The Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t been nice at taking pictures (twenty fourth in efficient field-goal proportion), passing (twenty fifth in help charge) or rebounding (twenty sixth in rebounding proportion) the basketball, and but right here they’re, a shade beneath .500 after the NBA season’s halfway mark and squarely within the play-in event combine.
That’s as ringing an endorsement as you will discover for Mark Daigneault’s Coach of the Yr candidacy, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s All-NBA marketing campaign and the Thunder’s prospects as a perennial contender on the rise.
Daigneault, 37, assumed tasks from his mentor, Billy Donovan, in 2020, shortly after Chris Paul led the Thunder on a shocking run to a fifth seed within the Western Convention. They traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook for a boatload of draft picks the summer time earlier than, and common supervisor Sam Presti additional deconstructed the roster, shedding veteran starters Paul, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams.
They were trying to lose, and lose they did, logging the league’s fourth-worst report every of the previous two seasons. The Thunder served as an infirmary ward for distressed contracts, routinely rested their finest gamers for lengthy stretches and fielded 65 totally different beginning lineups. No person on the five-man unit who began the ultimate 4 video games of final season is presently in an NBA rotation. Three of them usually are not even within the league.
The NBA reportedly pushed Sam Hinkie from his front-office submit on the Philadelphia 76ers for trusting the identical years-long Process, earlier than the fruits of his tanking (particularly Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) ever performed collectively. Presti has free rein to see his plan by, if he doesn’t bolt for a much bigger market, and it’s bearing fruit already, largely as a result of Daigneault has fostered a aggressive tradition in a shedding environment.
Standard knowledge pegged Gilgeous-Alexander as the following NBA malcontent. He was one of the best participant most followers by no means received an opportunity to see, mired in Oklahoma Metropolis, the place they most well-liked he not impression successful down the stretch of an everyday season. It was sufficient for any participant to rethink the course of his profession.
The Thunder might need thought-about dealing Gilgeous-Alexander, too. He was due a $179 million most rookie extension, and there was no assure they might be any good by the point it was by in 2027.
Solely, a humorous factor occurred between the time he signed his contract in August 2021 and the second it kicked on this season. Gilgeous-Alexander developed into top-of-the-line gamers alive. His 30.7 factors, 5.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks a recreation are matched solely by Michael Jordan in 1987-88, additionally on the age of 24, and Gilgeous-Alexander is doing it extra effectively. He should be an All-Star starter.
It required an unimaginable quantity of belief in one another for Gilgeous-Alexander and Presti to navigate this path within the face of 46 mixed wins during the last two seasons, and it seems they’ve struck a chord.
“It is at all times straightforward to belief somebody once they haven’t given you a motive to not belief them,” Gilgeous-Alexander told The Oklahoman’s Joe Mussatto in early December, because the Thunder had been falling to 11-18, third from the underside of the West, proper about the place prognosticators anticipated. “It is at all times simpler to belief somebody once they let you know one thing and it occurs. And that’s been my relationship with Sam to this point.”
The conduit between them is Daigneault, whose younger Thunder play tougher than anybody else within the NBA. They lead the league in free balls recovered and expenses drawn and rank third in contesting photographs. Two years faraway from ranking twenty fourth, their protection is prime 10, regardless of the absence of a rim-protecting middle. They’re 2-8 once they shoot higher than 39% from 3-point vary, proof of their capacity to win with grit.
Inside per week of Gilgeous-Alexander’s reward for Presti, the Thunder launched into a three-game successful streak that has since blossomed right into a 12-6 string over the previous month. Throughout that span, Oklahoma Metropolis has registered top-10 scores on each side of the ball and outscored opponents by 5.8 factors per 100 possessions, third within the West behind the conference-leading Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies.
The Thunder are actually entrenched in a hunt for the ultimate few playoff seeds. They path the sixth-place Los Angeles Clippers by one loss and lead the Twelfth-place L.A. Lakers by the identical margin. Groups between embrace the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. Gilgeous-Alexander has been each bit nearly as good, if not higher, than any famous person on these groups, together with LeBron James, Devin Booker and Stephen Curry.
That additionally consists of George, whose commerce request from the Thunder to the Clippers in 2019 birthed this rebuild. Along with Gilgeous-Alexander, Presti squeezed 5 first-round draft picks and two decide swaps from his rival’s desperation. Oklahoma Metropolis has already turned two of these picks into Tre Mann and Jalen Williams, a pair of promising prospects who’ve each contributed to the workforce’s latest success.
There’s motive for skepticism. Gilgeous-Alexander’s game-winners towards the Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers and Nuggets this season are the distinction between being within the thick of the playoff hunt and staring up at everybody however the tanking San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Oklahoma Metropolis’s final 12 wins embrace 4 towards lottery-bound groups and victories towards the Grizzlies with out Ja Morant, the Nuggets with out Nikola Jokic, the Dallas Mavericks with out Luka Doncic, the Brooklyn Nets with out Kevin Durant, the Indiana Pacers with out Tyrese Haliburton and the Chicago Bulls with out DeMar DeRozan.
There’s way more motive for optimism.
Gilgeous-Alexander is a paradigm-shifting drive, and he’s doing it with out the advantage of spacing from his personal 3-point shot (35.5% on simply 2.8 makes an attempt per recreation) or his teammates. If Isaiah Joe had not cracked the rotation in December and began launching 5.5 3-pointers at a forty five% clip in his 19 minutes off the bench, the Thunder would nonetheless be trying to find anybody to shoot higher than league common at a wholesome quantity.
Likewise, Josh Giddey, final yr’s sixth general decide, has developed right into a nightly triple-double risk, regardless of taking pictures simply 32.8% from distance. There’s room for enchancment for each of OKC’s finest gamers.
Within the course of, the Thunder have recognized complementary gamers who ought to develop alongside them. Williams has the makings of a 3-and-D wing who can create when given an opportunity on the weak facet. Lu Dort might be an All-Defensive guard. All 4 are amongst 13 gamers on the roster but to show 25 years previous.
The Thunder insisted on together with Aleksej Pokusevski in that core, and he has helped their tanking efforts. His on/off differential of -19 factors per 100 possessions is among the many worst within the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. Granted, the pattern sizes usually are not overwhelming, however just by swapping floor-spacing ahead Mike Muscala for Pokusevski in a lineup with Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Dort and Williams, the Thunder go from being outscored by 24.5 factors to outscoring opponents by 24.5 per 100 possessions. Kenrich Williams has yielded comparable optimistic outcomes appearing as a 6-foot-6 stretch middle in small-ball lineups.
Now, think about changing both of them with Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 general decide this previous June. He’s a 7-footer with the potential to guard the rim, shoot from distance and create offensively at elite ranges. He averaged 19 factors (on 48/42/94 taking pictures splits), 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks per 36 minutes in a handful of Summer time League video games, earlier than struggling a season-ending Lisfranc fracture in an exhibition.
This needs to be a successful roster by subsequent season, earlier than any of their core members reaches his prime. Additionally they have as many as 13 first-round picks — principally from the Clippers and Rockets — over the following 5 drafts. That offers them the flexibility to enter any commerce dialogue in a market that won’t draw free brokers.
Extra importantly, they’ve the id Daigneault instilled and Gilgeous-Alexander embodied throughout Presti’s course of. They play exhausting. They like one another. And so they have demonstrated collective enchancment by adversity. Hinkie’s Sixers might by no means say that, whilst they finally grew to become a perennial 50-win workforce. The Thunder are not an NBA team only in theory. They’re a contender on their come-up.
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