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Around the NBA: Shai is hot, the Warriors are not, and recalibrating the West

A month into the season, the Thunder are ahead of the Warriors in the Western Conference. Who saw that coming?

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After 15 games, the Thunder are 7-8 while the Warriors are 6-9.

Who had that on their 2022-23 NBA bingo card?

Put down your hands, you liars. No one could have (1) seen the defending champs start the year 0-8 on the road or (2) SGA turn into Maple Jordan.

Neither trend will last, but the sample size is now big enough for us to formulate some reasonable predictions as to where this season is headed.

Let’s start in the Bay.

Golden State’s struggles

Before the start of the season, Golden State was once again among the favorites to emerge from the Western Conference, and for good reason. Despite the departures of Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II, the Warriors were going to receive a stronger Klay Thompson and better production from their young players.

Unfortunately, neither has come to fruition

Klay is currently shooting 35% from the field and 33% from three, and we haven’t even mentioned the most damning stat: according to Anthony Slater, Klay has fewer points (181) than shot attempts (185).

It’s been pretty hard watching him chuck up bricks early in the shot clock, and it seems like his teammates feel the same. Just watch Jordan Poole’s reaction in the clip below.

The good news is, we’ve seen Klay struggle with his shot before. In 2018-19, he made just five of his first 36 attempts from deep before going nuclear and hitting a record 14 threes in a single game. Even after that performance, he continued to shoot under 35% from beyond the arc until the new year and still managed to end the season above 40% (he shot over 45% for the remainder of that season).

However, the most concerning thing about Klay’s game is that he’s currently shooting just 44% at the rim, which is the lowest rate of his career by a whopping 15%. Interestingly, he shot 74% there last year, so this isn’t related to rust. More alarmingly, only 6% of his shots have come at the rim so far, even fewer than his career-low 10% last season, which could be due to a decline in athleticism both because of age and injury.

So although Klay’s shooting percentage is unsustainably low, it might also be unrealistic to expect him to bounce back to 90% of the player he was pre-injuries. Having him back full-time has also relegated Poole to a bench role, and he’s struggled mightily as the team’s sixth man.

With Poole playing and Steph on the bench, the Warriors have a net rating of -10.5, which is largely due to an anemic 101.8 offensive rating. In those same minutes last year, Golden State was actually above water with a net rating of +0.3, and they scored 111.4 points per 100 possessions.

It’s not just a Poole problem, either: the Warriors have a net rating of +7.3 with Steph playing (2nd in the league), which drops to -13.1 with him off, which would be dead last in the league by over two points.

Steph’s workload has also increased. He’s currently running 7.5 pick and rolls per game and scoring 1.33 points per possession — by far the highest number among players who average over five P&Rs per game. In comparison, he ran 7.6 P&Rs a game in 2020-21 when the Warriors relied on him more than ever (at least in the Steve Kerr era), which is a bad sign considering how deep this current team looks on paper.

With that said, Golden State’s starting lineup of Steph, Klay, Wiggins, Draymond, and Looney have still been gangbusters with a net rating of +21.1, but any lead they build automatically vanishes when the young players enter the game. As a result, James Wiseman has been re-assigned to the G-League while Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody have piled up DNPs.

Even so, the Warriors will bounce back sooner or later due to all their talent and experience. Klay won’t continue shooting like the entire Lakers team and both Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green are smart players who’ll only get better as they get used to Golden State’s unique system. They won’t continue to be the 23rd ranked defense either, as the Warriors are third in the league in location expected effective field goal percentage.

Ultimately, though, the sample size is large enough to question if Golden State should still be favorites in the West, especially considering the rise of some other teams.

Shai’s superstar leap

How about that Canadian kid, eh?

So far, SGA is averaging 32.3 points, 5.9 assists, and 4.5 rebounds on 55/40/91 splits. Interestingly, he’s adjusted his shot profile so that half of his attempts have come in the mid-range while only 12% of his shots have been from deep, which has been halved from last year.

The most remarkable part about Shai, though, is his touch around the rim. He leads the league in drives per game (25.1) and is third in points in the paint (17.1 per game) only behind Giannis and Zion, an incredible feat considering that he’s a guard.

More importantly, Shai is proving that he’s a winning player and not just putting up empty stats on a bad team. He’s had positive on/off numbers ever since arriving in OKC but this is the first year in which the Thunder are outscoring teams with him on the floor (+3.5 net rating), a pretty remarkable feat considering the talent level (or lack thereof) around him.

