OKC’s Offensive Philosophy

Aleksej Pokuševski, a 7-foot-tall 19-year-old with a guard’s instincts, pushed his dribble from half-court towards the 3-point line. A makeshift ring of LA Clippers defenders formed in front of him, stalling his momentum for a nanosecond. Then, a lightbulb went off in the second-year forward’s head with the flicker indicating one thing – attack.

Pokuševski did what he and his Thunder teammates have all been charged to do – get the blender going by driving quickly off the dribble, making the simple pass and then continuing to move and create space on the floor for the next ball-handler. The Serbian dished crisply to forward Kenrich Williams who got into an action with Mike Muscala and delivered a pass to the center who finished at the rim, plus the foul. Those type of rapid decisions Pokuševski and Williams displayed on Monday support an offense that prioritizes movement and ball sharing and are exactly the type of habits Head Coach Mark Daigneault is trying to instill in the growing team.

“Once you gain your advantage, you've gotta be able to keep the ball ahead of the defense's rotations, and quick decisions are the main ingredient in that,” said Daigneault. “Your ability to figure out whether to shoot, pass, or drive on every single possession is relevant and as the modern NBA is becoming more of a decision-making league, offenses are playing more that way. So, as we develop and grow players that are early in their careers, being able to do that at a high level is critical.”

In the Thunder’s 19-point come-from-behind win over the Lakers on Thursday, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander recognized the trap early to make a hockey assist for Williams in the corner, before surprising the defense with a gutsy 34-foot 3 from the Lakers logo on the next possession.

The Thunder point guard made similarly confident decisions in the Thunder’s 26-point comeback win against the Los Angeles Lakers last Wednesday, it got snappy decision-making in the fourth quarter from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort, with the former recognizing a double team coming at him and bouncing a pass quickly to the latter, who immediately knew he had only to beat his defender with a straight-line drive to make it all the way to the cup.

Also in that game, the Thunder got five separate assists from 19-year-old rookie Josh Giddey to 30-year-old center Derrick Favors. As Daigneault directed “quick, quick, quick” from the sideline, Giddey flashed to his left in front of his defender, caught the ball at the left slot, spun and whipped a righty pass back to the middle of the floor, where Favors finished easily.

Later, the Thunder tapped into that connection again as the Thunder’s best player, Gilgeous-Alexander served as a decoy on a crucial offensive possession in the final minute. The play resulted in Giddey taking a dribble hand-off, zooming around a screen and dropping off another dime to Favors to push the Thunder’s precarious one-point lead to 3.

“You don't want to be sped up out of the offense, but if you can make decisions quickly and on-the-fly, it allows us to get to our offense easier and more smoothly, and guys get open looks,” said Giddey.

“One of the biggest things is gonna be making quick decisions and obviously making the right decisions, but doing them fast and trying to keep the defense on their toes,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.

There have, of course, been occasions where the young Thunder’s offense has not made those immediate reads and the result has been a contested shot, a turnover or a disjointed possession. A late decision can put the ball in someone’s hands who isn’t ready to receive it, is at a poor angle to see the rim or is pressed up against the shot clock. As a result, the faster players make pass-shoot-drive reads, the better and simpler the decisions become for the next person who touches the ball. It’s a symbiotic relationship as one quick move begets the next or one slow choice drags the next with it.

“In the flow of the game, making sure the ball's not sticking and making sure you're being quick and decisive helps your teammates,” said forward Darius Bazley.

“If you hold the ball for longer than one second, two seconds, then the defense can get set,” said Favors. “You may miss out on a good shot, a good opportunity to drive to the basket or a good pass.”

In a league where progression is not linear, there will be steps forward and backwards. Part of the reason veteran NBA players often perform better than players who are in their first few years is simply their ability to recognize and react to situations more quickly. They’ve seen them thousands of times, with their internal catalogues filled with the muscle memory of how to attack each given situation. The youthful Thunder is still building up that internal library.

In the early going, the Thunder’s emphasis on movement and tempo has not yielded a plethora of high scoring outbursts, but the team is learning what it must to turn lightning-strike runs into 48 minutes’ worth of production.

“You always wanna be ahead of the defense,” added guard Ty Jerome, who boasts one of the best career assist-to-turnover ratios on the team of 2.5-to-1. “That's how you get the shots you want.”

A huge key for the Thunder on offense is hitting the paint – that’s the desired end of all that trained thinking and movement. Daigneault has called up concepts to get into the paint in a variety of ways, from Gilgeous-Alexander’s nearly 23 drives per game, short rolls to the free throw line by Favors, slashing wing attacks from Bazley and, on one occasion, even some Dort post ups against a smaller Philadelphia backcourt. Action on the perimeter has also included backdoor passes and pick-and-roll finds by Giddey and a nice two-man interplay between Pokuševski and Williams that shined at home against Golden State.

The Thunder is racking up an average of 45.7 potential assists compared to 19.6 actual assists per game – the difference being only whether shots are falling. Despite getting the wheel moving on offense, the Thunder has only hit about 41 percent of its shots including under 30 percent from three, numbers that certainly won’t stay that low throughout the course of the 82-game slate.

With over 285 passes per game, the Thunder is right around league average, but only 6.8 percent of those passes are resulting in an assist. It’s the infancy stages of the season, so those numbers should be taken lightly, as the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz have the same percentage of passes that result in an assist. There’s tons of time for the law of averages to work its magic and for shots to start splashing.

“We've generated decent shots, open shots and shots from efficient parts of the floor,” said Daigneault. “We're getting in (the lane). We're getting fouled. We're getting a lot of attempts at the rim. We're spraying the ball out and generating threes. That's how we want to play.”

As each of the burgeoning professionals on the Thunder’s roster learns more about playing at the NBA level, they’ll also understand more about themselves as performers. One guard’s decision tree looks different than a particular forward’s choice matrix. Same goes with teams.

Playing with pace is a catchphrase thrown around all over the league, and some mistake it for fast breaking at every turn. The truth is that playing up-tempo and playing quickly can be done in the half-court, as evidenced by the Thunder’s 13-0 run and crunch-time approach on Thursday against the Lakers, so long as advantages are being created by a connected five-man unit intent on generating the best shot possible, regardless of the shooter.

“Good players and teams play quickly, but they're not in a hurry,” said Muscala, quoting the legendary John Wooden, who knew a thing or two about creating an offensive foundation.