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This Could Be the Start of Something Special in Oklahoma City

The Thunder might be the NBA’s most interesting play-in team, but they aren’t sweating this year’s race. Per usual, they’re focused on the bigger picture: becoming the NBA’s most interesting team of the future.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA’s youngest team, play with a curious blend of youth and maturity, possessing the rare ability to ratchet the game up to an exhausting, frenetic pace without getting lost in its chaos.

It starts with the ceaseless yet meticulous play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who leads the NBA in drives but turns the ball over just 2.8 times per game.

Armed with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he is one of the most intimidating point-of-attack defenders in the NBA, third in deflections and fifth in steals. Isolate against him, and you have almost a one-in-four chance of coughing up the ball. But as the season has progressed, Gilgeous-Alexander is no longer shining alone, which is why the Thunder have become such a source of fascination during the final stretch of the season.

It’s one thing for a young team to use its length, speed, and motor to score more points on turnovers than any team in the West; it’s another for it to defend its own side of the ball in transition, to lead the league in drives as a team behind the attacks of multiple young aggressors while maintaining a bottom-four turnover rate.

Over the last few months, the Thunder have experienced the kind of cumulative gains and incremental development that a rebuilding team hopes, plans, and prays for when it compiles a war chest of 38 draft picks. With his talent, size, and athleticism, Jalen Williams, the no. 12 pick in last year’s draft, is already showing flashes of being a potential two-way star. Josh Giddey has emerged as an ideal secondary creator, although that term feels too robotic to describe a game that flows more organically than his hair.

And they still have more than half of those picks, by the way. The future, while promising, remains amorphous. All the while, an identity spearheaded by Mark Daigneault, the third-youngest head coach in the NBA, and a style in the image of Gilgeous-Alexander are slowly taking shape.

In years prior, a 38-41 record and the no. 10 seed would have been a fun advent, a projection of things to come but a few wins short of present-day relevance. But thanks to the play-in tournament, the Thunder are the latest in a budding archetype. Two years ago, the Memphis Grizzlies—then the youngest team in the NBA—used their play-in experience as a springboard to contention. This year, it could be the Thunder. Not that they’re aiming for it.

“It’s bigger picture than that, to be honest,” says Daigneault during the team’s recent L.A. swing. “We’re focused on building the best team we can build, and the best team you can build is a sustainable one.”

GM Sam Presti didn’t compile all those draft picks to top out as a play-in team, after all. And with Chet Holmgren, last year’s no. 2 pick, recovering from a foot injury that kept him out of action all season, the Thunder are right to have dreams as wide as his 7-foot-6 wingspan. They might have the best young core in the NBA, so why rush these foundation-building years?

“It’s not just about a road trip or a game or one season,” Daigneault continues. “The biggest focus we have is our day-to-day environment, the professional habits of our players, the standard we play to every night independent of winning and losing, and betting on investment in that and allowing that to compound. We feel like that’s what’s put us in this position, and for us to stray from that now and start standings watching would be really hasty on our part.”

If their current success is any indication, the method is working.

Gilgeous-Alexander has become one of the NBA’s leading scorers, a candidate for Clutch Player of the Year and Most Improved. He’s steadily mastered and leaned into his strengths, increasing his midrange volume, cutting his 3-point attempts in half, and getting to the line at a career-high rate. He has leveraged these incremental efficiency gains into the hardest step a player can take in this league, from star to two-way superstar. As the great J. Kyle Mann likes to say, discernment is development.

Williams, clearly a disciple of this attitude, is earning late Rookie of the Year consideration as the season nears its close. His shot chart is a testament to sound judgment and the modern NBA.

Williams—nicknamed JDub to differentiate him from fellow rookie teammate Jaylin Williams, a.k.a. J-Will and the no. 34 overall pick in this year’s draft—initially came off the bench until being asked to guard Jaylen Brown in a mid-November game. His stellar defense cemented his place in the starting lineup, where he slowly built his game out from the paint, the location of just under 60 percent of his buckets. He’s a destructive, intuitive cutter, generating a blistering 1.49 points per possession on those plays.

JDub’s most revelatory stretch, which catapulted him into the ROY race, came six weeks ago, when Gilgeous-Alexander was sidelined for five games because of an abdominal strain. Williams went on a heater from beyond the arc, nailing 46.7 percent of his 3s, averaging 21.6 points per game, assuming more playmaking responsibility, and posting a 5.4-to-1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio that would make even Chris Paul blush.

You couldn’t tell from his stoic demeanor, but the thing Jalen says surprised him most about the stretch was just how ready he was to step into the extra reps. “I had the ball a lot more and had to make decisions, but I thought I handled it really well.”

In stretches when SGA has sat on the bench, Williams has dabbled as the lead playmaker for the second unit. But this was his first time doing it consistently, much less with the starters and with defenders attending to him like a primary option. “Finding myself in those spots occasionally helped me when he was out to take that role on,” says Williams.

Against the Clippers last month, Williams put his full arsenal on display. In one sequence, he crossed up Ivica Zubac on a switch and took him to the rim. Two minutes later, the Clippers’ defensive anchor honored Williams’s previous drive by giving him an extra smidge of space on the perimeter. The next logical move for a player testing the limits of their creation would be to take a stepback 3. But Williams saw Kawhi Leonard rapidly approaching, so he faked the stepback and whipped the ball to Giddey for an open 3. He saved the stepback for when he was truly isolated against Zubac later in the half, displaying a level of processing ability, poise, and patience you rarely find in a rookie.

Williams’s response to whether he wants to win Rookie of the Year is downright Daigneaultian. “Imma be real. I don’t really think about any of that stuff going on,” says Williams. “I think it’s just cool when it happens organically.”