He also came through in the clutch against the Wizards on Wednesday night by hitting the game-winner, proving that he’s not afraid of the big moments.

Shai is undoubtedly an All-Star, and could even make an All-NBA team this year. He won’t continue averaging 30 points on 50/40/90 (Steph’s the only player who’s accomplished that: once during his unanimous MVP year and the second time is this current season), but at this point, it’s hard to argue against his case as a franchise player.

Moving forward, I’d only pick Luka and probably Ja ahead of him if forced to choose an under-25 guard to build around, which raises an interesting question: should the Thunder speed up their timeline? Shai is exactly the type of player teams tank for, and if OKC is confident that Chet can also become a All-Star level big man, then the Thunder should set their eyes on acquiring a young wing with high upside.

With the number of picks they have, would Sam Presti consider pushing his chips in instead of accumulating more assets? It’s probably a more realistic outcome than anyone could’ve expected before this season, especially considering that the team looks too good to be realistic contenders for Wemby or Scoot.

Unless, of course, reports surface that Sam Presti has been following Shai around before the guard is suddenly forced to miss time due to a “mysterious” bout of plantar fasciitis.

Is it time to re-examine the West contenders?

Coming into the year, I considered the Warriors and Clippers to be the two sure-fire contenders in the West.

So far, that prediction hasn’t aged well.

We’ve already discussed Golden States struggles, but L.A. hasn’t been much better. The Clippers currently have the worst offensive rating in the league (not including garbage time) and Kawhi has only appeared in three out of a possible 16 games. At this point, they should be renamed the Los Angeles Paper Tigers given the number of times people (including myself) have talked about how good their roster looks on paper.

Meanwhile, the Blazers surprisingly sit atop the conference at 10-5 and both the Suns and Nuggets are half a game back at 9-5. Portland currently has a top 10 defense but after years in which they ranked towards the bottom of the league, there should be some skepticism about their current pace.

Phoenix continues to show that they’re a regular season machine and the general consensus was likely a bit too low on them heading into the year, but Father Time appears to have finally caught up to CP3 (he’s averaging less than 10 points per game on 37% shooting) and they need to prove it in the playoffs.

The two teams I’m most interested in, though, are the Nuggets and Grizzlies.

Denver has a net rating of +12.8 with their starting five of Murray, KCP, MPJ, Gordon, and Jokic playing, and that improves to a +15.9 with Bruce Brown in place of MPJ. Murray has looked rusty in most of his minutes but it typically takes players a few months to round into form after coming back from an ACL tear. Crucially, MPJ’s back doesn’t seem to be bothering him anymore and he’s shooting 46% from deep while also giving more effort on the defensive end.

However, the Nuggets are still being destroyed in their non-Jokic minutes. With the MVP on the bench, Denver has a net rating of -16.2(!!!), which is bad enough to make Sam Hinkie blush. That number will inevitably improve as Murray starts getting more comfortable, but it’s still concerning given that Denver is back to full strength.

Lastly, the Grizzlies are 9-6 even with Jaren Jackson Jr. just returning from injury. Ja appears to have made another leap (he’s currently shooting 40% from three) but the biggest story has been Desmond Bane, who’s averaging 24.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on 47/45/91 splits.

Bane’s place among basketball’s best shooters is now unquestionable as he’s making just under four treys on 8.5 attempts per game, but it’s his playmaking that has been the most pleasant surprise. He’s currently assisting on 21.1% of all shots from his teammates while playing, which is in the 93rd percentile of his position and up significantly from 13.6% last year.

Just take a look at the following clip where he finds Brandon Clarke on the roll instead of forcing a tough shot over Nic Claxton, who’s in good position to potentially block his shot.

One concerning trend, though, is that Memphis has a net rating of -7.3 when Ja is sitting, which is a significant dropoff from the bonkers +7.8 they had last year. On the bright side, the main culprit of their struggles is a lacklustre defense, which should correct itself with JJJ back.

The only thing we know for sure at this point is that the West is as open and deep as ever, unlike the dynastic Warriors days when everyone knew who was going to the finals.

And as basketball fans, what more can we ask for?

This week, please check out BrunoPassosarticle on Jeremy Sochan, which includes a great blend of stats and video analysis.

Thanks as always for reading and see you next time!

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.