Beat your defender off the bounce, and you’re halfway to a bucket. In today’s NBA, a team cannot have too many players who can put the ball on the deck and be a triple-threat to dribble, shoot or pass. This season the Thunder will have its own triple threat, a trio of point guard maestros who have the wherewithal to get into the teeth of the defense, draw defenders, find the open pass or finish off a possession. Chris Paul (15th season), Dennis Schröder (7th season) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2nd season) are the newly formed three-headed playmaking monster for Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan to unleash on opposing defense – keeping foes off balance and in constant motion by continual drives to the paint. “The hardest thing to attack is a set defense,” Donovan noted. “There’s got to be penetrating, attacking ball movement. You’re playing downhill so you can try to find ways from there, once there’s help, to try to move the ball, make the extra pass and try to generate more opportunities.” “As long as we can play to the second or third side, generate some ball movement and try to utilize those guys’ skills, that will be good,” Donovan said. “All of those guys are open to playing together, making it work and trying to be effective for our team.”
Last season, the Paul, Schröder and Gilgeous-Alexander combination each had their own offenses to run. They combined to dish out 17.6 assists per game during the 2018-19 campaign, but also each scored in double figures. Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander each shot over 36 percent from three last season, and Schröder knocked down 38.8 percent of his corner three-point attempts. In order for Donovan to utilize all three guards in different combinations, they’ll have to not only be play initiators, but also play finishers. “The biggest thing for all of us is just communication, building the trust,” Paul said. “You know it’s a luxury to have those many guys that can handle the ball because you can play off the ball and you can share. We will figure it out.” Most of all, they have to be able to keep the ball moving, and get the action flowing from one side of the floor to the next. Mobile, skilled passing big men like Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala will aide with that, as the Thunder aims to improve on its 23.4 assist-per-game average last season by getting playmaking out of all five spots on the floor. “It’s going to be the secret of our success – the ball movement,” Gallinari said. “It’s tough to play defense against that. You don’t give anything to the defense so it’s tough to read it, it’s tough to scout it.”
Last season the Thunder ranked first in field goal attempts per game and fifth in fast break points while playing at the league’s sixth-fastest pace. Yet the net result was just 45.3 percent shooting and a 17th ranking in offensive rating. The emphasis on speed and playing an up-tempo brand of basketball was clear, but not enough. Where the Thunder wants to take a further step this year is in the quality of those possessions and the quickness of decision-making in the half court. “We want to get out in transition and all that sort of stuff, but it’s also the pace of the plays,” Adams said. “The ball moves faster than the guys especially in the pick and roll,” added guard Andre Roberson. “We have a great pick-and-roll maestro with CP and Steve’s a great roller so it puts a lot of pressure at the rim. By moving the ball we find a wide open man and coach always says, ‘A wide open shot is the best shot’ so we’ll just have to continue playing like that.” It seems likely that much of the Thunder’s offense will initiate with a high screen and roll between one of the point guards and either Adams or fellow center Nerlens Noel. But with the marksmanship of Gallinari, Muscala and returning swingman Terrance Ferguson, the Thunder should have plenty of options on the perimeter open for a catch and shoot or a pump fake and go. Putting defenses in binds is the plan. Over the next three weeks before the Thunder plays its first regular season game, it’ll be up to the coaches to put in the specific offensive actions. Then it’s on the players to learn one another’s tendencies, start to gel and get the job done. “The chemistry is growing and everybody knows the way that we want to play,” Gallinari said.
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