In the summer of the 2019 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded away their two superstar players. Paul George got traded to the Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and 5 first round picks. Once this trade happened, there were circulations about if the Thunder will trade their franchise star, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets for at the time, regressing point guard Chris Paul and 4 first round picks. After these trades happened, many fans, coaches and analysts thought that the Thunder would enter rebuild mode and start over. However, this season has had a much different outcome. Through 64 games, the club is 40-24 and sitting at 5th place in the loaded Western Conference. OKC turned from a rebuilding into a playoff team with a few techniques.
1: Veteran Leadership
Leadership is what takes most teams to the next level in the NBA. Once Russell Westbrook left, many thought that the leadership would dissolve once Chris Paul got there. However, Paul took full responsibility for making sure everyone becomes involved. Head coach Billy Donovan praised Paul for his veteran leadership on the court. Donovan said via Bleacher Report, “I think he’s been a great role model for a lot of our younger players, just because at 34 years old to see the investment he’s made into the game and into his body, how he gets himself prepared and ready to play.” Many people were skeptical about Chris Paul’s commitment to the organization because he didn’t get traded to his preferred destination. Paul has changed that narrative though. He has started in all 64 games this season and has made his first all-star team since 2016. Paul is taking a step back from scoring to allow teammates to carry the load. His teammate and shooting guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads OKC with 19.3 points that leads the team. Paul has shown his teammates how to involve others by taking a step back, as well as being a leader by example.
2: Scoring Options
OKC for the longest time did not have many legitimate scoring options. Even though the Thunder had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the two main scoring options, the bench did not have a true scoring threat until this year. Dennis Schroder is the catalyst who happens to be in serious consideration for the sixth man of the year award. The 7th year player is averaging an impressive 19 points off the bench for OKC. The shot creation has been huge, as he has hit 38% from three on nearly 5 attempts a game. Not only has Schroder been a huge source of scoring but Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have as well. Alexander is shooting 48% from the field on about 15 shot attempts a game. Also, he averages about 5 free throws a game which is huge when it comes to shot creating and making a play. Not only Shai, but CP3 has been a master of creating his own shot as well. Paul has averaged 17.7 points this season which doesn’t seem eye popping but there is one stat that stands out. His 2 point field goal percentage is 57% on roughly 9 attempts. This should be considered because of the degree of difficulty on these shots. Many of these are coming off of a screen and roll or spotting up. Paul has mastered the art with creating shots at the rate that he does. The OKC Thunder are able to win more games because of players’ abilities to stretch the defense out with their scoring ability.
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has always been a good head coach in the NBA and even in the NCAA. Before his job with the Thunder, he was coaching at the University of Florida. Donovan coached the Gators from 1996-2015. Once he came in 2015, his system followed. Mainly he taught OKC how to handle pick and roll defenses but was constantly knocked for close game situations. Donovan had a history of blowing big games during his time and that carried over to the Thunder. During the 2016 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder were up 3-1 against Golden State and blew the lead. Granted they faced a great team, coaching plays a big factor. Once Westbrook left via a trade in the summer of 2019, Donovan had to change his game plan. Donovan got many young and athletic players to work with, which made his job much easier. Donovan focused on ball movement, as well as establishing an inside and out game with the scoring options that the team has. This style seems basic but it has worked so far for the Thunder. Players are averaging career highs in points while being efficient from the field as well. The lineups have also been more in favor of playing fast but also being able to shoot the ball and play defense. The coaching for the Thunder seemed skeptical but Billy Donovan has changed that with his new style of play.