Are the Oklahoma City Thunder an NBA championship contender already?


Before the season began, SLAM Magazine put out an issue with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting five (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Jalen Williams, Chet Holmgren, and Josh Giddey) featured on the cover. In the description, magazine writes, “[T]he Thunder have built a dynamic squad that is gonna be better than a lot of people expect.”

And lo and behold, through 35 games, the Thunder sit at 24-11 – a record that puts them at third in the West and gives them the second-highest odds to win the NBA title according to some prediction models.

The Thunder are better than anyone realistically expected they would be coming into the season. But just how good is this fun young group? Are they just a rag-tag bunch of frenetic fellows that are eager to prove their valor in the regular season? Or are the Thunder, without the enhancement of any trades, ready to compete for an NBA title right now?

The Case For The Thunder As A Contender

In general, NBA contenders take three forms. They are either: 1) elite on offense, 2) elite on defense, or 3) balanced on both sides of the ball. As the team that ranks fourth in offensive rating and No. 10 in defensive rating, the Thunder theoretically fit under that third category.

The Thunder’s offense is primarily centered around the drive-and-kick. They are first in drives per game by a pretty wide margin – 6.6 drives per game ahead of the second-placed Charlotte Hornets.

However, just because their offense appears simple in theory, it maintains its venomous quality by having so many different heads on its snake. Anyone who has seen any Thunder basketball this year is aware of Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams’ splendor as drivers. But they aren’t the only Oklahoma City players who can tango. Guys like Giddey, Dort, Holmgren, Vasilije Micic, Aaron Wiggins, and Cason Wallace all average at least two drives per game (so does Tre Mann, but he doesn’t really factor into the rotation).

Rostering all these players who are capable of driving the ball is huge because it gives the Thunder access to consistent paint touches. That matters because when a player gets in the paint with the ball in their hands, it forces the defense to collapse, and when that happens, it creates open catch-and-shoot three-point opportunities (this is the kick part of the equation).

On paper, the Thunder don’t tout a ton of great marksmen (other than Isaiah Joe, who has been invaluable to the team this year). But thanks to their ability to continuously collapse the defense, they are able to generate a bounty of open threes. According to NBA.com, the Thunder are tied for third in wide-open three-point attempts per game (22.9). It doesn’t matter how good/bad your shooting personnel is; if you’re taking that many open threes, you’re going to hit a good amount of them. And not only do the Thunder hit a good amount of them, they convert on the highest percentage of them (39.7 percent) in the entire NBA.

A staple in the Thunder offense is the ghost screen. This consists of a player sprinting to the ball handler like they are about to set a screen, only to immediately slip it and flare out to the three-point line. Like this:

This play is tricky to deal with because, as a defense, if you don’t communicate your coverage perfectly, you either give the offense an easier runway toward the rim (first clip in the montage above) or a lightly contested 3-point shot (second clip).

What makes the way the Thunder run this play even more difficult to defend is that the screener is usually someone who can put the ball on the floor. So, if the defense tries to run them off the line after they receive the pass, they can just attack the titled court with a drive of their own. Their execution of this action is so effective that sometimes even the threat of it causes chaos.

Between all the driving and guard-to-guard screening, the Thunder’s offense is a lot to deal with. That’s without even getting into the Holmgren of it all.

We’ll get to the defensive part in a second. But on offense, Holmgren gives the Thunder another shooter who can help space the floor for their drive-and-kick offense (40.9 percent on 4.3 attempts per game). And don’t let his frailer stature fool you. If you try to hide a smaller defender on him, he can punish them with that drive game we keep on referencing.

(Sidebar: He’s also got a midrange game that gives oldies flashbacks of Michael Jordan from the 1990s).

Everyone knows that Gilgeous-Alexander is Oklahoma City’s leading man. When he’s on the court, the Thunder are in the 96th percentile in net rating (per Cleaning the Glass). But even the best aerobic athletes can’t play all 48 minutes of every game. And in the playoffs, how a team performs in the six to ten minutes they have to play without their superstar is usually the difference between winning and losing.

