Why the Oklahoma City Thunder may be even better than we realize

There is some skepticism about the Oklahoma City Thunder as a legitimate championship contender, but the young team is more ready to chase after a title than you realize.

Sacramento Kings v Oklahoma City Thunder
Sacramento Kings v Oklahoma City Thunder / Joshua Gateley/GettyImages
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Before this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were expected to finally break through and make a push for the playoffs after years of losing and acquiring draft picks. They have lived up to expectations, but they didn’t stop at just making the playoffs. In fact, they are now among the top teams in the Western Conference standings.

However, there seems to be a bit of skepticism about the Thunder as a championship contender. The Thunder ranks sixth in betting odds to win the title this season despite ranking second in the NBA in net rating.

Let’s dive in and see why people have not completely bought into the Thunder as a championship contender and why we all might be underrating just how good this team is.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Co. are dominant on offense

It’s impossible to talk about the Oklahoma City Thunder without first talking about their superstar guard Shaii Gilgeous-Alexander and how dominant their offense has been this season.

Let’s start with how the Thunder are performing as a team. They have been terrific on offense this season, as they currently rank third in offensive rating behind the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, thanks to their 39.5% shooting from behind the arc and 46.8% shooting from mid-range.

The way their offense functions is perfect for the playoffs as they are one of the top teams in the league in terms of their production in isolation, on pick and rolls, and on spot-ups. Here is how often they use these play types and how efficient they are when they do.

- Isolation: 8.5% frequency (5th) | 1.07 PPP (1st)
- Pick and Roll Ball Handler: 17.5% frequency (11th) | 1.01 PPP (1st)
- Pick and Roll Roll Man: 6.2% frequency (8th) | 1.23 PPP (7th)
- Spot Up: 25.3% frequency (6th) | 1.10 PPP (5th)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the biggest reasons why the Thunder have been such a dominant offensive unit and why they have been so efficient at running these specific sets. The 25-year-old guard has played out of his mind this season, averaging 31 points and seven assists per game on 64.7% true shooting while shooting 38.3% from three. 

He’s been an unbelievable isolation scorer who can shoot from outside the arc but is more comfortable driving to the basket and shooting off the dribble from mid-range. His dominance as a scorer and passer is a big reason why he is likely going to be an MVP finalist.

SGA isn’t the only player having a great season for the Thunder. Second-year big man Chet Holmgren has been marvelous after missing his rookie season due to a right foot injury, averaging 17 points per game on 64.3% true shooting while shooting 39.5% from three.

His ability to shoot threes and throw down lobs has changed the Thunder’s offense. He is so good in pick and rolls because he can attack the basket as a lob-threat or he can pop and hit open threes at a high rate. He’s also a solid post scorer, though he could get a little stronger to be able to overpower smaller defenders. Having a big man with such a diverse offensive skill set is extremely valuable especially when paired with a strong creator like Gilgeous-Alexander.

Another reason why the Thunder have been so good in isolation and on pick-and-rolls is because of their star wing Jalen Williams. After being one of the top rookies in the league last season, he has taken a big step forward, averaging 19 points and four assists per game as his three-point percentage jumped from 35.6% in 2022 to 44.3% this season. 

He has been way more productive as a passer and shooter this season and having him on the roster gives the Thunder another player who can handle the ball and take on some of the playmaking load when SGA is off the floor or just playing off-ball.

Having three young stars has been amazing for the Thunder, but they wouldn’t be so efficient without having a plethora of decent role players like Luguentz Dort, Cason Wallace, Isaiah Joe, and Aaron Wiggins. Dort is the best of this group as he provides some serious value as a 3-D wing, but all of these players have contributed to the Thunder’s success on offense as they all shoot at least 40% from three. 

To add onto this, eight of the Thunder’s players who have played at least 500 minutes this season minutes are shooting over 38% from three. The Thunder don’t shoot a ton of threes instead choosing to rely a lot on mid-range jumpers, a result of having a strong mid-range scorer like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. However, they are extremely effective when they do, which is why they are one of the most efficient teams in the leagues on spot-ups.

The Thunder are extremely aggressive on defense

The Thunder are not a one-way team that relies on their offense to carry their defense. In fact, they are a great defensive team, ranking sixth in the NBA in defensive rating.

Their defense is very similar to their offense in that they are extremely effective against isolations, pick-and-rolls, and spot-ups. Like we did for their offense, we’ll take a look at how productive their defense is on these play types. 

- Isolation: 5.8% frequency (26th) | 0.85 PPP (1st)
- Pick and Roll Ball Handlers: 14.2% frequency (28th) | 0.86 PPP (6th)
- Pick and Roll Roll Man: 5.3% frequency (21st) | 1.03 PPP (2nd)
- Spot Ups: 27.5% frequency (4th) | 1.02 PPP (9th)

These are excellent numbers across the board and it’s extremely impressive that the Thunder’s defense is so good in these areas because, in the playoffs, they will likely have to face teams that rely on these sets a lot.

Another strength of the Thunder’s defense is their tendency to wreak havoc and force turnovers. The Thunder currently rank fourth in steal rate and second in forced turnover rate and their ability to shut down passing lanes shows up on film. They love to be aggressive on defense and they put their hands in passing lanes a lot. This allows them to be really efficient on defense and even turn defense into offense through fast breaks.

One last thing to note about the Thunder’s defense is their ability to protect the rim. This season, they have allowed opponents to shoot just 63.8% from 0-3 feet and they have a block rate of 6.7%. Both of these marks rank first in the NBA and the reason why the Thunder have been so good in this area is because of Chet Holmgren. Holmgren has been one of the best shoot blockers in the league, sporting a block rate of 7.8% and opponents take fewer shots at the rim when he is on the floor.

His ability to deter opponents from shooting around the basket combined with the Thunder’s excellent perimeter defenders like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, and Luguentz Dort, has made the Thunder one of the better defensive units in the NBA.