Social media trolls suck. But you know what sucks even more? When they're right.
Back in the second week of the nascent 2022-23 NBA season, a certain author of the CBS Sports Power Rankings who will remain nameless was criticized harshly -- borderline menacingly -- on social media for referring to OKC's basketball team as "the tanking Thunder." While the objector's approach was clearly off-base, the sentiment was, admittedly, justified.
Though many of us assumed that this iteration of the Oklahoma City Thunder would enter the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes early and often, particularly after a foot injury to No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren ended his rookie season before it started, it was unfair to adhere that label to them so prematurely.
Sure enough, with the All-Star break behind us and a quarter of the season remaining, the Thunder are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race and the tanks appear to have been fully decommissioned. Yep, there's a reason that troll meme has a smile on its face.
This is no fluke, either. OKC is 10th in the league in net rating, an indication that they might be even better than their 28-30 record suggests. Led by slithery guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has gone from an emerging young talent to a bona fide superstar coming off of his first All-Star selection, the Thunder sit just outside play-in position, within realistic striking distance of the Western Conference's top six.
Armed with the youngest roster in the league, it's hard to imagine the mindset shift required for a team that won 46 games combined over the last two seasons to suddenly become a playoff contender. But the secret to their success, at least according to head coach Mark Daigneault, comes from maintaining the same approach they've taken since he arrived before the 2020-21 season.
"We've won more games this year. I think we're gaining confidence. But the environment in the gym every day, the environment in the building, environment in the locker room, the way the guys are approaching their business -- those habits have already been formed," Daigneault said. "Now it's a matter of not taking our eye off that and understanding that some of this little success we're having -- relative success -- is a byproduct of those habits and doubling down on them. That's the process we're in right now."
Despite catapulting from the dregs of the Western Conference to a spirited contender, Daigneault and the Thunder are still very much in the player development business -- and so far, the returns are bountiful. Gilgeous-Alexander is the shimmering example, having gone from 19 points per game in his first year with OKC to 31 per game this season on 51 percent shooting. Surprisingly, in the age of 3-point hurricanes, Gilgeous-Alexander has cut his long-distance attempts in half, opting instead to shower opponents with an unending deluge of raindrops from the midrange and at the rim.
The 6-foot-6 guard shoots more from the midrange than from behind the arc, and is among the league leaders in attempts at the rim. That constant pressure often elicits fouls, landing him over 10 attempts per game from the free throw line, where he converts at a 91 percent clip. In other words, he's a handful.
"He's really, really strong and he's got great size for a point guard. So he gets anywhere he wants," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said prior to a February matchup with OKC. "He's got a great handle on the ball and he's got a unique game, and then those midrange. He gets into the paint with a variety of moves and then seems to just shrug off defenders and really calmly just take his shots when he wants to. So, really tough to handle."
Watch essentially any clip of Gilgeous-Alexander, and you'll immediately notice how he plays at his own pace, rarely sped up by the defense. Like Kerr said, this guy gets anywhere he wants.
The calmness he displays on the floor extends to his role in the locker room, where, at 24 years old, Gilgeous-Alexander is actually one of the elder statesmen on the cherubic Thunder. His age and accomplishments, plus his position as the point guard, make him the team's leader by default, an opportunity in which he's flourished thanks to what Daigneault calls "extremely high character."
"Leadership's a burden. Leadership's not this, like, sexy thing," Daigneault said. "There's weight on your shoulders when you lead, and [Gilgeous-Alexander] is starting to feel that and starting to feel how to do that within his own personality. He's improved at it and will continue to improve at it, but I think the foundation of who he is as a person, the way that he naturally approaches things, sets us way ahead when it comes to his leadership."
The foundation being built in OKC extends far beyond Gilgeous-Alexander. Second-year point guard Josh Giddey has increased his numbers and efficiency accross the board, taking on lead playmaking duties when Gilgeous-Alexander heads to the bench. NBA Twitter darling Aleksej Pokusevski (affectionately known as Poku) was making significant strides in his third season, shooting a career-high 38 percent from 3-point range, before a leg fracture sidelined him just after Christmas. Isaiah Joe, a 23-year-old sharpshooter, has become an essential part of the rotation while hitting 45 percent of his 3s since the Thunder picked him up off the scrap heap prior to the season.
OKC's latest find is rookie Jalen Williams -- not to be confused with fellow Thunder rookie Jaylin Williams, who has also been coming on strong of late. Drafted No. 12 overall out of Santa Clara last June, Jalen Williams has shown a diverse skill set and maturity beyond his years while making an immediate impact on winning. At a stout 6-6, he's able to guard multiple positions while playing either on or off the ball on offense. True to the OKC brand, even with Williams' success as a rookie, Daigneault tries to remain focused on the big picture.
"Not allowing his immediate impact to cap his ceiling is a big focus, for me in particular, with him," Daigneault said of Jalen Williams. "It's easy to just make him a plug-and-play guy -- you can play him 35 minutes a night it if you want and he's going to help you and be additive. But trying to be really intentional about making sure that his foot's on the gas as a creator and that he's not settling into being the player that he is today, you know, for the rest of time."
The constant emphasis on development combined with a youthful group that hasn't quite yet been jaded by the rigors of NBA life leads to a supportive, positive environment around the team. Of course, it's much easier to keep motivated when you're actually winning some games.
"My teammates, they're so cool to be around, so fun to be around and make every situation light, make every situation fun," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "At the same time, they're competitive, so when it's time to lace up their boots, we're ready to go to war. I think being around this group of guys that I like has made my life ultimately happier."
The Thunder are the definition of "ahead of schedule." Not only do they have an exciting, budding core of Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey and Jalen Williams, but they also have Holmgren itching to join them on the court, along with an uncrackable safe stocked with seemingly unlimited future assets they've acquired through trades. Tanking isn't nearly as tempting when you have a plethora of first-round picks headed your way regardless of how your team finishes.
That being said, contention is still uncharted territory for this OKC group. It's going to be a rough road to the postseason with desperate teams like the Lakers, Warriors, Timberwolves and Trail Blazers standing in their way. If there's one thing that the Thunder have proven, however, it's that winning is no longer a pipe dream of a distant, theoretical future.
It's here ... and it's exciting.
"It's different this year. Obviously we're fighting for a playoff spot -- play-in, playoff, whatever you want to call it. So, it feels good. It feels fun. There's a lot more pressure to win games, more stuff to play for," Giddey said. "When 82 games is up, whether that's in the playoffs or not, as long as we're continuing to take steps in the right direction, that's all you can ask for right now."