OKC has often found more success with Josh Giddey off the court than on it. Here’s why the Australian guard's production has fallen off this season, and how it’s more than any off-the-court distractions.
With a 13-6 record and the league’s second-best point differential at +8.3, the Oklahoma City Thunder is rolling. Armed with the league’s fifth-best offensive and defensive ratings, a whole lot is going right for the young OKC squad.
However, there is one big wrinkle.
An ever-evolving Thunder roster had an impact on Josh Giddey’s play so far.
Through the first 19 games of the season, the Australian guard’s counting stats — points, rebounds, assists per game — have taken a hit across the board. His field goal shooting, which made big strides last season, have regressed. Per Cleaning the Glass — an NBA stats site that removes garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves to boil down information — the Thunder have a point differential of -0.2 when he’s on the floor and +19.1 when he’s off.
Then there is the the off-court inquiry into recent allegations of an improper relationship with an underage girl. Only Giddey — and perhaps those close to him — truly know to what extent the off-court situation is impacting his on-court play. But even if Giddey wasn’t involved in a story that involved periodic updates from TMZ, there are other factors to consider.
Adapting and Sacrificing
The addition of Chet Holmgren was always going to be disruptive, and it’s proven to be so in a very positive way.
Holmgren is averaging nearly 18 points on just under 12 shots per game. While he’s on the floor, he’s responsible for over 22% of possessions — meaning the play ends with him taking a shot, getting fouled, or turning the ball over. A strong case can be made to get him even more involved.
Forward Jalen Williams is also averaging 3.5 more points per game this season than last, and his usage rate is trending upward as well. And of course, Gilgeous-Alexander’s usage and shot attempts have remained steady from last season.
With a limited number of minutes and possessions in a basketball game, some players were inevitably going to have to take a step back. Sometimes that’s a lot easier said than done.
Lu Dort has done just that this season while also boosting his efficiency. But Dort’s offensive game doesn’t require him to dominate control of the basketball. That’s made his adjustment easier and effective as long as he continues to shoot well.
Giddey’s adjustment is still a work in progress. It’s also possible that his particular strengths and weaknesses might not fit well in the role now available to him.
The original plan
In late February 2022, coach Mark Daigneault said after a game against the Phoenix Suns that Giddey would have the ball in his hands more, with SGA moving to more of an off-ball role. Daigneault noted at the time that the team needed to utilize Giddey’s abilities as an initiator and as a creator.
It’s an idea that lasted exactly one ball game, as a sports hernia would sideline Giddey for the rest of that season. SGA emerged as an All-NBA player and the original plan never rematerialized, though Giddey found spots to excel alongside his now-superstar backcourt mate.
But the idea of making Giddey the primary initiator in order to take some of the load off of SGA made sense. Thunder fans might remember Gilgeous-Alexander’s response to this at the time. “Obviously it’s still not my Plan A,” SGA said, “but it’s something that you have to sacrifice to be a really good team.”
(Also, resist the urge to giggle at this idea in hindsight. Teams try a lot of things as they develop. The Denver Nuggets spent time trying to pair Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic together. The Houston Rockets played paint-cloggers Omer Asik and Dwight Howard alongside James Harden. Ideas and notions are not final decisions.)
Still, Giddey took steps forward last season with Plan A out the window. He averaged 16.6 points and 6.6 assists per game. Under the tutelage of assistant coach Chip Engelland, Giddey’s shooting from the field increased from 42% to 48%. His three-point shooting also improved, giving hope that he could develop into a player worthy of defensive coverage beyond the arc.
Those improvements have regressed this season.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the normal Thunder starting lineup has played 457 possessions together so far. That unit is very good, as expected, posting a positive point differential of 4.7.
When Giddey is replaced by Isaiah Joe, the point differential skyrockets to +24.4. With Cason Wallace in Giddey’s place, the number increases to +26.2. The big catch is that those stats come from a combined 58 possessions together. It’s far too little of a sample size and perhaps an indication that these lineups work best in bursts.
But the numbers are at least somewhat informative and correlate with the on-court play, where both Joe and Wallace have been willing and effective shooters thus far. The caveat here is that Wallace’s 60% shooting from the field and 52% from deep are highly likely to come back down to Earth soon.
Yet defenses still choose to dare Giddey to shoot, a strategy the Mavericks used on Saturday night. Despite hitting 2-of-6 shots from deep, Dallas accepted those odds and shifted his defender closer to the paint instead, effectively shrinking the floor for the Thunder.
Also revealing is the Thunder’s performance in clutch situations — when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of games. These are the times when the five best players typically take the floor. However, of the team’s 35 clutch minutes so far, Giddey has logged just shy of 13 minutes. The minutes he would normally play are given to Joe, Wallace, Aaron Wiggins, or Kenrich Williams instead. Even more surprising is that Giddey has yet to score a point in clutch minutes this season.
Giddey’s talent is not in question. He proved himself as an NBA player over his first two seasons. We’re just months removed from a 31 point, near triple-double outburst from Giddey in a play-in game versus the Pelicans.
The question is how he can adapt and fit as the team congeals. A lot also rides on the outcomes of the investigations by the NBA and the Newport Beach Police Department, which adds a whole other layer of uncertainty.