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SGA’s Drive

SGA’s Drive

Not much is defined for the Oklahoma City Thunder at this stage of the rebuild. But here are two present realities for the Thunder:

  1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the team’s most important building block, has developed into a capable first scoring option in an NBA offense.
  1. The Thunder remain trapped in the cycle of shooting poverty. Gilgeous-Alexander is almost never surrounded by effective shooting. The most common lineups for the 2021-22 season have placed least between two and four of Darius Bazley (27% from three), Josh Giddey (26.3%), Derrick Favors (16.7%), and Lu Dort (a shaky 32.7%) in SGA’s halfcourt orbit. (stats here and below via NBA.com)

This season has been an exercise in how SGA can improve within that dynamic. He’s been working on his shot repertoire out of both curiosity–can SGA further bloom into a stepback threat above the break?–and necessity–if the sea doesn’t part when Shai drives between those sub-33% shooters, can he manage to score when settling from distance? We’ve covered the results so far, which are not impressive on paper.

Beyond the numbers, though, there are signs that the experiment is not a lost cause. In a season that has been a wasteland of G-League talent interacting with established NBA players to create something between garbage time and quality play, the Thunder’s recent matchup with the Cavaliers was an oasis of real competition to explore.

Strength vs. strength

Cleveland was and is a team battling for home court advantage, relativly unmarred by the ravages of health and safety protocols. The strength of the Cavs has been defense, as modern offenses have struggled to find daylight between the limbs of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Opponents have shot the worse in the paint against Cleveland (58.1%) than any other team this season, and only try to do so infrequently (Cleveland has allowed the fifth fewest paint attempts per game).

Shai has been mediocre (60.1%) during his frequent trips to the interior this season (5.7 attempts per game, fourth most among guards).

The outcome in the boxscore was predictable. OKC lost the rock fight 94-87. The Thunder’s halfcourt offense was putrid, and Shai scored in volume (29 points). It was a somewhat rare shooting gleam for the face of the franchise (3-from-7, only the ninth time he’d converted from deep that efficiently this season) that buoyed his scoring output to be both efficient (the rarity) and prolific (the norm).

That’s an encouraging if unsurprising datapoint, but the way the game unfolded is even more promising.

Looking closer

Early in the contest, SGA was stuffed and stifled. He struggled to navigate inside the perimeter, struggling to get his shot above the tall trees of Allen and Mobley. Here are five of his first drives:

A mixed bag of success, with only one shot falling when both Allen and Mobley are in the frontcourt. It would appear, with all of the factors we’ve already covered, this would be a night where Shai would have to settle for a difficult, long distance shot assortment rather than take more of these extremely difficult shots around the paint.

But while he did ease up on challenging that duo, Shai continued to prod, seeking better angles and opportunities inside the arc. That effort alone is a good sign, and the results paid off:

Shai only took two three-point attempts in the second half, and picked his spots masterfully: he attacked when guarded by an easy first-level obstacle in Darius Garland, or when the more formidable Isaac Okoro had only one of Mobley or Allen lurking behind him in the paint. A lot of the shots that fell were tricky banks, scoops, and floaters, but tricky finish is STFGA’s middle name. All told, he racked up 18 points on 14 second half shots.

Looking ahead

It will be rare for Shai to have to plot his drives and shot selection around multiple rim protectors at the level of Mobley and Allen. That he still cracked the code and found a way to be effective with at least two of Okoro, Allen, and Mobley in front of him is, again, promising.

I don’t think we need to sound the alarm on Shai as the first option, but it’s still not a given that he can lift the rest of his teammates into effective offense against quality defenses like Cleveland’s. As the roster improves around him the next couple seasons, that evidence will be filed. In the meantime, Giddey will be working to shoulder more of the playmaking burden in OKC without contributing to the spacing limitations when he’s off-ball.