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Around the NBA: The surging Clippers and spooky Thunder

The two intertwined teams could be headed to a postseason matchup for the ages.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

New year, same old NBA.

Chaos continues to engulf the Warriors, Giannis is still making “suss” jokes, and LeGM is warming up the trade machine with the deadline coming up in a month.

Drama aside, two elite and intertwined teams have been making the rounds lately. Of course, I’m talking about the Clippers and Thunder, who are on opposite ends of their competitive cycles but still determined to make deep postseason runs.

Having those teams match up in the playoffs would be a dream made in heaven, but first, it’s time to break down the play of both sides.

The Clippers have figured it out

I know, I know. The Clippers should never be trusted given their history, but just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

With Harden joining the team just a game into November, the Clippers went 5-9 that month with the 23rd-ranked offense (112.9) but 10th-ranked defense (113.3). Fortunately for them, the script completely flipped in December as they closed the year by going 11-2 with the 3rd-best offense (125.6), 13th defense (116.0), and 5th-best net rating (+9.6).

So, what changed?

Two things: the offensive responsibilities of the “Big Four” and the return of peak Kawhi.

Beginning with the former, it’s interesting to see the distribution of touches, seconds per touch, and dribbles per touch for Harden, Russ, PG, and Kawhi between November and December:


Touches per game: Harden (67.60), PG (63.4), Russ (52.10), Kawhi (51.20)

Seconds per touch: Harden (4.94), Russ (4.28), PG (3.74), Kawhi (3.58)

Dribbles per touch: Harden (4.08), Russ (3.76), PG (2.88), Kawhi (2.73)


Touches per game: Harden (76.20), Kawhi (53.70), PG (51.0), Russ (39.80)

Seconds per touch: Harden (5.79), Russ (4.21), Kawhi (3.80), PG (3.40)

Dribbles per touch: Harden (5.29), Russ (3.81), Kawhi (3.03), PG (2.71)

Personally, I expected both Harden and Russ’ numbers to dip while Kawhi’s and PG’s to rise. Instead, Russ’ touches have gone to Harden after he transitioned to a bench role, and there hasn’t been much of a change to Kawhi or PG’s numbers.

However, touches don’t tell the entire story. PG (26.8%) and Kawhi (25.4%) still lead the team in usage, with Harden behind them at 24.7%. Their respective field goal attempts paint a similar story: PG (17.6) and Kawhi (17.3) take the most shots on the team by a mile and the 11.2 attempts that Harden averages are his lowest FGA since his Thunder days.

In other words, The Beard’s high touch total but low FGA and usage indicate that he’s strictly focused on getting the Clippers into their offense before dumping it off to the two wings to finish each possession. This is the best of both worlds since Harden is best suited to be a playmaker at this stage of his career, while Kawhi and PG are better off scoring than setting up their teammates.

With their roles defined, the Clippers have begun to play as a collective unit rather than a bunch of individual stars. On the season, they’re still last in passes made per game (249.1) and first in isolations run (12.7), but that latter number isn’t an issue since it plays to the team’s strength: the Clippers are averaging a robust 1.10 PPP on isos, which is the third highest mark league-wide.

Most importantly, even though their overall style hasn’t changed much, Harden’s playmaking has created easier shots for Kawhi and PG, and Ty Lue has implemented more off-ball movement too.

Take the play below as an example. The boxscore only shows that one pass was made, but all five Clippers played a role: Harden as the distributor, PG as the cutter/finisher, Zubac and Mann as the two screeners, and Kawhi as the decoy who could also be a kick-out option.

Of course, none of this works if Kawhi isn’t operating at his peak. In December, the Fun Guy averaged 29.3 points, 6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists on 61.3/50/95.7 splits. Kawhi’s played at the level of a surefire #1 option on a championship team again, and it seems like he has his burst back.

In the next clip, he isos and scores against Julius Randle, and his life is made easier by the other Clippers’ off-ball movement once again. Harden sets the screen (how many times has he done that?), Mann makes the baseline cut so that Brunson can’t help, Zubac is in the paint to fight for a potential rebound, and Powell has the option of cutting or shooting an open three if Kawhi chose to pass.

The Clippers’ ceiling still comes down to team cohesion and the health of Kawhi and PG. If those two can be on the court for an entire run, no team should be favored against LA except for maybe Denver and Boston. Remember, since they joined forces in 2019, there hasn’t been a season in which the Clippers have had a net rating below +8.0 when both share the court.

Furthermore, having Harden gives LA another safety blanket — but not a replacement — should one of their two premium stars go down. Yet, it could also backfire catastrophically: given the Beard’s history, it wouldn’t take much for the fat suit (and perhaps his real self) to start more drama.

