliance of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
What makes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander so special? Similar to how opposing teams must feel, it's difficult to quite get a grasp on it. He just moves complete different than most; and as a result, sells his moves like few others, executes dribble combinations more rapidly than people are used to, and confuses defenders into challenging his shots at the wrong time. It's like he's on the ice rink as an expert figure skater, and everyone else on the court is a novice. While Shai has always befuddled opponents with his 1 on 1 game, the Hamilton native wasn't incredibly efficient in 2018-19 or 2019-20. That all changed last season, however, with the breakthrough of a new weapon: the pull-up jumper.
Now there really aren't many answers for him. Add this proficiency from deep with his ability to assault the rim, and suddenly, Shai is one of the best offensive players in the league. If this shooting is indeed for real, then Shai becomes one of the few guys who can lead an offense without much help around him -- a no-brainer franchise superstar. Gilgeous-Alexander torched a default coverage on scouting reports of going "under" pick-and-rolls, and opponents were forced to adjust on the fly. This newfound attention often freed up quality looks for his teammates -- Shai more than nearly doubled his assist rate in 2020-21 from his career mark.
Everything flows down from Shai. The fact that he's un-guardable creates rotations and opens up driving lanes for everyone else. During 2020-21, 56 players averaged at least 0.5 points per drive. The one who passed the most often out of those? Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Of course, the space manufactured by the stretch-fives (Horford, Mike Muscala) greatly aids this attack. Look at how uncertain Rudy Gobert is about helping on the foray to the rim (a little foreshadowing maybe?). The fact that Oklahoma City had very few proven shooters on the roster in 2020-21 definitely played a role in the sparkly shot profile as well. A hefty chunk of the attempts by Maledon, Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort, and Aleksej Pokusevski were "dare" shots.
At the same time, this Thunder group was adept at capitalizing during these moments. Guys generally launched away without hesitation. Dort and Bazley barrage the paint with reckless abandon -- whether the paint is clogged or not. It was clear that Daigneault and the coaching staff drilled "45" cutting into the team. Here on the first possession of the game, a precisely-timed Lu Dort wander into the lane opens up a corner-trey.
Whether it be through cutting or screening, Oklahoma City often took advantage of a "lack of gravity" to spring open shots. Looking at the big picture, it's encouraging that Daigneault is able to implement simple concepts that give limited players a boost. Time will tell how they continue to build on these. NBA basketball is hard -- excluding Shai, the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder combined to shoot 31.1% on pull-up 3s.
Moving forward, I believe it's imperative that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander be flanked by a stretch big man. We've seen what he's capable of when he has room to operate. The re-signing of Mike Muscala was ok, but there's nobody on this roster that provides that long-term.
Shai can still shore up many areas of his game, too. Due to his lack of explosion and unorthodox jumper, he'll get bottled up from time to time against certain matchups. Adding consistency and refinement to his release should be a focal point. So should adding some sort of physicality element as a counter. Gilgeous-Alexander has also stalled as on off-ball player -- he's drifted further and further towards the "innocent bystander" role, where a lack of activity actually damages the offense. Per Cleaning the Glass, his teams tend to run far less frequently with him on the floor.
The Oklahoma City Thunder may be years away from sniffing contention; but even in the darkest corners of NBA rebuilding, a shining light in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can provide a glimmer of hope and a reason to tune in nightly.