More than just a hot start: OKC Thunder midseason report card

The OKC Thunder are out to prove that this is more than just a hot start to the season, and as we issue mid-season grades, it certainly feels like OKC is legit.

Dec 14, 2023; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2)
Dec 14, 2023; Sacramento, California, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) / Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
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Grading the OKC Thunder starters:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, OKC Thunder: A+

It’s impossible to overstate the play of the Thunder’s superstar this season. 

Gilgeous-Alexander finished last season as a Most Improved Player candidate and led the Thunder to the postseason. With higher expectations this season, he has done more than enough to exceed those.

At 31 points per game, Gilgeous-Alexander has cemented himself as one of the NBA’s top scorers. Although his 3-point shot is not the best, everywhere inside the arc is a place for him to excel.

In getting to the mid-range and the paint, he has been incredible at drawing fouls and getting Oklahoma City easy points on the board. While some complain about Gilgeous-Alexander’s reliance on fouls and free throws, consistently getting to the line is a mark of most superstars.

Another mark is playing elite basketball on both sides of the floor. That is a place the guard has made strides in over the past few seasons and has become a legitimate All-Defensive Team candidate in 2024.

As the league’s leader in steals by a wide margin, the Kentucky product has been integral to the Thunder’s transition attack. Outside of steals, the Thunder’s star has been a tough defender for players to score against.

But what has made Gilgeous-Alexander so special this season and throughout his career is how he takes over games. Sometimes, it happens in the first or third quarters, where he almost always plays a full 12 minutes.

But other times, it happens with time running down and the game in the balance. It happened in Denver in the closing seconds, where after an off-night, he still pulled up for a game-winning jumper.

Moments like that make his MVP candidacy a reality and give the Thunder peace of mind, knowing they always have someone they can rely on 100%, no matter the situation.

Josh Giddey, G, OKC Thunder: C-

Although he looks to be turning things around, there is no need to sugarcoat that this has been a disappointing season for the Australian.

After a successful FIBA World Cup run, Giddey appeared ready to take the next step. Instead, he took a step back.

Giddey’s averages have taken a dip this season, even when adjusted for minutes played. But that may be the most important stat.

In year three, Giddey is playing the least amount of minutes in his career, and, frankly, it is because coach Mark Daigneault can’t trust him in a number of situations.

Because, despite his incredible passing ability, he often chooses to throw up wild shots on drives or settle for jumpers that opposing defenses are begging him to take.

However, those defenses have not always been happy with the results of those decisions. At 35.7% from beyond the arc, Giddey is in the midst of the best shooting season of his young career.

But even the spots he has improved in are overshadowed by his poor play and off-court distractions he has brought to the team.

In November, allegations arose that Giddey had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a minor. While an investigation by the Newport Beach Police Department recently closed, a league investigation is still ongoing.

Neither Giddey nor the Thunder has been willing to comment on the situation, but it has led to him getting booed when he touches the ball at many road games.

While those investigations have likely contributed to his poor play, if there is no on-court improvement in the next few months, he could soon be out of the starting lineup or out of Oklahoma City.

Lu Dort, F, OKC Thunder: B+

It took a few years to get to this point, but Dort can finally play the role that is best suited for him.

He is the Thunder’s fifth option in the starting lineup offensively, and that is how it should be. Of course, Dort can put the ball on the floor and create for himself, but spotting up along the perimeter is his bread and butter.

While he has the lowest scoring average since his rookie season, Dort’s percentages have skyrocketed. After being the guy teams would intentionally leave open to help, the Arizona State product has become an elite 3-point shooter, knocking those shots down at a 42.5% clip.

The Thunder are thrilled with his improvement there, but his true calling is on the other end. Defensively, Dort is one of the best in the league.

On the perimeter, he always gets the assignment of the opposing team’s top scorers, which will pay off most in April, May and June. Dort has shown his ability to force players such as Anthony Edwards, James Harden, Jamal Murray and many more into awful shooting nights.

If Oklahoma City is going to make a deep playoff run, it will have to stop those guys and the contenders they play for. And Dort will be the guy who can make that happen.

Jalen Williams, F, OKC Thunder: A

Oklahoma City entered the season knowing Williams was a special player, but he is already playing like an all-star.

Finishing last season as runner-up for Rookie of the Year behind Paolo Banchero was the first of many accolades Williams is likely to receive in his career.

While an all-star selection is unlikely to happen in 2024, his comparisons to Gilgeous-Alexander are already enough for the Thunder to be ecstatic about.

Part of those comparisons is the way he has taken over fourth quarters over the past few weeks. While Gilgeous-Alexander is on the bench to begin the final frame, Williams takes initiative and often gets favorable results.

Of course, that is amazing in the regular season, but it also provides another example of why the Thunder are playoff-ready despite having an absurdly young group.

While he is not someone the Thunder would be comfortable putting at center, Williams has shown he can take on the responsibility of every other position on both ends.

His wingspan and athleticism make him immune from mismatches as a defender. With more than a steal per game, the second-year star has been invaluable to the Thunder’s attack in transition.

But what may be most impressive about Williams is the way his offensive game has come together so flawlessly in his second season. Shooting 46.6% from beyond the arc, Williams is a threat from everywhere on the floor.

His reputation as a high flyer has continued to hold true, averaging about a dunk per game, but his mid-range shot has taken his scoring to another level. His shot attempts from 10-16 feet have doubled from his rookie year, and he is hitting them at a 58.9% rate, a 14% improvement.

Sam Presti has hit on many picks throughout his career, but getting Williams with the 12th pick may be his best selection in the past decade.

Chet Holmgren, C, OKC Thunder: A

Last season, Holmgren talked about how the Thunder lost a number of close games and that he did not need to do anything crazy and just needed to help them be about five points better this season. 

Considering he is helping Oklahoma City to a top-two spot in the West, he delivered. But he has also shown flashes of the superstar he is on track to become.

Specifically, Holmgren is already unafraid of big moments and big shots. In two instances against the Golden State Warriors he has sent games to overtime after the Thunder were trailing by three in the final seconds.

The Gonzaga product has averaged 17.4 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 38.5% from 3-point range. If it were not for the constant comparisons to Victor Wembanyama and the heated Rookie of the Year race, it would be difficult to remember that Holmgren is only in his first NBA season.

As a 7-footer who can create his own shot and shoot from anywhere on the floor, he has drawn comparisons to Kevin Durant. Except, Holmgren is like a version of Durant, who is also one of the league’s best shot blockers.

At 2.5 blocks per game, it is not hyperbole to say Holmgren has completely transformed the Thunder’s defense. Without an inside presence over the past few seasons, the rookie has saved easy baskets as the Thunder’s last line of defense.