Oklahoma City Thunder finding success with small ball style

Darius Bazley #55 of the Oklahoma City Thunder (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Darius Bazley #55 of the Oklahoma City Thunder (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images) /

Being a successful team in the NBA can be done in many different ways, but almost all of them have a big man down low to steady the ship. This is not the case for the Thunder.

Oklahoma City expected rookie Chet Holmgren to be the man in the middle making things difficult on opponents and providing that stability, but after his injury, the Thunder have adapted and have been able to see success with a different style of play.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are having success without a true center on the roster, but how?

Let’s start by looking at the Thunder’s defensive identity and how they’ve been able to get stops. Given that OKC is the third youngest team in the league, it may seem likely that there would be many defensive mistakes and a general lack of maturity.

Instead, Oklahoma City uses its youth as an advantage. By using athleticism and length, the Thunder can catch teams sleeping as they roll into what they think should be an easy game.

Darius Bazley and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are often asked to play bigger than they would in a traditional lineup and use their skill sets to their advantage down low. For example, Bazley leads the team in blocks at 1.5 per game while chipping in seven points and five rebounds.

Through six games, the Thunder boast the league’s fifth-best defensive rating and hold a .500 record. While most teams in the NBA would attribute that to some defensive anchor protecting the paint or grabbing rebounds, OKC’s anchor is on the perimeter and is often tasked with the toughest matchup.

In his fourth season, Lu Dort has found his spot as a lockdown defender and a leader for the Thunder on that end of the floor. Leading by example has been Dort’s calling card, whether it be by relentlessly fighting through screens or using his strength to get an edge on the opposing team’s star player. The energy of Dort is contagious and sets the tone defensively, but it also carries over to the offensive side.

The Thunder’s halfcourt offense has some work to do, so getting out in transition after stops is crucial. Luckily, the Thunder are one of the best in that area. Through six games, OKC is second in the NBA with 22 points off turnovers per game and top ten in fast break points with 17 per game.

As for the offense as a whole, the Thunder rank near the bottom of the NBA, but the Thunder combat that by being the eighth-fastest team in the league, which can be credited to playing small.

Of course, to tell the story of the offense, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has to be front and center. Averaging 31 points and seven assists, Gilgeous-Alexander’s impact on the offensive end is massive to the Thunder’s success.

While Gilgeous-Alexander does not have the luxury of playing with a rock-solid screen setter or perfect roll man, he can play with spacing. Despite the Thunder shooting under 30% as a team from deep this season, driving lanes are still open for OKC’s star to score and create for others.

As the season goes along, shooting percentages will likely increase as young players like Tre Mann and Josh Giddey find their spots and get their teammates good looks. Even without great long-range shooting, the Thunder have still managed to get inside and score among the best in the league in the paint.

Competing with their length and athleticism to create transition opportunities has given the Thunder confidence defensively. By spacing the floor and driving inside, OKC has made the most of its personnel offensively. Putting all those components together has allowed OKC to see success early in the season, even if there is no big man in the picture.

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