The Thunder are weird.
Their ostensible point guard and alpha dog, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, scored more than 30 points per game by dancing through and around defenders. A flamenco for a finger-roll, a salsa for a slam. He’s also the rare true-blue star guard who doesn’t really shoot from deep, which imposes unusual roster-building rules upon Oklahoma City.
Ideally, a team’s secondary stars and role players should accentuate the main character. Rising sophomore Jalen Williams, likely OKC’s second-best player already, seems to be an easy fit next to anyone. Chet Holmgren hasn’t played an NBA minute yet, but the mouthwatering idea of him is as a shot-obliterating, flamethrowing stretch-five, both mitigating SGA’s weaknesses and enhancing his strengths. Lu Dort needs to hit more shots, but he certainly puts up enough threes (and his defense is killer).
That leaves Josh Giddey, the 6’8” 20-year-old from Australia. Giddey, as currently constructed, doesn’t quite make sense next to SGA, but the talent is tantalizing. Defense and shooting are arguably the most critical attributes for non-superstars, and unfortunately, Giddey is the opposite of a 3-and-D player right now.
Despite what the narrative suggests, however, Giddey’s outside shot isn’t his only concern — when he gets close to the hoop, the bugaboo bites. He hit 62% of his attempts at the rim last season, a respectable number for a typical 6 ‘4” shooting guard but a poor mark for a 6 ‘8” ox masquerading as a wing. He has no problem using his size to get to the paint but seems to shy away from contact at the last minute despite acceptable free throw percentages.
Giddey averaged a paltry 1.9 free throw attempts per game, a jarring number for someone who shot 40% of their shots at the rim. With SGA averaging more than ten free throw attempts per game, there might not be a lot of freebies left over, but Giddey has to be more assertive in the paint.
Although he has a solid handle, a lack of first-step burst hampers Giddey. He often creates advantages at the top of the key or on the wing that he loses by the time he gets to the rim. Too many of his possessions look like this:
Giddey looks like he has a quarter-step on Portis right after the defensive switch, but Portis catches up to Giddey quickly. Better finishers put a shoulder into Portis’ chest to move him back a foot, then lay the ball up for a layup or a foul, but Giddey continues in a straight line past the hoop and throws up an arcing half-hook that looks ugly from the get-go.
Another problem: shot selection. Giddey has a good floater game when he gets to the short midrange. That’s a weapon when used judiciously, but like oversalted pot roast, Giddey sprinkles it in a little too often:
Here, the only defender between Giddey and a layup is Anthony Edwards, an explosive leaper and capable defender. Edwards is also caught flat-footed and is significantly smaller than Giddey. Bouncier players dunk this on Ant’s head, but even taking one more dribble could result in a layup on either side of the rim. However, Giddey’s lack of athleticism and irrational fear of contested layups results in a forced teardrop that clangs off the back iron.
But Giddey’s passing is sublime. He’s easily the best table-setter on the Thunder, and he’d be a league leader in assists if he were the primary ballhandler. Despite sharing the court with SGA, he assisted on 30% of his teammates’ made shots last season, a number on par with LeBron and Giannis. He can throw the ball with either hand and utilizes an unusual variety of velocities to trick defenders and set up teammates:
It’s easy to imagine that assist number rising if Holmgren, Williams, and other teammates can help space the floor more effectively; OKC was a below-average three-point shooting team in both frequency and accuracy, which was particularly true of the starting lineup. Better shooting means more room for Giddey’s beloved bounce passes.
Giddey’s wizardry with the ball is at its best on inbounds plays. His height gives him access to more angles than most inbounders, and his daring opens up passing lanes nobody else would try. Watch as he mischievously bounces one right past former DPOY Rudy Gobert’s heiny for an easy layup:
That’s saucy! He tried that pass routinely.
Giddey is also an exceptional rebounder on both ends for his size — he has a better offensive rebounding rate than Joel Embiid and a better defensive rebounding rate than Mitchell Robinson. The defensive rebounds, in particular, are key, as they let him grab the ball and immediately push up the floor, where he’s a beast in transition.
Giddey’s defense will always be somewhat problematic. He’s 6’8” with T-rex arms, and the lack of horizontal and vertical burst limits his effectiveness both in space and at the rim. Here’s Giddey getting literally and figuratively dunked on in a play somewhat reminiscent of the Anthony Edwards clip above:
Scottie Barnes would have baptized anybody here, so I don’t blame Giddey for giving up the bucket. But most of his peers would put up a much stronger contest than that. He’s barely able to even get off the ground!
