‣ The Oklahoma City Thunder‘s offense strategy is based on a straightforward philosophy of driving the ball, moving well off of it, and spreading shooters around the perimeter. This is amplified by complex sets, pristine execution, and elite personnel.
‣ The team’s success is attributed to the synergy and versatility of its key players – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren, and Jalen Williams. Their complementary play styles and ability to apply constant pressure on the defense are key factors in the Thunder’s offensive success.
‣ The Thunder’s offense strategy puts opponents into a bind, forcing them to choose between different defensive options, all of which can be exploited by the team’s top players. This has led to the Thunder’s rapid rise in the league and positions them as a title hopeful in the future.
The Suns got burned by the exact same play for a trailing Chet Holmgren 3 in the first 5.5 minutes last night
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf)
Here’s the skinny. Doc Rivers, the former head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, had a simple mantra. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Keep running that play till the defense can stop it. It’s a thought that echoes in the minds of NBA coaches everywhere.
The Oklahoma City Thunder seems to follow this idea too. Their offense can be multifaceted, but the underlying philosophy is simple. Drive the ball, move well off it, and spread shooters around the perimeter. They add some complex sets around this, but it’s all about that core idea.
And it’s working. They’re second in the West at 23-9, with a fifth-ranked offense and sixth-ranked defense. They’re a title contender, no doubt.
What’s really interesting about the Thunder is their mix of short- and long-term success. Championship windows are fleeting and predicting the league’s future is a tough gig. But if any team is a title hopeful both now and in five years, it’s probably the Thunder. Don’t count out the Denver Nuggets, though.
The Thunder’s trio of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren, and Jalen Williams is the reason for this optimism. Gilgeous-Alexander is a legit MVP candidate, weaving his way through defenses. Holmgren, in his rookie season, is getting All-Star and All-Defensive Team nods. Williams might not be an All-Star this year, but his two-way skills and fourth quarter takeovers show he’s got a bright future.
These guys aren’t just good individually, they complement each other well. They don’t step on each other’s toes. Some star combinations just don’t mesh, but that’s not the case here.
So, why do the Thunder’s stars play so well together?
Throughout the year, the Thunder have been using pindown/flare screens for Holmgren, with either Williams or Gilgeous-Alexander as the pick man. It works because centers tend to sag off and protect the paint, especially against a team like Oklahoma City that’s known for driving.
Holmgren’s shooting exploits this, playing off his teammates and flipping conventional wisdom. Here’s an example of him catching a pair of Phoenix Suns center off-guard for six easy points.
But not all teams fall for this. The Minnesota Timberwolves‘ top-ranked defense didn’t lean into natural instinct when they played the Thunder. They crowded Holmgren, pressured his touches, and closed down his airspace. The rookie phenom scored 16 points on 6-of-20 shooting.
Four weeks later, the Thunder won 129-106 over the Timberwolves. The synergy and versatility of its Big Three were on display.
Midway through the first quarter, Gobert is above the arc, eyes toggling between his man, Holmgren, and Gilgeous-Alexander, a constant scoring and slashing threat. Williams comes jogging in, transitioning from nonchalant cadence to bruising screen.
Gobert sees the pick and fights around it, but Holmgren is already in motion. He engages Karl-Anthony Towns, pump fakes to draw him off his feet, and swings a pass to Williams who drills the spot-up rep.
Minnesota’s defensive shell crumbled because of a momentary lapse 45 feet away from the rim. That’s the constant pressure the Thunder apply and leverage from all three stars.
Seventeen minutes later, the same scenario arises. Gilgeous-Alexander is piloting the offense near the left wing, Holmgren is trailing to his right and Williams is mashing toward a screen for the 7-foot sniper. Gobert tracks all of this. His eyes are darting between man and ball at a quicker rate. Holmgren is not going to beat them this time.
Gilgeous-Alexander sees the events unfolding a few feet away and recognizes the paint is vacated because of the respect Holmgren commands from Gobert. So, he seamlessly turns on the accelerator, bounces Nickeil Alexander-Walker out of the picture and converts an easy layup.
Everyone flanking Gilgeous-Alexander above is nailing at least 40 percent of their long balls in 2023-24, including Luguentz Dort (41.8 percent) and Isaiah Joe (42 percent). The off-ball shooting Oklahoma City touts further eases life for its offensive centerpieces.
In most scenarios, Joe’s man, Mike Conley Jr., would be responsible for help inside, which requires abandoning Joe, who’s netted 41.2 percent of his 568 threes since joining the Thunder prior to 2022-23. It’s a tough spot to navigate! Oklahoma City owns the No. 1 half-court offense because of dichotomies like that.
Shortly after intermission, the Thunder return to the well, this time with Williams running the show and Gilgeous-Alexander screening for Holmgren. By virtue of clashing lineup compositions, Williams is Oklahoma City’s slippery, 6-foot-5 power forward being guarded by Minnesota’s jumbo, 7-foot power forward, Towns.
To account for that, Gobert and Jaden McDaniels direct some of their attention toward this mismatch in case Williams, an accomplished driver and creator, elects to attack. They don’t switch the screen. Gobert, worried about an open three, is slow to fight over it — as any center would be, emphasizing the strain Holmgren’s game presents — and grants Holmgren a path inside off the catch. McDaniels tries to draw a charge, but isn’t quite set and Holmgren heads to the free-throw line.
Less than a minute later, Minnesota switches to zone — a tactic it used to stymie the Thunder in the first matchup. Williams is operating again from the right wing. Conley and McDaniels are pinched in. Gobert is patrolling the middle of the floor. Gilgeous-Alexander occupies McDaniels with the most ceremonial of flare screens. Anthony Edwards is late rotating up. Holmgren steps into a shooting practice bucket for his second of three triples.
It’s the exact outcome this action is designed for and Minnesota first aims to prevent with its coverage. The cycle has come full circle. The Thunder are winning the war of counters, as they often do.
This is the bind Oklahoma City’s offense corners opponents into on a nightly basis. There is nothing groundbreaking with that action, yet every team struggles to bottle it up because of who is involved.
Siphon off Holmgren and an opportunity for a devastating driver appears. Skirt him off the line and the fluid three-level scorer taps into his ball-handling chops with the center in his rearview mirror. Double him on the catch and the screener morphs into an elite release valve. Sit back to deter Williams or Gilgeous-Alexander’s downhill forays, and a 40 percent marksman revels in target practice.
Those are the choices defenses must decide among with virtually everything the Thunder run. Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams and Holmgren are a circulatory system. That action and the entire offense flows concordantly because those three operate with a necessary, symbiotic harmony. It’s how Oklahoma City became so good so fast and why it’ll probably continue ascending the league’s hierarchy in the coming years.