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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Below the surface, the Thunder have some glaring issues

While the results have been amazing for the Thunder this season, they do have some big issues that could hold them back in the playoffs.

One of their issues that has become a big talking point among the basketball community is a lack of size and physicality from their big men. It’s not entirely surprising that the Thunder struggle in this area considering their starting center, Chet Holmgren, weighs a measly 207 lbs. despite being 7-foot-1. This issue shows up when you look at their rebounding.

The Thunder have been below average in terms of rebounding this year, ranking 29th in offensive rebound rate and 17th in defensive rebound rate. That’s really bad and this is concerning because rebounding is a part of the four factors, which are four key statistical categories that correlate the most to winning. The other factors include scoring efficiency, turnovers, and getting to the free-throw line.

Another issue is how third-year guard Josh Giddey fits with the rest of their team. Giddey has had an underwhelming season. After showing some growth on offense in 2022, he has taken a step back and his output as a scorer, passer, and defender has made him a loose screw within an otherwise well-oiled machine.

The issue with Giddey is his skillset is extremely limited. He is a naturally gifted passer and this has been obvious during his three seasons in the NBA as he’s never had an assist rate below 20%. However, he doesn’t provide much value in other areas. He isn’t a good rim finisher, he can’t and won’t shoot threes, and his defense has been below average the past two seasons.

This is why the Thunder have been around five points better per 100 possessions when he is off the court through his first three seasons. To make things worse, we’ve seen teams begin to leave him wide open outside the three-point line and he isn’t confident enough as a shooter to take advantage of this kind of defensive coverage.

While these issues are big, there is another issue that might be even bigger: the Thunder’s shot diet. By shot diet, I am referring to which areas of the floor a team shoots the ball from the most, and this is an underrated red flag for the Thunder on both ends of the floor.

On offense, the Thunder are pretty balanced with their shot selection from all areas of the floor as around one-third of their field goal attempts are at the rim, from mid-range, and from behind the arc. This is a bit of a problem because they are below average in terms of rim frequency and three-point frequency. Since they shoot so many mid-range jumpers, they have to be really accurate to match the efficiency of other teams who are less reliant on mid-range shots and shoot more at the rim and from behind the arc.

On defense, the Thunder do a solid job of limiting shots at the rim, and they are great at shutting down the mid-range areas of the floor. 33% of their opponents' field goal attempts come at the rim (14th) and 29.3% of their opponents' field goal attempts come from mid-range (9th).

This is good, but issues start to arise when you look at how often their opponents are shooting threes. 37.7% of their opponents' field goal attempts come from behind the arc (26th), one of the worst marks in the league.

While the Thunder have been efficient on both ends of the floor during the regular season, this could change in a playoff series if shooting percentages flip for them and their opponent. If they struggle to score from mid-range and their opponent gets hot from downtown, they could be an early exit simply because of their shot diet on both ends of the floor.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Thunder are going to lose early in the playoffs. The results so far this season make that unlikely, but things could change if they get unlucky like every Eastern Conference team who played the Heat in last year’s playoffs.