At least Giddey doesn’t make a “business decision” to get out of the way. He does try hard on defense, which matters, and he’s generally in the right spots at the right time. He rarely fouls, and like most great passers, Giddey can use his vision to anticipate the other team’s ball movement to get steals and deflections. He doesn’t so much jump passing lanes as lurk in them, crocodilian eyes peering out while he waits, submerged, for a foolish mistake:
When watching Thunder games, it feels like he’s involved in more defensive plays than the numbers show. He should average a steal per game next season.
Giddey will never be a great defender, but just being big and smart is enough to ensure a baseline level of not-terribleness. He should become acceptably mediocre.
Acceptably mediocre would be a boon to his outside shot. A lot hinges on him further developing his three-point jumper. Before last season, the Thunder hired legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland away from the Spurs (and gave him a nice promotion to assistant coach). Giddey reaped the benefits. Last year’s 32.5% (on 3.1 attempts per game) doesn’t sound great on paper, but it’s a noteworthy step up from his rookie year’s 26.3% mark.
For what it’s worth, Giddey shoots it confidently, and his improvement was encouraging. Giddey doesn’t need to be a knockdown shooter, but like his defense, getting to average-ish would greatly benefit others and himself. Nearly all of Giddey’s threes were assisted; if he could become more comfortable creating one for himself, it would mitigate his lack of an initial first step and open up more driving lanes. It would also go a long way toward improving his partnership with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
I’ve been sitting here side-eyeing the pachyderm in the room while describing Giddey’s game, but the elephant is getting restless. Here’s the fundamental question that will change the direction of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the next half-decade: can Giddey and SGA play together?
This isn’t new; I talked about it at the beginning of last year, when the answer sure looked like a resounding “no.” To quote myself (as of Nov 10, 2022):
Here’s the rub: when SGA is playing without Giddey, the Thunder are outscoring their opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions – in the 97th percentile. That’s insanely good!
When Giddey plays without SGA, the Thunder are outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions, in the 7th percentile for all lineups. That’s horrific!
And when they play together, the team is outscored by 16 points per 100 possessions, one of the worst two-man combinations in the NBA. It’s brutal to watch.
It was brutal! But things smoothed out as the season went on. Full-season numbers (from Cleaning the Glass) paint a slightly different picture:
- Shai w/o Giddey: +7.3 points per 100 possessions
- Giddey w/o Shai: -4.4 points per 100 possessions.
- Both together: -1.3 points per 100 possessions.
Giddey’s passing is an essential part of OKC’s offense, but it’s hard to ignore how much better the team was with him off the floor — Giddey had the worst on/off point differential of any big-minute Thunder player.
Shai got better at cutting off Giddey’s playmaking, and the team got more thoughtful about putting Giddey in spots that wouldn’t cramp SGA’s jagged drives. And the team heavily staggered Giddey and Gilgeous-Alexander to ensure each got time to drive the bus.
But SGA is the engine, chassis, drivetrain, and bespoke paint job of the Thunder’s offense. For four straight years, the team has been unable to score whenever SGA is off the court, and Giddey’s passing talents haven’t been able to change that.
Improvement from the Thunder’s surrounding cast will make a big difference, particularly if Holmgren and young forward Jalen Williams can make an impact with three-point shooting.
But a -1.3 net rating isn’t good. When Giddey’s defender ignores him, as Cam Reddish does here to cut off a Shai drive, Giddey needs to do something:
A cut, a relocation along the perimeter, an off-ball screen (Draymond Green can be the inspiration here), anything to punish the defense’s temerity. Giddey improved as the season went along. Here’s a beautiful baseline cut to take advantage of a Suns team hiding Chris Paul on him:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the Thunder’s Moses. If they are to escape the desert, he must be the guide. It falls to everyone else to adjust their games to his idiosyncratic style. To become a part of the Thunder’s future, Giddey needs to change. He must stop settling for floaters, finish stronger, defend better, and become an outside threat.
That sounds like a lot, but let’s not forget: despite having two full seasons under his belt, Giddey can’t even order a Great Northern for another two months. He showed substantial improvement across the board from his rookie to his sophomore season, and there are plenty of reasons to think he’ll continue along the upward track.
Most of the things he struggles with can be developed. The Thunder can afford to be patient for another year to see his progress.
I am high on both Giddey and the potential of the Thunder’s core. I believe that Giddey’s exemplary passing is something every team needs, and although it hasn’t shown in the numbers yet, it should have a cascading positive effect on the offense.
But SGA is in his prime right now, and OKC has a bevy of assets for any team shopping the next disgruntled star. For all his talent, Giddey will never be the lab-grown perfect running mate next to Gilgeous-Alexander. If they can’t develop better chemistry sooner rather than later, Giddey might be packing up his hair products and moving elsewhere in 2024.
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