Williams, who spent three years at Santa Clara, didn’t have much buzz entering the league. NBA scouts questioned his jumper and didn’t see his star potential until he delivered off-the-charts athleticism metrics at the draft combine. “I think that’s part of it,” says Williams. “Just not really expecting a lot [of accolades] there kinda shapes how I think about it now. Obviously, coming from a little school, you get overlooked.”

But now, Williams is discovering new layers in his game on seemingly every play, finding more balance on stepbacks and new ways to finish in the paint while taking turns defending the best players in the league with Lu Dort.

“It’s kinda surreal, just kinda being in the NBA guarding certain players. We’re playing against Kawhi again and Paul George, dudes I was watching in college seven months ago,” Williams says.

Every step Williams takes on this steep learning curve adds insult to injury for the Clippers, who added Gilgeous-Alexander to the package of unprotected picks they forked over to the Thunder for George. One of those picks turned into Williams. At the time the Clippers were rightfully swapping the future for the present, securing Leonard’s commitment with the George trade. But four years later, they’re only three games ahead of the Thunder in the standings. Let’s just say I know which team I’d rather be a fan of right now. (Hint: It’s the one that still has the Clippers’ unprotected picks in 2024 and 2026 and a pick swap in 2025.)

And then there’s Josh, who’s proved that he’s more than just a Giddey face (sorry). What really makes him worth writing home about is playmaking. He’s a point guard masquerading as a 6-foot-8 Timothée Chamalet, with the height to grab rebounds, start the break, and see over opponents. He gets off the ball incredibly quickly, sporting one of the best assist-to-usage ratios in the NBA and greasing the wheels of an offense with multiple driving attackers. Despite flinging behind-the-head passes on the move and whipping intrepid one-handed boomerangs from the wing to the opposite corner, Giddey’s assist-to-turnover ratio is among the best on the team. He was particularly sharp in March, dishing 7.3 assists and coughing it up just 2.4 times per game.

Giddey shined even brighter during Gilgeous-Alexander’s latest absence. The Aussie shares his teammate’s proclivity for scoring on drives, getting 6.8 of his 16.6 points per game on such plays, a figure that has continued to climb in the last year.

His 3-point shooting has taken a 6-point percentage jump from his rookie year, largely because he cut pull-ups out of his long-range diet. When I ask Giddey about this, he demonstrates straightforward self-awareness rarely seen from a 20-year-old.

“We kinda went over it in the offseason, what was efficient and what wasn’t,” he says. “For me, that wasn’t an efficient shot. So any smart player, you’re not gonna keep taking shots that aren’t good for the team.”

He’s still shooting a below-average 32.6 percent from behind the arc, and you get the sense that so much of Oklahoma’s floor balance will hinge on improvements from both Williams and Giddey. It helps that Gilgeous-Alexander’s array of paint tricks gives Oklahoma a release valve when all other options fail, and they allow him to err on the conservative side as a playmaker. Giddey, in that sense, is the perfect yin to his yang.

Gilgeous-Alexander throws fewer passes per game than Russell Westbrook and Jordan Poole. Even if that never changes, and even if Giddey never figures out how to attack a set defense with consistency, their pairing is still designed to mitigate each other’s shortcomings.

Oklahoma’s stretches without Gilgeous-Alexander have been revealing, incredibly useful for a team that’s more interested in development than winning right now. Sure, it would be great to get some play-in experience, but they won’t do it at the expense of exploring the nether regions of their rotation, where the solutions to their problems might be lurking.

Isaiah Joe, signed by Oklahoma City after being waived last year, could emerge as one of those solutions. Daigneault found intentional pockets of minutes for him early this season, and his 40 percent 3-point rate and cagey defense kept him in the rotation. Then there’s Aaron Wiggins, a 40 percent 3-point shooter who does his best to avoid everything midrange. Hey, that’s Daryl Morey’s music!

Size remains Oklahoma’s most glaring weakness. The team makes up for it with excellent positional defense (Dort allows just 0.82 points per chance in isolation, per Second Spectrum), long arms, and quick rotations on defense. Jaylin Williams, averaging more than 21 minutes per game since sharpshooting forward Mike Muscala was traded, leads the NBA in charges drawn per game. Kenrich Williams, out for the season with a left wrist injury, is fourth, while Joe is in the top 20. The Thunder gang rebound and move quickly off double-teams, but they struggle against imposing big men like Anthony Davis, who hung 37 points and 15 rebounds on them a few weeks ago.

But there’s a reason they’re thin on center depth. Before he got hurt, Holmgren was supposed to be eating up that space and creating it on offense; he had a jumper that was accurate from 3 39 percent of the time in his lone year at Gonzaga. He posted a cryptic “Free 7” caption in an Instagram post last week, suggesting that he wants to play this season. Considering that he could presumably solve their biggest issues, Holmgren’s desire to get out on the floor is just as understandable as the Thunder, who have bigger aspirations than the play-in game, treading patiently.

The Thunder are a game ahead of the stumbling Mavericks, and they own the tiebreaker in the series. Even if Dallas miraculously wins its final three games, Oklahoma City has to go only 2-1 to be guaranteed a play-in spot.

No one expected the Thunder to be heading to the postseason four years after dramatically tearing down their roster and rebuilding. In fact, the team tried not to have any expectations at all.

“We just kind of have a bar that we try to strive to be above on as many days as possible, and just stack those days above that bar and see where that lands you,” says Daigneault. “I think this year is a good example. You don’t know where that’ll land you, but you know when your head hits the pillow at the end of the night that you’ve maximized what your team can be.”