Normally, losing two All-Star caliber players in a matter of six days is a classic recipe for an incoming rebuild project. But that’s not what the Oklahoma City Thunder had in mind coming into the 2019-20 season despite losing two superstars just a few months earlier.
The franchise’s idea was quite simple: gather as many assets as you can, take on big contracts if necessary in order to do so, and build with youth. And that’s exactly what they did when they traded Paul George for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and like, 45 future first-round draft picks. Less than a week later, Russell Westbrook was shipped off for Chris Paul and several more future picks.
In the span of a little more than a decade, OKC drafted three future MVPs (Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Westbrook) and managed to sign a multiple-time All-Star during an offseason (George). The result was one Finals trip, injury-riddled postseasons, and a ton of differing personalities. With Westbrook gone, the final piece of the once-promising Thunder core had broken off. The rebuild was officially on in OKC over the summer of 2019, yet here they are, 34 games into the season with a 19-15 record, winners of eight out of their previous nine outings, and sitting pretty as the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
And there are more than a few reasons why. First off, the Thunder front office is due a majority of the credit for how they handled the George/Westbrook situation as well as they did. It won’t be long before they come out better for it in the future.
As for the individual pieces, Gallinari hasn’t missed a beat in a Thunder jersey coming off the most productive season of his career a year ago for the Los Angeles Clippers. Gallo is third on his new team in scoring (17.9) while shooting right under 39 percent from deep.
Chris Paul has returned to his “Point God” form, working in an offense that puts his ball-handling and dribble-driving moves to good use instead of being slotted next to James Harden on the perimeter (as he was in Houston). But Paul’s usage rate is actually the lowest its been since his final season in New Orleans back in 2011. He hasn’t had to command the offense as he has in the past – and it because of three initials.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was always the prize piece that the Thunder demanded they receive if they were to trade George away. His rookie season as a member of the Clippers was as impressive as it was surprising (well, it wasn’t too surprising for Kentucky fans, I should say). Playing in all 82 games as a first-year pro, SGA averaged 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game, which are solid numbers, but not anything to trade away an All-Star for.
But for those of us who have watched SGA over the last two-and-a-half seasons, we know that he’s a quick learner. With every passing game in L.A., he continued to improve. He hit a slight lull (the “rookie slump” if you will) during December and January but closed the season strong in March and into April. The difference from opening night to the Game 6 loss in the first round of the 2019 Playoffs was impossible to ignore. The signs of a budding superstar were all there by the time the Clippers season was over.
Gilgeous-Alexander has been worth every penny for the Thunder. It’s obvious why the Clippers were still devastated to trade him away, even though it netted them Kawhi Leonard and George in the process.
Through 34 games this season, Shai is averaging 19.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game on shooting splits of 45.8/36.3/80.9. He’s been splitting ball-handling duties between Paul and fellow guard Dennis Schroder but has typically been playing alongside either of those two in more of a score-first role.
Playing next to one of the league’s all-time greatest passers in Paul, along with Schroder, who’s having a career year shooting the ball, Gilgeous-Alexander has been feasting off of their gravity. He’s playing more like a wing than a guard; attacking the basket by creating tiny holes and beating defenders off the dribble. 36 percent of all his baskets come via assist, according to Cleaning the Glass, which ranks him in the 98th percentile among all NBA wing players. His teammates are setting him up and he’s executing at a high level. SGA’s personal assist numbers have plummeted as a result of all this, but his usage has grown without sacrificing a significant drop in field goal percentage.
When all three of those players – SGA, Paul, and Schroder – share the court at the same time, the returns have been tantalizing.
In this scenario, Shai slides all the way down to playing the 3, typically alongside another shooter (Gallinari or Terrance Ferguson) and one big man (Steven Adams or Nerlens Noel). According to Cleaning the Glass, lineups that feature SGA, Paul, and Schroder are posting a 134.7 offensive rating and a 105.2 defensive rating, giving them a net rating of +29.4 across 430 total possessions. For reference, the NBA’s current leader in offensive rating is the Dallas Mavericks at 115.2. This Thunder trio has been demolishing that number. Those lineups post an absurd effective field goal percentage of 60.6 percent.
Heading into the new year, SGA has become even more decisive, carving up defenses with sluggish in-and-out moves or pinpoint euro steps. His confidence appears to be at an all-time high. In the month of December leading into 2020, the former ‘Cat averaged 21.8 points per game, including six games of 25 points or more, three games with a career-high 32 points, and just one outing where he failed to hit double-digits in scoring. The Thunder are 12-4 in those 16 games.
He’s been calm in the clutch, too. Considering the Thunder have played in more crunch-time minutes than any team in the NBA, his late-game production has been necessary. SGA has been a scoring machine when his team is battling a close game, boasting an effective field goal percentage of 74.2 percent in 26 games that have qualified as “clutch”, according to NBA.com. The Thunder are 3-0 in overtime this season.
When he gets the ball one-on-one, there hasn’t been a defender that can stop him. He runs isolation plays at a similar rate to studs such as Luka Doncic and Devin Booker, yet he posts better numbers as a solo scorer than some of the NBA’s best. SGA scores 1.09 points per possession out of isolation, ranking him in the 84th percentile, according to NBA.com. In the month of December, Shai ranked 6th in the league in points per game on drives to the basket (11.5). In the same month, he also shot 71.4 percent when inside the paint.
He’s asserted himself as one of the most dangerous penetrators in the league in a matter of weeks. Watch how easily he slices up a top-5 NBA defense. A lot of these buckets came against an elite defender, too: Paul George (ironically, enough).
SGA’s defense still needs some work, but he’s already developed a knack for reading the eyes of the passer for easy steals. His versatility on offense masks those problems for now. He should turn into an average or even plus-defender down the road with his length and size.
For now, Shai’s offense is guiding him and the Thunder to success. He’s bound to earn a hefty amount of All-Star votes from the coaches, players, and media. His star potential is shining brighter every day. He’s leading the Thunder into 2020 with playoff aspirations and they’re all following right behind him.