How the Thunder went from NBA’s worst shooting team to the best

How the Thunder went from NBA’s worst shooting team to the best

The Thunder, not so long ago a team of bricklayers, leads the NBA in 3-point percentage and is second in the NBA in field-goal percentage. The Thunder reached such heights through hard work and self-awareness. This Thunder team is committed to taking good shots.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 2, 2024, 12:00pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 2, 2024, 12:00pm CDT

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

Crossing midcourt at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, Jalen Williams whipped a fast-break, side-armed pass to Thunder teammate Cason Wallace. 

The Thunder trailed the Knickerbockers by 10 on the first possession of the fourth quarter, and points are hard to find against a Tom Thibodeau-coached defense. This was no time to take a bad shot.

So Wallace didn’t. He caught Santa Clara’s unorthodox pass with back to basket, then wheeled around and fired up a deep-wing 3-point shot before New York’s Josh Hart got close enough to contest.

A rookie taking a quick 3 on the tone-setting first play of the fourth quarter? Wouldn’t seem to be an ideal time for such a shot. But it was. 

The Thunder knows a good shot when it sees one.

The Thunder hit the Knicks with a flurry of 3-pointers — three in the first 129 seconds of the fourth quarter, and soon enough OKC had a 113-112 victory over New York, courtesy of a sizzling final period. The Thunder made 15 of its 19 fourth-quarter shots, including five of eight from deep.

The Thunder, not so long ago a team of bricklayers, leads the NBA in 3-point percentage and is second in the NBA in field-goal percentage. The Thunder reached such heights through hard work and self-awareness. This Thunder team is committed to taking good shots.

“You can’t shoot the numbers we’re shooting by taking bad ones,” Mark Daigneault said. “Some of it’s a talent thing. We have more talent now than we had two or three years ago. There’s more opportunity for good shots. But there’s no guarantee of that. You have to be committed to it. And we’ve had a team that’s been committed to playing together.”

Here’s an example. In that New York game, Santa Clara Williams was the best player on the hallowed court. Through three quarters, Santa Clara had 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Then he swished a 20-foot jumper to open the fourth quarter.

At that point, nobody on Basketball Earth would have blamed Williams for going all MSG and trying to replicate Kobe Bryant or Bernard King, who each had 60-point games in the world’s most famous arena.

But that side-armed pass to Wallace. Josh Giddey’s 3-point shot from the top of the key with 10:25 left in the game, after a flip pass from Santa Clara, pulling OKC within 85-88. Kenrich Williams’ wing 3-pointer at 9:51, off Santa Clara penetration, tying the game at 88-88. Three 3-pointers, all off assists from the game’s best player.

That explains this magical Thunder season as well as anything.

“We have a certain sense of chemistry built in now, where we understand each other’s games, find guys in the spots that they’re comfortable in,” said Aaron Wiggins. “And we all want to win. So we make the right plays to get the best shots we can get on each possession.”

Good shots lead to made shots.

A mere two seasons ago, playing with three current Thunder starters and three more current Thunder role players, OKC placed 30th, dead last, in NBA 3-point percentage.

Twenty-four months later, OKC leads the NBA in 3-point percentage, .391, a figure that is the best in the league since the 2020-21 Clippers shot 41.1 percent.

Get this. Of the 13 non-rookie Thunders who have launched at least a dozen 3-point shots, 12 have improved their 3-point shooting over last season. The chances of such statistical performance being random is about one in 10,000.

Don’t believe the virtual team-wide improvement? Here you go.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting .365  on 3-pointers, after shooting .345 last season.

Santa Clara Williams, .431, up from .365.

Luguentz Dort, .396(!), up from .330.

Giddey, .345,  up from .325.

Isaiah Joe, .420, up from .409.

Wiggins, .495, up from .393 (and .304 the year before).

Kenrich Williams, .379, up from .373.

Ousmane Dieng .299, up from .265.

Lindy Waters III, .417, up from .358.

The trend holds for newcomers and the departed.

Gordon Hayward is shooting .545 on 3-pointers, 12 of 22, since being traded to OKC in February. In that deal, the Thunder traded Tre Mann and Davis Bertans to Charlotte. Mann shot .421 from deep for OKC, up from .315. Bertans shot .417, up from .390 for Dallas.

The only Thunder whose 3-point shooting has depreciated is Jaylin Williams. Arkansas Williams is shooting .374, after shooting .407 a year ago.

A team that two years ago shot .323 on 3-pointers, suddenly is shooting .391, with many of the same players.

Is it better shooting? Better shot selection? Better head-coaching?

Everything except the last part,” Daigneault deadpanned. “It’s complicated. I don’t know the answer. But it’s some combination of improved skill.

“We have a lot of young players that they’re still forming, they’re still improving, and shooting’s something that can improve. We just played (Portland’s Matiss) Thybulle. He’s a great example. He was a guy for a long time, you would plug off of. You have to go play that guy now, or he’s going to make 3’s in your face.

“So the skill has definitely improved. And I think our players have done a lot of good work to do that. I also think there’s an element of how open the shot is, the rhythm that’s created prior to it, and who’s taking the shot and where.”

