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To be clear, the Oklahoma City Thunder offense is not good right now. Through nine games they’ve averaged just 98.0 points per 100 possessions, worse than any team but the Detroit Pistons. But in terms of offensive methodology, they’ve become an unbelievable outlier.
So far this season, they’ve been averaging a league-high 70.2 drives per game (any play where a player catches the ball at least 20 feet from the basket and dribbles to within 10 feet of the basket). The team with the next-most drives, the Charlotte Hornets, are averaging 56.6 and the difference between the Thunder and the Hornets is roughly the same as the difference between the second-place Hornets and the Lakers in 21st.
Last season’s Thunder averaged 61.7 drives per game, the first team to break 60 drives per game since the NBA first started collecting drive statistics with player tracking systems during the 2013-14 season.
What makes the Oklahoma City Thunder such a dangerous dribble-drive team?
The Thunder’s dribble-penetration starts with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He is averaging 22.9 drives per game this season, down slightly from the 25.2 he averaged last season — a mark that was the highest single-season player mark since drive statistics began being tracked. As with last year, he’s been incredibly effective — drawing a foul on just over 8 percent of his drives, shooting 47.7 percent and recording nearly twice as many assists (14) as turnovers (9).
His dribble-penetration game has made him one of the most effective individual creators in the league. He averages 7.8 isolation possessions per game, the most in the league, ranking in the 77th percentile in scoring efficiency.
But the Thunder’s attack this season has also been buoyed by rookie Josh Giddey, who is averaging 13.8 drives per game. With his size, handle and body control, Giddey has been adept at getting into the lane against a variety of defenders and the Thunder have already gotten creative with ways to get him the ball on the move so he’s attacking with momentum against an already scrambling defense.
Giddey’s approach is a bit different in that he’s much more likely to drive as a means of creating for others. He’s passed on 57.3 percent of his drives so far this season, one of the highest marks in the league for a player averaging at least 10.0 drives per game. That number may come down as he gets more comfortable as a finisher against NBA-level rim protectors but it’s a different look that should add balance to the Thunder’s offense down the road.
In addition to Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander, the rest of the Thunder supporting cast look confident and empowered to attack when the ball is swung to them. Lu Dort has averaged 10.6 drives per game, shooting 52.0 percent. Many of these drives are attacking closeouts after someone else has already warped the defense but being able to do more than just spot-up is an important variable for his offensive development.
The Thunder also have three other players — Kenrich Williams, Darius Bazley and Ty Jerome — averaging at least 5.0 drives per game. Williams and Bazley are particularly interesting as bigger wings who spend a good deal of their minutes playing as 4s. The Thunder are often playing small ball lineups without a traditional center and the ability of even their bigs to attack closeouts and create off the dribble when given an opening makes them much tougher to guard.
Of course, results matter. For all their outlier dribble penetration, the Thunder have still been one of the least effective offenses in the league. The presumable next step in building out this young team is adding the outside shooters to really take advantage of all the levels they have for collapsing the defense. The Thunder currently tank seventh in catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game but are dead-last in percentage, hitting just 29.5 percent. That number may come up a bit naturally as the season goes along but for them to hit their ceiling down the road they’ll need players like Dort, Bazley and Giddey to be capable spot-up threats, or turn some of those roster spots over for players who are more multi-faceted threats.
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