Ultimately, my thoughts regarding the Clippers have stayed the same ever since Kawhi and PG teamed up: if they stay healthy, it’s hard to see any team beating them in a seven-game series. However, I’d also be a rich man if I earned a cent every time I uttered those words.

Bet on the Clippers at your own peril.

Can OKC win the championship this year?

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been my Roman Empire ever since Chet tweeted (X-ed?) this cryptic message for the world to see.

Kids these days and their slang.

Off-court shenanigans aside, I don’t think anyone expected OKC to be this good, this soon. They’re currently second in the West at 23-10 and only a game behind Minnesota for the one-seed by beating the Nuggets, Celtics, and aforementioned Wolves within the span of a week.

All indicators point to the Thunder being legitimate title contenders — they have the 4th-best net rating (+8.3), 9th-best offense (118.8), and 4th-ranked defense (110.5). More importantly, they have the guy, and his name is Shai-Gilgeous Alexander.

Even after making All-NBA First Team last year, Shai’s underlying numbers have increased across the board this season, despite his counting stats looking similar. So far, his assist percentage has increased from 24.9% to 29.3% (76th percentile) while his turnover rate has decreased from 9.6% to just 6.8% (92nd percentile). Shai’s total offensive package makes him completely unguardable, and his herky-jerky style makes him arguably the best perimeter bucket-getter in the league.

Incredibly, Shai has also increased his efficiency. He’s now up to 64.3% in true shooting while converting 71% at the rim (92nd percentile) and a Chris Paul-esque 51% in the mid-range (92nd percentile). He’s still not much of a threat from deep, but that doesn’t matter when the entire Thunder team is leading the league in three-point percentage at 40.3% and plays five out around their superstar.

Simply put, what makes this OKC attack so scary is that they’re a three-level scoring threat as a unit. The Thunder are middle of the pack in terms of their overall finishing around the rim (66.2%, 16th) but 2nd in mid-range shooting (47.2%). OKC’s offense is very diverse too, as their percentage of attempts at the rim, mid-range, and from three all rank between 10th-20th league-wide.

If things get bogged down, Shai can also bail them out by going iso. He currently averages 5.1 such possessions a game and scores a ridiculous 1.21 points per possession (PPP) on those plays, which is the second-highest figure among the top 50 players by number of isolations per game. Behind him, Jalen Williams has emerged as a reliable second perimeter too by averaging a robust 1.17 PPP on isos, although that’s only on 1.4 possession a game.

With that said, there are still a few things that make me hesitant to anoint them as inner-circle contenders alongside the likes of the Nuggets and Celtics, and perhaps the Bucks and Clippers as well. For one, OKC won’t keep shooting over 40% from deep for the rest of the season — the 1.1% difference between them and number two ranked Miami (39.2%) is as large as the difference between Miami and 9th ranked Houston.

Moreover, outside of the anomalous 2020-21 bubble season when shooting was up across the league, only two teams have finished the season shooting over 39% from deep, let alone 40%, since 2019. So unless OKC continues having one of the best shooting seasons in league history, their 3-point percentage will likely dip down to the mid-30s soon so that by season’s end, they’ll still finish around the top of the league at about 38-39%.

Another concern is the Thunder’s struggles on the glass. They are 28th in offensive rebound rate (23.5%) and also 29th in defensive rebound rate (68.3%). Such a weakness might not be heavily exploited in the regular season, but come playoff time, teams like the Nuggets, Wolves, and even Lakers will all present problems for OKC.

Overall, I think that the Thunder absolutely have the talent and ability to win it all. They have a bonafide top-5 player in Shai, who, although hasn’t had much playoff experience, proved in FIBA that he shows up in big moments, and is destined to lead Canada to gold in this year’s Olympics too. Chet and Williams are second and third options who are good enough to form a legit Big Three, and Mark Daigneault is one of the most innovative coaches in the league.

Even so, I’d be shocked if OKC actually did win the title, or even made it to the finals. Some think such a run is unlikely because of how unprecedented a Thunder title would be historically — no team has ever won a championship the year after missing the playoffs (without a huge offseason trade or signing) and they would also be the youngest title team in about 50 years — but I disagree. It’s a fallacy to say that something is impossible by pointing to history since nothing’s ever been done until the first time it was.

Rather, the real reason why an OKC championship would be shocking is because their offense will soon take a dip and they lack the size to match up well against the other powerhouses in the league. Outside of Shai, none of their other important pieces have playoff experience either, and the postseason is an entirely different beast when compared to the regular season.

Regardless, there’s no denying that OKC is going to be elite for years to come, and other teams should be dreading that the Thunder will only become spookier moving forward.

This week, please check out Mikey Rouleau’s article on how Wemby is redefining shot-blocking in basketball! As always, Mikey did a great job of using video to explain the rookie’s jaw-dropping plays.

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.