Making the Oklahoma City Thunder's case as a top-6 NBA playoff seed

Making the Oklahoma City Thunder's case as a top-6 NBA playoff seed

As of Wednesday morning in late January, three games separate fifth place and 13th place in the Western Conference standings. We're more than halfway through the regular season and most of the West playoff spots are still completely wide-open.

Only one of those teams has put together a clean, inspiring month. 

The Oklahoma City Thunder are 8-3 in 2023, and though they're tied for 10th in the conference at 23-24, they still sit just one game back of the sixth-place Dallas Mavericks. The Thunder join the Denver Nuggets as one of two teams with top-five offensive and defensive ratings (121.9/112.1) this month, per Cleaning the Glass, and they're up to the ninth-ranked DRTG (113.2) on the whole season.

OKC is far removed from the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes and too good of a basketball team to throw in the towel. Meanwhile, the rest of the West has been riddled with inconsistency, as some of the projected top teams battle injuries, manage rest and, more plainly, underwhelm.

Sneaking into the Play-In Tournament might be selling the youngest team in the league short. Why can't OKC bypass the preliminary round entirely?

The franchise has its superstar. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has maintained his 30-point-per-game pace in every month this season on remarkable efficiency splits for a high-usage point guard.

Gilgeous-Alexander has knocked down 57.9% of his two-pointers this month and is a certified Tier 1 driving threat across the Association. We know that already, though, and instead of rehashing the same points, I'd like to direct you to Mat Issa's excellent breakdown of SGA's unique driving gifts over at The Analyst.

And though SGA is a proven finisher and pull-up scorer, he's actually had some more help this month. According to Cleaning the Glass, 42% of his at-rim buckets have been assisted, up from his 27% rate on the whole season.

OKC has done a better job moving the ball around and kicking out to its centerpiece. In turn, he has made quicker decisions to catch and drive himself, which puts an all-world pressure point against a tilted defense. Josh Giddey has taken on more responsibility as a facilitator, but the help is really coming from everywhere, as shown above.

The results show in this table. Here's how often Gilgeous-Alexander has attempted shots at the rim with two dribbles or less, and his efficiency, per PBP Stats:

Season FGM FGA FG% Freq. (% of total FGA)
2018-19 64 100 64% 13.99%
2019-20 93 155 60% 15.33%
2020-21 21 37 56.76% 6.56%
2021-22 55 79 69.62% 7.52%
2022-23 59 82 71.95% 9.47%

Those first two seasons, SGA was a complementary player with the Los Angeles Clippers and a second option in OKC next to Chris Paul. Then, he became one of the league's highest-usage No. 1 options. Now, in his third year with the role, Gilgeous-Alexander is having to create less with his dribble, and it's corresponding to an increase in efficiency. 

You can even extend out to the mid-range, where he's taking 4.6% of his shots with two dribbles or less (highest of the past three years), and hitting a ridiculous 62.5% of those shots (by far a career-high). So though Gilgeous-Alexander is still doing the vast majority of his scoring work by himself, the supporting cast is starting to make life easier. 

Giddey, as mentioned, has been a massive piece to the offensive improvement and the Thunder's overall rise. (Our Nekias Duncan detailed what's working for the second-year guard and I highly recommend you check out his breakdown.)

Now, let's slide over to two game-changing role-players: Isaiah Joe and Kenrich Williams. 

I wrote last summer that OKC needed to improve on its league-worst 32.6% catch-and-shoot three-point clip to really help its offense around Gilgeous-Alexander. The team is up to 15th with a very capable 37.2% hit rate so far this season. Several Thunder players have improved, including significant leaps from Giddey, Lu Dort and (when healthy) Aleksej Pokusevski.

But Joe and Williams have truly turned the tide. They lead the squad in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage and are among the 15 best off the catch in the entire league, per Second Spectrum.

Joe, after being waived by the Philadelphia 76ers in October, has increased his playing time in each subsequent month of the season. He's averaging 12.1 points in 21.1 minutes per game during January while canning 44.6% of his triples. I don't love playing the on/off stats game too often, but it's telling that the Thunder have been 19.9 points better than opponents per 100 possesssions with Joe on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. That ranks third among all NBA players.

The former Arkansas Razorback entered the NBA with perimeter marksmanship as his calling card, and it's unfortunate for the Sixers that they didn't see things through. Joe has very immediately become one of the best shooters in the league in his third season. 

These buckets might not look flashy, but they're invaluable to what OKC wants to accomplish. Gilgeous-Alexander will consistently draw help on his drives, and several other players like Williams and Darius Bazley can attack off the catch or leverage themselves on cuts. All Joe has to do is make the defense pay for helping by relocating and connecting. He's hitting 48.4% of his catch-and-shoot threes, good for fifth among all players with at least 75 such attempts.

Unlike Joe, Williams has not been quite the sure bet. He made 44.4% of his threes in 2020-21, but then just 33.9% in 2021-22, including 34.0% on catch-and-shoot attempts. This year, he's roared back with a 42.9% overall clip and is shooting an eye-popping 52.8% from distance in January. 

Most of the resurgence comes via a massive bounce-back year from the corners. The 28-year-old is shooting 54.5% on corner threes after hitting just 35% last season. He's also a bigger threat than Joe to attack a closeout and make the right pass.

Williams isn't some shifty advantage-creator, but he's confident in putting the ball on the floor to the point where he can compress sides of a defense. So far this month, Williams has 27 assists against just 5 turnovers, providing stability moving the ball in addition to his hot shooting.

It's fair to wonder about shooting regression for Williams, Joe and some of the other role-players on OKC's roster. But at the same time, this squad has a top-10 defense that builds on a solid 2021-22 year and gives some cushion if pieces of the offense hit a downturn. 

To reach a top-six seed, the Thunder would currently need to pass the Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, and at least one of the Mavericks or Clippers. That looks daunting on paper; most of those franchises are loaded with playoff experience and have proven themselves already.

The positive: According to Tankathon, Oklahoma City has the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. The Thunder play the Houston Rockets three times and Los Angeles Lakers three times, plus the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors once each in their final 35 games. They only face one of the Tier 1 regular season squads in the Memphis Grizzlies. In addition, OKC has just three back-to-backs left and a massive six-game homestand at the end of February. 

On top of that favorable schedule, those aforementioned foes in the playoff race have all been battling their own problems with injuries and inconsistent basketball. We don't need to wave Golden State or Phoenix or LAC through the regular season just because we know they'll be tough outs in the postseason. We also don't need to imagine what the youngest team in the NBA could be anymore.

The Thunder have a legitimate high-level defense, an arriving offense and a cast of supporters that is bolstering their superstar better than ever before — and they're still getting better.

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