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NBA Contenders or Pretenders: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder have spent the past week in the bubble preparing for the final eight games of the season. With a playoff position guaranteed, Oklahoma City will look to juggle line-ups and test different combinations before hitting the post-season.

The Thunder have enjoyed a four and a half month break largely drama free. Defensive stalwart Andre Roberson has navigated through two years of injury setbacks to finally reach full health. All appears to be positive in Roberson’s return to the NBA if Thunder players and staff are to be believed.

However, Oklahoma City received its first set-back with Dennis Schroder set to miss the rest of the regular season and potentially the first week of the playoffs. The German native’s wife is scheduled to give birth within the next month or so.

While this will affect Oklahoma City from a basketball point of view, this is absolutely the right decision. A timetable for his return to the bubble is yet to be determined but the German guard is looking to make arrangements with the franchise. There is optimism he can return in time should pregnancy run its full course.

On the positive side, the Thunder were fortunate to breeze through the hiatus without a single COVID-19 case. The team is back together and will look to recapture the momentum it had prior to the break.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Contenders or Pretenders?


Three-Guard Line-Up

The combination of Dennis Schroder, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the most successful three-man line-up in the NBA. The trio have a staggering 127.1 offensive rating, 98.6 defensive rating and a whopping +28.6 net rating when they share the court. Better yet, the Thunder hold the top five three-man line-ups who have played at least 50 games.

As seen by the graphic, the sixth best line-up comes from the Milwaukee Bucks, featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Wesley Matthews and, Brook Lopez.

In crunch time, the Thunder are even better. They hold seven of the top 10 three-man line-ups in the fourth quarter with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams making an appearance.

This will be a huge advantage heading into the post-season, especially when games get tight and palms get sweaty.


This may surprise many but the Oklahoma City Thunder possess a top 10 defense, ranking ninth in defensive rating (108.4). Oklahoma City is an extremely disciplined team, allowing opponents to shoot just 18.4 free throws per game, ranking second in the NBA.

The Thunder are also one of the best perimeter defending teams in the league, allowing opponents to shoot just 34.4 percent from the field (fifth). Head coach Billy Donovan employs a man-coverage defensive scheme with Thunder defenders fighting over the top or through screens.

Luguentz Dort and Terrance Ferguson are players with high defensive IQ, primarily assigned to guard the opposing team’s best offensive players. Both possess excellent footwork and anticipatory skills, forcing ball handlers to drive into help defense. The Thunder are 13th in the NBA in opponent shooting percentage (45.4) and are willing to give up twos as opposed to threes.

The sequence below shows how good the Thunder’s defense is.

With Andre Roberson returning to action after two years, it will be interesting to see if he comes back even 70 percent of what he was. If he does, this defense will be one of the toughest to score on, especially in the clutch.



One obvious drawback with playing three undersized guards is the lack of rebounding. Oklahoma City ranks 15th in defensive rebounding (34.6), 26th in total rebounds (42.7), and 30th in offensive rebounds (8.4).

While this may not look like a problem on the surface, their middling defensive rebounding numbers are an issue. Oklahoma City allows 10.4 offensive rebounds per game, placing them 20th in the NBA. The Thunder have managed to mask this problem by giving up just 12.6 second-chance points per contest (10th). However, with elite offensive rebounding teams like the Los Angeles Clippers in the bubble, this could become an issue.

Oklahoma City needs to do a better job defending the defensive glass. There is no point in playing elite defense for 24 seconds if you can’t get the rebound.

Assist Numbers

This might surprise people but Oklahoma City ranks 28th in assists (21.9) and garner a lot of their points in isolation. Dennis Schroder, Chris Paul and, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are three of the league’s most efficient scorers in isolation. Thus, it makes sense to have low assist numbers.

It could be a problem should shots stop falling, but it’s highly unlikely all three are off at the same time. We did see this back in 2017-18 when Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony somehow all shot below 40 percent at the same time. It’s unlikely but still possible.

Contenders or Pretenders?

The Thunder are one of the dark horses entering the playoffs. Since the turn of the New Year, Oklahoma City posted the second best record behind the Los Angeles Lakers. To put these in perspective, Oklahoma City played a whopping 17 games in January that featured nine road games and three back-to-backs.

Oklahoma City will lean heavily on their defense and their success will hinge largely on the three-guard line-up of Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul. All the numbers point to the Thunder being sleeper to knock off one of the big shots in the Western Conference.

Despite being a great squad collectively, NBA success is dependent upon star power. The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t quite have enough power to compete with duo’s like LeBron James and Anthony Davis or Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder have what it takes to at least make it to the second round of the playoffs, but anything beyond that would be a surprise.

Thunder Up!

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