Start time - 7:30 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
The Thunder have not won a game in almost two weeks but the team has generally played pretty well on the offensive end of the floor. Over the last five games, the team’s offensive rating has been 109.2 which is several percentage points higher than their season average. The improvement has come from a few different factors; the first being that the team’s style of play is more settled.
When Josh Giddey was healthy and performing well, Coach Daigneault was in the process of designing a system in which Shai and Giddey could both handle the ball with reasonable usage. It was not a smooth process and there are still teething issues for the Thunder to consider.
As players go, Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey can be both characterised as lead ball-handlers but they go about their tasks in completely different ways. Giddey thrives off ball movement, incisive passing and a quick tempo. In contrast, Gilgeous-Alexander is more comfortable attacking the basket and kicking the ball out to open shooters.
Both styles are effective but it has been tough to find a tempo which balances the stylistic differences. Gilgeous-Alexander is at his best when he is patiently probing the defense which can mean he is less effective in a pass-happy, quick-fire offense.
Without Giddey, the Thunder’s offense has been built around Shai and we are seeing him play incandescent basketball. Over the last ten games, Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 30.4 points, 7.4 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals on a scarcely believable 62.9% TS.
The numbers clearly outline his impact on an injury ravaged roster. His production is keeping the Thunder somewhat competitive while not having Lu Dort, Kenrich Williams, Josh Giddey, JRE and Mike Muscala for company.
The officials changing how the game is called has also led to the Thunder’s offense improving. At the start of the season, referees were more likely to allow physicality and let contact go if it was in the spirit of the rules. This meant that teams league-wide were getting to the line less often and were not getting as many easy points.
Now, the referees have seemingly had another change of heart and fouls are being called more frequently. The Thunder’s number of free throw attempts per game have crept up over the last five games when compared to the season average.
Oklahoma City are 19th in the league in free throw percentage at 76.4% but they will capitalise on getting more foul shots on a nightly basis. The Points per Possession for the Thunder on a free throw is 1.528 if OKC shoot two. The only shot type that can match that value in terms of PPP would be a dunk.
The increased foul calls also put the team in foul jeopardy more often which only benefits a player like Gilgeous-Alexander who will happily cook a poor defensive player. The foul calls have helped increase the Thunder’s offensive rating but it is difficult to say if it benefits the team as a whole.
Foul shots are by nature an individual act. The only action in that possession is one player catches the ball from the referee and shoots from 15 feet. There is no involvement of any other players which can lead to lengthy periods without the ball. Free throws are a double-edged sword in the sense that is a highly efficient shot for SGA but it can be a detriment to the team’s flow on offense.
The balance between hunting for freebies and earning points in a live ball setting needs to be considered carefully by the coaching staff. We have seen teams reliant on free throws struggle to find quality offense in the postseason when they do not get as many shots from the stripe.
While the Thunder’s offense has improved, the contributing factors behind this improvement has only asked more questions about what the team should look like going forward. This is something for the coaching staff and front office to work on in the offseason.
The San Antonio Spurs have long been the gold standard of player development in the NBA; it is one of the reasons why so many teams around the league hire Spurs’ assistants and front office executives. San Antonio’s success and consistency is unrivalled and therefore teams want to understand why the Spurs have achieved so much.
The Thunder followed that path 15 years ago when they hired Sam Presti to run the team. You can clearly see Spursian traits in how the Thunder have been built. There is an innate focus on team, sacrifice and the whole organisation working together in one direction.
The management structure is also very similar. The Holt family are owners who allow their executives to make decisions and do not interfere with the team’s plans. The same can be said for the Thunder, Clay Bennett allows Sam Presti to have autonomy over the team.
Presti has been able to assemble a team in his vision but for the best part of 14 years, the Thunder were unable to replicate the Spurs’ emotional intelligence. Coach Pop is unparalleled in his ability to get the best out of his players through smart management. His hard-nosed, unflinching criticism challenged Tony Parker to become a star.
On the other hand, Pop was patient enough to recognise that Dejounte Murray needed time to blossom and did not place pressure on his shoulders too early. As Murray has matured within their organisation, his role has grown and his production has improved. I do not think he would have developed in the same way if Murray played in Sacramento or Orlando.
The appointment of Coach Daigneault has gone some way to address this weakness of the Thunder. He has connected with his players and understands the stimuli that drives his players forward. Bazley was stuttering early in the season; Daigneault dropped Bazley to the bench and challenged him to earn that spot back. Bazley’s response has been brilliant and he is now playing the best basketball of his career.
Daigneault has also nurtured the talents of Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski despite rough times during their career. It would have been easy to give up on either player but Coach Daigneault has been resolute in his commitment to develop every player on the roster.
Coach will never be Pop but he has learned how to effectively manage his players on a level further than basketball. That skill is invaluable in building trust and establishing a culture of a commitment to development.