The Thunder were the surprise of the regular season, but can they make some noise in the playoffs?

Oklahoma City Thunder

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded superstars Russell Westbrook and Paul George last summer, no one knew what the immediate future held for the franchise. Ahead of the current campaign, NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner wrote: “As currently constituted, there’s enough talent and experience [on the Thunder’s roster] to snag a low playoff berth in the West. If Presti opts to shift into full rebuild, or if Paul decides he wants out, they could wind up in position for a top lottery pick.”

After a slow start, the new-look Thunder settled into a groove. The trade deadline came and went and by the time the NBA ground to a halt in mid-March, they had established a 40-24 record that left them joint-fifth in the Western Conference.

Post-restart, they’ve looked like one of the better teams in the bubble. But the big question remains: can the Thunder make some noise come playoff time?


THE (LITTLE) BIG-THREE

As you’d expect, the Thunder’s postseason fate resides largely in the hands of Chris Paul. He’s experienced a well-publicised rebirth in Oklahoma City, running the show on the court, while helping the Thunder’s youngsters develop off it. His ability to orchestrate an offense has brought some much-needed balance back to a team that was static and predictable on that end of the floor last season. If you need numerical evidence of his impact, just take a look at the Thunder’s net rating, which jumps by +7.1 when Paul’s on the floor.

Under Paul, the Thunder play at a more sedate pace than they did with Westbrook at the wheel (99.35 this year compared to 103.38 last). Their offence is less about run-and-gun (fastbreak points are down from 18.2 last year to just 9.5 this) and more about half court pick-and-rolls. The Thunder still rank higher in unassisted field goals (45.6, 5th overall) than they do in assisted field goals (54.4, 26th overall), but the ball moves far more than it ever did last year, thanks to better spacing and a team ethos.

This is in no small part due to head coach Billy Donavan’s willingness to play Paul alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. When the three are on the court together, they combine for a net rating of +28.6 in 401 minutes. Opposing defences struggle to contain three highly effective ballhandlers who can shoot off the dribble, space the floor, and make plays for each other at once, particularly when it’s not clear which will initiate the offense. Paul’s ability to come off screens and either hit those neat little mid-range jumpers, create opportunities for others, or score in any manner of ways in close is one thing. But, when you combine that with Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to score and / or draw contact on dribble drives (he’s currently averaging 0.97 points per possession), and Schroder’s ability to create against a set defense, the Thunder become a match up nightmare.

Schroder has developed into something of an x-factor for the Thunder this year. Leading the second unit, his effective field goal percentage has leapt from .470 last season to a career-high .533 this season. He’s also become a far more efficient scorer in the restricted area, shooting 63.3 percent from there this year on 245 attempts, compared to 51.5 percent last year on 303 attempts. And the Thunder looked far less effective after he left the bubble for the birth of his second child. During last Monday’s game against the Denver Nuggets, they lost 121-113 in overtime despite Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari contributing a combined 67 points. The Schroder-less bench, meanwhile, put up just 27 points in the loss, 13 of which were scored by Abdel Nader.

The team expects him to return to the bubble, but this will require adherence to the league’s ‘Exit and Re-Entry’ rules, which, according to Bobby Marks, dictate that if a ‘players leaves the campus for extenuating circumstances with prior league approval’, as Schroder did, he must test negative for seven days outside the bubble before quarantining for four days upon returning to it. With the regular season ebbing away, his absence could well eat into the Thunder’s postseason chances.


THE ACTUAL BIGS

For all the talk about the Thunder’s guards, it’s their bigs who will have to come up, well, big if the team is to succeed in the postseason. Overall, OKC is an above average team defensively, allowing an opponent field goal percentage that ranks 11th best (45.5), while clocking the league’s seventh-best defensive rating (108.2). And yet they’re eighteenth worst in opponent points in the paint this season (48.6), which suggests that if they want to go deep in the playoffs, they’ll need better rim protection.

And this starts with Steven Adams. Perhaps the best thing you can say about his defensive contribution is that it’s often best measured by his absence. On Friday, for instance, Adams sat with a leg injury as the Thunder lost 121-92 to the Memphis Grizzlies. In his absence, OKC got hammered both on the boards (58-36) and in the paint (56-36), largely because they were forced to play extended minutes without a traditional center on the floor.

Although, on average, Adams’ presence on the court reduces the Thunder’s defensive rebound percentage by 6.1 and their block percentage by 2.4, he currently has the third-highest defensive win share on the team (2.6). And yet, bizarrely for a player of his size and stature, he only averages 6 defensive rebounds (31st overall) and 1.1 blocks (20th) per game. If the Thunder match up against, say, the Denver Nuggets, who are the NBA’s fourth-best offensive rebounding team (averaging 10.8 per game), Adams’ ability, or willingness, to lock in on the defensive end could be key.

If he’s unable to step up, Nerlens Noel could see some major minutes. He’s by no means the offensive threat that Adams is, but he has become a solid pick-and-roll man in half-court sets, offering a points-per-possession average that ranks in the 88th percentile on those plays (Adams, for reference is in the 78th). He’s also shot a league-best 86 percent in the restricted area this season. Interestingly, he’s only a tick behind Adams in the defensive win share column too (2.3, fourth best on the Thunder).

Since the restart, the Thunder’s two most-used lineups have combined a core of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Danilo Gallinari with either Adams or Noel. The group involving Adams has a net rating of 10.3. Meanwhile, with Noel, the same group’s net rating leaps to 23.0. Not only has that core group shot better from the field (60% compared to 46.7%) with Noel on the floor, it’s limited opponents to fewer points (15.7 compared to 30.3). While those numbers likely blur as part of a more even sample, what they do tell us is that the Thunder’s bigs will, for better or worse, have a big impact on the team’s playoff hopes.


THE LIKELY MATCH-UP

At present, the Thunder are primed to face off against either the Denver Nuggets or the Houston Rockets when the postseason begins.

Before they started resting guys in preparation, OKC came within a missed free throw of beating the Nuggets. And yet, the prospect of a Rockets-Thunder series perhaps offers the most intrigue, as it would give Paul an opportunity to go head-to-head with the franchise that threw him aside last summer.

As he told the media recently, “One of the things you learn about the playoffs… is you want to make sure you have a team that feels like it can’t be beat four out of seven times”. And yet, if the Thunder are to be the kind of team Paul’s talking about, they’ll need Schroder to return to the bubble ASAP, their bigs to perform on both ends of the ball, and they’ll probably want to use the three guard line-up far more than the seven minutes per game they got together during the regular season.

Still, the Thunder’s much-lauded ability to win in the clutch and the absence of home court advantage could well work in their favour. And even if their season does end with a whimper, the franchise has the rights to as many as 15 first-round picks between 2020 and 2026 to look forward to, which is hardly a bad consolation prize.