Westbrook era over

Efficiency was not a Thunder calling card during its previous glorious stretch. Kevin Durant provided world-class efficiency, but Russell Westbrook was the basketball equivalent of a bad-ball hitter. Westbrook took a ton of bad shots, and though he made more than he should have, that culture was seeded.

When Durant left in free agency in summer of 2016, the Thunder relied even more on Westbrook. In the three seasons that OKC had Westbrook but no Durant, the Thunder never finished in the upper half of the NBA in field-goal percentage.

That has changed.

“It’s as much about laying off of the bad shots as much as it is shooting the good ones,” Daigneault said. “I think the guys have done a really good job of that. They’ve all got a diet and understanding of what a good shot is for them, then they play to it very consistently. That, in concert with the open shots and the improved skill, has probably got something to do with it.”

Think back through 74 Thunder games. Who takes bad shots on this team?

Dort, occasionally, but not nearly as often as he once did. Giddey and Holmgren, rarely. SGA and Santa Clara, almost never. Even the role players are remarkably disciplined.

The Thunder’s free-flowing, drive-drive-drive mentality, leads to open shots. And the best NBA shot is always an open shot.

“Work ethic and shot selection,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. The latter is “one of the things we emphasize literally after every game. We just want to make sure we’re taking the right shots, and a lot of times the best shots for us as a team. We all know what those are for us, individually and as a team.”

SGA leads the charge. He’s an incredibly efficient scorer, for a guy averaging 30.3 points a game. Gilgeous-Alexander’s career field-goal percentage is .496, stunningly high for a volume-scoring guard. And the last four years, SGA’s field-goal percentage is .505.

In the way that Westbrook set a certain culture during his Thunder days, Gilgeous-Alexander sets a culture, too, as a most valuable player candidate who scores at prolific levels, but without jacking up a ton of shots. 

That example sets trends. Like Santa Clara, with the hottest hand in Midtown Manhattan, distributing the ball like he’s John Stockton.

Daigneault’s natural ability to connect with players is embodied by the way he teaches shot selection.

“Most things with players, especially with their shots, I try not to do on a shot by shot basis,” Daigneault said. “I don’t think that’s a really fun way to play. I think it really can bite into a player’s confidence and rhythm. So it’s not like immediate feedback.

“It’s also not a video game. So there’s times a guy rips a shot that I don’t really love. But the goal is that based on the clarity that we lay out with the team and them understanding what efficiency is and what an efficient shot for them is, hopefully when they shoot a shot that we don’t love, they don’t love it either, eventually. They’re like, ‘OK, that was probably a little more than I can shoot.’

“It’s more of an education process. Starts with the understanding of what efficiency is and what an efficient team is, what an efficient player is. Then applying that to the roster. And everybody’s different in that. An efficient shot for Lu is different than an efficient shot for Wiggins, right on down. But if you get individual guys committed to efficiency, then that raises the whole.”

Chip Engelland’s impact

In summer of 2022, the Thunder lured away long-time Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland. In 17 San Antonio years, Engelland gained a reputation as one of the NBA’s top shooting coaches.

Engelland’s hiring was met with much fanfare in OKC, but like most Thunder assistants over the years, he quickly slipped into anonymity.

But the Thunder’s shooting has taken off since Engelland’s arrival.

“With the help of our staff, Chip came in, he’s worked with individuals, and guys just get in and get extra reps,” Wiggins said.

The Thunder does not allow assistant coaches to do interviews, but Engelland was a Duke sharpshooter in the early Mike Krzyzewski years, then he played international and minor-league basketball. Engelland found his way into NBA coaching and became a cult hero in San Antonio. 

The Thunder sought Engelland so much, that it allows him to live in San Antonio and come up to OKC for selected stretches.

“He’s very involved,” Daigneault said. “He’s not here every single day. That’s one of the things we discussed way back when we first hired him. He’s got a family in San Antonio, he’s got two kids in high school. The logistics of him being in Oklahoma City just wouldn’t make sense for him, from a personal standpoint.

“But he’s here, I don’t know what the number would be, but 60 to 70 percent of days, where he can have an impact. We choose those selectively. If we’re not going to have practice for a week, that would be a great time for him to unplug a little bit. So, very involved.”

Engelland’s arrival coincides with the Thunder’s rapid ascent. OKC went from 30th in 3-point shooting and field-goal percentage in 2021-22 to 24th (field-goal percentage) and 17th (3-point percentage) in 2022-23 to now.

“A lot of wisdom,” Daigneault said of Engelland. “Especially technical wisdom about being able to watch somebody shoot, understand one or two simple things that you could adjust to make their shot more consistent. Very simple in his approach.

“I don’t think he’s like one of these gurus giving you 100 different things or a lot of different feedback. Very consistent in his approach.

“Obviously, he’s got a great reputation.”

And now Engelland is working with the NBA’s best-shooting team, a team that knows the key to shooting is the kind of shots you shoot, a team whose best players pass even when they’re hot.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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