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What’s powering OKC’s surprising start?

The Thunder may not be contenders, but their 6-9 record is better than some expected. What’s behind the team’s hot start?

Syndication: The Oklahoman BRYAN TERRY via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Well, well, well. Look who would be in the playoffs (well, the play-in) if the NBA season ended today. It’s the Oklahoma City Thunder Fighting Dorts!

It might be a little silly to take a victory lap about a team being 6-9 through 15 games, but just one month ago we were subjected to ‘OKC might win 12 games this whole season’ predictions from nerds and esteemed members of the NBA media.

You can see why people thought the Thunder would be bad. The team is young and it’s in the franchise’s best interest to be bad and acquire another high draft pick.

But some analysts went overboard in predicting the Thunder to be as bad as the ‘Process’ era Philadelphia 76ers. They paid too much attention to the idea that OKC didn’t bring in veterans and shipped out helpful players on a team that only went 22-50 in last year’s shortened season.

The consensus seemed to be the Thunder was destined to be worse than savvy teams like the Houston Rockets, who kept Eric Gordon (because nobody wanted him) and signed Daniel Theis, or the Detroit Pistons, who kept Jerami Grant and signed Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles (uh, sure).

So far this season, OKC is easily outperforming those teams in both the win column and in point differential. Detroit is 4-11 overall while Houston is 1-14. OKC’s point differential is -8.3 per 100 possessions versus -10.7 for Detroit and -11.5 for Houston.

Again, we’re not breaking out the confetti and champagne to celebrate a -8.3 net rating and a 6-9 record. It’s worth considering, however, why OKC is already handily outperforming teams that were predicted by some to be an order of magnitude better in some corners (not to pick on him, but the Athletic’s John Hollinger - a smart guy! - picked Detroit and Houston to win 26 games each to OKC’s 13).

The main answer is that even with shipping out most veterans, OKC still has the best cornerstone of the three teams.

Jalen Green, the No. 2 overall pick in 2021, and fellow rookie Alperen Şengün make up Houston’s young core, along with youngsters Jae’Sean Tate and Kenyon Martin, and young ‘vet’ Christian Wood. The team also has John Wall, who is not playing, in a situation that hasn’t attracted the same level of outrage as what OKC did with Al Horford last year.

All of those players have intriguing potential. Green, in particular, could be a future superstar.

But none profile to be anywhere near as good as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was a borderline All-Star last year.

The same holds true for Detroit’s Cade Cunningham.

Cunningham may turn out to be great, although he has already missed several games this year, adding to Detroit’s woes. But he is unlikely to be as good as SGA this season.

The NBA is a star-driven league and between the Thunder, Rockets, and Pistons, OKC is the only team that already has a true, young star.

Ironically, SGA is having his worst shooting season in Thunder blue. He’s shooting 41% overall and 31% from 3-point range, partly as a result of increased attention from opposing defenses.

He is also being forced into more difficult 3-point attempts. And at least from the eye test, he has unexpectedly missed more tricky, scoop layups and bank shots that he historically thrives on.

None other than Luguentz Dort has picked up the slack through SGA’s early season scoring slump.

Dort, despite looking more confident in his attempts, is still shooting just 29% from 3-point land. He’s having a career scoring season because of being a monster on 2-pointers.

One part of the third-year swing man’s game that is going unnoticed is his shot chart. It is ideal for a role player - all 3-point and rim-attempts with the occasional mid-ranger. He has been a below average finisher at the rim and from 3-point shooter in the past.

While his 3-point shot has yet to come around, Dort is hitting a career high 64% of his attempts at the rim this year (per Cleaning the Glass), where he has taken a full 40% of his shots. He has also been money on limited mid-range attempts, including 55% on dreaded long 2-pointers.

That number won’t sustain, but Dort has flashed improved confidence taking his own shot off the dribble, which eventually bodes well for his 3-point game. In the meantime, his improved rim shooting is promising and looks sustainable.

The strength that makes him a monster defender has always aided his ability to attack the rim, but his touch and variety on finishes is also much improved this season.

Even with Dort’s contributions, OKC’s offense has been as bad as expected this season (29th in the league, ahead of only Houston). Defense is powering the team’s surprising start.

The Thunder’s defense ranks 13th in the league (per Cleaning the Glass). While the team’s offensive output should increase as SGA’s numbers improve, OKC probably tops out as a bottom-10 offense.

Can the defense sustain? Going by personnel and the eye test, the Thunder’s defense might not be a total aberration.

Dort is obviously a monster. SGA is a big presence at the point and has shown improved energy at the defensive end this season. Josh Giddey is huge, with a big wingspan, and size has helped him become an annoying presence, although he sometimes allows opponents to blow by him one-on-one and suffers from typical rookie getting-lost-syndrome.

Darius Bazley is suffering through another difficult campaign offensively, but has been excellent defensively, averaging a career-high in blocked shots. He has also stuck better with quicker guards and wing players after switching off screens. OKC’s legion of centers has been mostly solid on defense (even Mike Muscala has looked OK).

The numbers suggest a possible regression on defense, but nothing huge.

OKC’s defense does a good job barricading the rim. Opponents take under 30% of shots at the rim, the fifth-best mark in the league (per Cleaning the Glass). However, the team bleeds 3-pointers, with opponents shooting 41% of attempts from behind the arc. OKC’s opponents shoot around league average (35.4%) on 3-pointers, though.

Thunder opponents could be shooting better from deep, but could also start shooting worse. There’s no reason to expect a huge drop off. This sort of trade-off has been popular recently in the NBA.

The Bucks, under head coach Mike Budenholzer, embraced the mindset of taking away the rim at all costs, and were particularly happy to let so-so shooters bomb away from 3-point range, especially above the break. OKC gives up more longer, above-the-break 3-pointers as opposed to corner attempts, though they still allow the 10th highest frequency of corner 3-pointers (per Cleaning the Glass).

OKC, under head coach Mark Daigneault, seems happy making the same trade-off, and so far the results are encouraging. Whether it sustains will come down to OKC being able to successfully fend off rim attacks deeper into the season.

How good is the Thunder?

The team’s 6-9 record equates to a 32-50 finish over a full season and its point differential estimates nearly 20 wins (per Cleaning the Glass). Somewhere in between seems about right.

The Thunder won’t end up challenging for the play-in. Their defense may take a step back, but their offense will likely rebound as SGA comes around, particularly if Dort’s improvement sustains.

OKC will still finish in the lottery and there may even be some end-of-season shenanigans to boost their chances. But SGA and Dort’s play, combined with the steady hand of Daigneault, means they will be regular bad rather than historically bad as some predicted.

And when your young team is good because your young players are leading rather than because of good play from veterans who won’t be around in two years, you’re exactly where you want to be.