OKLAHOMA CITY — Around the time ESPN released a documentary about Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls dynasty, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had embarked on a borderline Jordanesque quest to take his game to a new level.
It was the spring of 2020. COVID had shut down the NBA and most everything else, and Gilgeous-Alexander — partially out of motivation to improve and “partially because I had nothing to do,” he said — was putting in rigorous, meticulous work.
He had stayed in basketball shape and added lean muscle mass, but the changes went deeper than that.
After having spent much of his first season with the Thunder playing off the ball while point guards Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder served as the team’s primary playmakers, Gilgeous-Alexander arrived at the NBA bubble in Orlando armed with new on-ball skills.
In the weeks leading up to the re-launched NBA season, the Thunder routinely scrimmaged blue vs. white, and the second-year guard’s skill as a primary playmaker “really started to pop,” said Mark Daigneault, then an OKC assistant and now the team’s head coach.
By the start of the next season, the Thunder had traded Paul and Schroder, and the team — now under Daigneault’s direction — was Gilgeous-Alexander’s to run.
But the next summer, OKC drafted point guard Josh Giddey. Jalen Williams would arrive in the following draft, a big wing who can play on the ball or off. Suddenly, Gilgeous-Alexander was being asked to relinquish some of the playmaking responsibility, to surrender some of what he’d earned.
It never seemed to faze him.
And here’s why: sure, he was putting in the work back in the spring of 2020, but it’s not like he didn’t have a TV.
“The best teams — like, the best teams that have played the game, the teams that have won the most games, won the most championships — they play together,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I don’t know if you saw ‘The Last Dance,’ the documentary, but there’s a point in Michael Jordan’s career where he had to learn the triangle offense and playing without the ball in his hands 24/7. So if Michael Jordan has to do it, I definitely have to do it.”
It’s a telling sentiment as the Thunder begins a new season Wednesday in Chicago (7 p.m. CDT, Bally Sports).
Coming off a 1-1 performance in the NBA Play-In Tournament and becoming a real candidate for its first playoff appearance since that 2020 bubble, OKC is in the nascent stages of building its second era of playoff-contending teams.
If it works, it will look dramatically different than the first, and Gilgeous-Alexander — and what that “Last Dance” lesson says about him — might be the biggest reason why.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) ceded some control of the Thunder’s offense to Josh Giddey last season, and the growth of Jalen Williams could change his role even further. (Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)
A new look
Daigneault admits the Thunder’s offensive aspiration is “a little idealistic.”
Forget point guards and power forwards. The Thunder’s preference is near-positionlessness. Multiple playmakers on the perimeter. Big men who can dribble, pass and shoot. Guards who set screens.
It can work, and it began to last season, when Oklahoma City had a 114.2 offensive rating, 10.4 points per 100 possessions better than the year before. The Thunder jumped from last in the league in 2021-22 to 16th.
But it only works if players who are accustomed to controlling the game with the ball in their hands are willing to let go of it. Gilgeous-Alexander is the star, but he’s not the only one willing to sacrifice in an offense with multiple playmaking threats.
“It could be very easy for guys to want the ball more or demand this or that, but none of our guys are like that,” Giddey said. “And it’s important for a young group that we understand (that) to have a winning team, there has to be sacrifices from everybody.”
In theory, that’s more true this season than any since Gilgeous-Alexander took over as the team’s primary ballhandler.
Giddey and Williams are back, another year older and more experienced. And in the offseason OKC added a pair of rookie guards in Cason Wallace and 29-year-old EuroLeague import Vasilije Micic who can play with the ball in their hands.
And then there’s Chet Holmgren, the 7-foot-1 rookie who sat out last season with a foot injury and whose ability to handle and shoot — particularly for a player with his size and defensive acumen — could unlock new elements of the OKC offense.
It’s a whole new set of weapons.
And the expectation is that Gilgeous-Alexander will be comfortable letting them all be deployed, to let each shine in his own way, even if it means the Thunder star occasionally giving up the ball.
“We’re fortunate that (Gilgeous-Alexander) kind of naturally gravitates towards that,” Daigneault said. “We haven’t had to sell that to him. He wants to be a part of a team. He wants his teammates to do well. And I think he sees the big picture on that at a pretty high level for a young player. There’s a contagiousness to that with young guys.”
It doesn’t hurt that this plan has been in the works for a while.
The old look
The first iteration of Thunder excellence was a juggernaut.
You can recite in your sleep that the franchise — in its final stages in Seattle and first steps in OKC — selected future MVPs in three consecutive seasons. Kevin Durant in the 2007 draft, Russell Westbrook in 2008, James Harden in 2009.
The early OKC playoff teams were so potent — and so predictable in their unstoppability — that they sometimes were referred to as the “Your-Turn/My-Turn Thunder.”