Fortunately for the Thunder, Williams kind of functions like a lite version of Shai when Gilgeous-Alexander is off the floor. In 368 minutes without Gilgeous-Alexander on the court, Williams is averaging 31.9 points per 100 possessions on 62.6 percent true shooting (per PBP Stats). Williams is still just a sophomore, and how he handles the pressure of the postseason is still yet to be determined (more on that later). But if what he’s doing in the regular season is any indication, the Thunder will be in good hands.

Now, for the defense. On the surface, this Thunder team isn’t all that different than they were last year. They are long, versatile, create a high volume of turnovers (first in opponent turnover percentage), and play with an excess of discipline and effort (third in charges drawn). You could put on a defensive clinic centered around one of their games. In fact, last season, the venerable Bowser2Bowser basically did just that:

So, if they are largely the same “overachieving” bunch that they were last year, how have they improved from No. 14 to No. 10 in defensive rating?

As Bowser2Bowser alluded to, last year’s Thunder team was sorely lacking in the area of rim protection. But now Holmgren is here to fortify the interior.

He’s still a rookie, so his best defensive days are yet to come. But even with that constraint, Holmgren has left a massive imprint on this team. Last season, the Thunder were tenth in opponent rim accuracy. This year, they have leveled up to second in that category. When Holmgren is on the floor, Oklahoma City is in the 69th percentile in opponent rim frequency and the 90th percentile in rim accuracy.

The Thunder have an offense that is sure to keep playoff defenses on their toes. And their defense is good enough to help them avoid having to win in a shootout. That sounds like a title contender to me. What could possibly be stopping them?

The Case Against The Thunder As A Contender

There’s the obvious elephant in the room. The Thunder are incredibly wet behind the ears. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has two playoff appearances that both ended in a first round loss. Outside of him, only Dort and Joe have playoff experience among the Thunder’s top-14 in minutes played. And while having past playoff experience isn’t a requirement to win in the playoffs, it is a cause for concern.

On top of that, the Thunder (*knocks wood*) have experienced a great deal of injury luck so far. No one in their starting lineup has missed more than three games this season. You never want to see a player get hurt, but every team has to deal with injuries at some point. How does this Thunder team look when they are missing a key piece or two?

There’s also the shooting luck component of this equation. We said that this offense is able to create a lot of high-value shots. But even with that in mind, the Thunder may be shooting above their heads.

For instance, Dort, a career 34 percent 3-point shooter, is currently converting on 40.9 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Giddey (a career 30.8 percent three-point shooter) is making 37 percent of his threes this year. Williams (who shot 35.6 percent from three his rookie year) is hitting 44.3 percent of his triples. What happens to this team’s spacing if these guys start to cool off?

For instance, in their marquee January 2nd win against the Boston Celtics, Boston continuously left Giddey open to provide more resistance in the paint (see the clip below). Giddey responded by hitting 4-of-7 3 three-pointers. But will he continue to do that in those situations? And if he doesn’t, what will the Thunder do then?

One could argue that these players’ significant improvement in shooting is a byproduct of the work of legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland, who the team hired during the 2022 offseason. But just like with their lack of experience, this jump is worth noting.

Lastly, despite all their length, this team doesn’t have much by way of girth. I think that this weakness sometimes gets overblown (the Thunder do a good job of compensating for it with their intensity and crisp rotations), but it is still a vulnerability nonetheless. On the season, the Thunder are 28th in offensive rebounding and 29th in defensive rebounding percentage. What happens to this team in a playoff series if they run into a team that can really hurt them on the glass?

The Final Verdict

The Thunder have their flaws, but so do all other title contenders. The real question is: are their flaws pedestrian enough to put them in the same class as the Celtics and Denver Nuggets (the two clear frontrunners), or are they more in line with the second class of contenders (teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Minnesota Timberwolves)?

Since I’m in law school, I’ll give you the most lawyer answer to a question ever: it depends.

If the Thunder’s good bill of health runs out and their improved shooting turns out to be just a mirage, Oklahoma City becomes more of a second tier contender. And it will take a smart move in February to help them graduate to something further.

But if they keep playing basketball the way they are right now, the Thunder don’t necessarily need to make a trade at the deadline because they are already ready to compete with the big dogs for an NBA title this season.





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