Westbrook would do his thing. Durant would do his. Harden, too, until he was traded to Houston the season after the Thunder reached the 2012 NBA Finals.
Westbrook and Durant would go on to make two more Western Conference Finals without him.
And though there’s no knocking the success, what those teams did offensively doesn’t look much like the modern NBA. There’s still room for isolation scoring — more on that in a minute — but during that first Thunder run of 11 playoff appearances in 12 seasons, the game changed.
The franchise that did the heaviest lift in the NBA’s offensive shift happens to be the one that beat the 2016 Thunder — arguably the best team of the OKC era — in the last of those Western Conference Finals appearances.
Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors won with steak and sizzle, a ball-sharing, 3-point launching joyride that looked unlike anything else and produced league-best results.
If Oklahoma City approaches the mountaintop again with all or most of its current core, it’ll probably look a lot more like what those Golden State teams were doing than it will like Thunder 1.0.
Not necessarily the game-changing 3-point shooting. Curry is unique in his ability to disrupt a defense with the long ball. But the spacing. The passing. The multiple threats on the floor. What OKC is chasing now looks like the logical next step from what the Warriors wrought.
And the vision came before the players.
OKC began planting “a lot of the roots” of that system in 2020-21, GM Sam Presti said. That was Daigneault’s first season as head coach; the first season Gilgeous-Alexander played for the Thunder without Paul or Schroder, the last he played without Giddey.
The team went 22-50, and though Gilgeous-Alexander was its best player and primary playmaker, the idea was to start building toward a day when he wouldn’t carry that load alone, to form habits that would last when different personnel arrived.
He was receptive to it.
Which isn’t to say the process always went smoothly.
There were bumps in the road the next year when Giddey arrived. The 6-foot-8 Australian is oversized but otherwise a point-guard prototype, and the Thunder’s ask was that he and Gilgeous-Alexander each cede some control to the other.
“I think it was tough early on because we were both better with the ball in our hands,” Giddey said, “and we were used to having it for 80, 90% of the game.”
Questions linger about that fit, but they’ve lessened as the Thunder vision — a system centered on reading and reacting, built on offensive freedom and a measure of randomness — has become clearer.
The current team has a chance to bring it further into focus.
The next look
The numbers suggest Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t giving up that much.
Last season he was named first-team All-NBA after averaging 31.4 points per game, fourth-most in the league. He ranked third in the league in isolation possessions (6.5 per game) and points scored in isos (6.9), behind only Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid in both categories.
But Gilgeous-Alexander has been asked (and has proven willing) to set screens, a rarity for Westbrook in the first go-round of Thunder playoff teams. All of Oklahoma City’s guards do it, part of an inverted offense that can help create driving opportunities for other guards or kick-outs to shooting big men.
And though Gilgeous-Alexander still is OKC’s primary pick-and-roll ballhandler, his 8.1 possessions per game in that role last season ranked 19th in the league. That’s in part because Giddey wasn’t so far behind at 5.4.
The expected growth of Williams — whose 14.1 points per game last season was fourth among rookies — and the addition of Holmgren could change Gilgeous-Alexander’s role even further.
More than once in the preseason, Holmgren pulled down a rebound and started OKC’s transition himself, bringing the ball up court and looking to make a play.
It’s part of what made Holmgren an ideal fit for OKC in the 2022 draft.
To maximize the five-out style Daigneault wants to play, the Thunder needed a big man who could lead the break or trail behind it and space the floor from 3-point range. Ideally, it needed that guy to be an elite defender and genuine rim protector, too.
“They just needed a big man that can do all of those things,” said Sam Vecenie, NBA draft analyst at The Athletic. “And that’s just, like, f*****g impossible to find. But they found it.”
Ultimately, it could turn an already intriguing Thunder offense into something else entirely.
“I don’t think a lot of teams in the NBA have that, where we can pick and choose throughout our starting five or whoever’s in the game to bring the ball up and handle,” Williams said. “I think it makes us play faster as well.”
It all bears little resemblance to the Durant and Westbrook days, when astronomical talent elevated everything around it. This is more modern. Less predictable.
It remains to be seen if it’s more effective.
But Gilgeous-Alexander called the addition of Holmgren’s skills “beautiful,” a new wrinkle in an offense he called emblematic of “where the game’s gone today.”
If Gilgeous-Alexander continues to buy in — as a star, if not the sole centerpiece — the Thunder has a grand vision of where it could go tomorrow.
“The heliocentric model isn’t the way that the team’s built, and we don’t think it’s the best way to be competitive,” Daigneault said. “And so even a guy like Shai, who you could make the argument you just hand him the ball every possession, something good’s gonna happen, there’s kind of a ceiling on that approach that we’re trying to steer away from.”