How Thunder became NBA’s dark horse contender: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s MVP leap not only reason to believe in OKC

If there was any doubt about the Thunder’s legitimacy as title contenders, it should have been thrown out the window after beating the Celtics 127-123 on Tuesday. 

Sure, that’s just one game, but the Thunder have been doing this all year. They’ve been battling the Timberwolves and Nuggets for the top three spots in the Western Conference and beat both of them last week. 

The Thunder are ninth in championship odds, per BetMGM. They have a 7-4 record against the eight teams ahead of them. They’re even better against the best of the best, posting a 4-1 record against the top four favorites. 

While the Thunder are young, they’ve also passed every test thrown at them. This is a legitimate championship contender that has been staring us in the face all year. 

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How Thunder became NBA’s dark horse contender

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a top-three MVP candidate

Historically, you need a top-five player in the league to win a championship. The Thunder have that guy in Shai. His raw stats this season are outrageous — he’s averaging 31.4 points, 6.4 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game. Those numbers have only been achieved 10 times in NBA history

He’s once again leading the league in drives per game, where he is unstoppable despite defenses loading up on him. They can’t stop his herky-jerky motion, leading him to average the most points and free throw attempts off those drives. 

Put aside the prolific scoring for a second. If his defensive averages of 2.6 steals and 0.8 blocks per game hold up, he will become the first guard since Michael Jordan to hit those marks. 

Gilgeous-Alexander is starting to generate real MVP buzz. SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell listed him as the MVP favorite. He has the third-best odds to win via BetMGM, behind Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. He is easily good enough to be the best player on a championship team. 

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Chet Holmgren is a historically-elite rookie

Rookies aren’t supposed to win you games, but rookies rarely put up the kind of production that Holmgren has. He’s already a top 10 player in the league in terms of impact by various metrics such as Estimated Plus-Minus

That might sound crazy, but look at Holmgren’s numbers. His shooting percentages of 54.3 percent from the field, 40.7 percent from 3 and 83.2 percent from the line have never been matched by any rookie in NBA history

It’s not as if Holmgren’s offense is coming on low volume either. He’s averaging 17.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. And he’s even better on defense, where he is tied for third in blocks per game. 

The fact that Holmgren is leading the Rookie of the Year race against Victor Wembanyama, who is having an insane season in his own right, should tell you everything you need to know. After less than half an NBA season, he’s already cemented himself as a future All-Star. 

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Mark Daigneault is the most underrated coach in the league

Mark Daigneault and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander / OKC Thunder

NBA fans outside of Oklahoma City have zero idea who Daigneault is, but NBA junkies have recognized his excellence. He finished runner-up in Coach of the Year voting as voted by media members. He received votes as the best coach from his fellow head coaches in the Coaches Association award as well.

There are a number of reasons why Daigneault is such a good coach. His soft skills are outstanding, as his former player Josh Huestis told The Athletic NBA Show

“The guy was super relatable and had a good open door policy that just made him great with relating to his players,” Huestis said after calling Daigneault his favorite coach ever. 

Daigneault is also the most innovative strategist in the league. The Thunder play offense unlike any other team, putting intense stress on opposing defenses with by far the most drives in the NBA. They use unique combinations of ball handlers and screeners to put defenders in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations.

The Thunder use a similarly groundbreaking philosophy on defense. Even before the addition of an elite rim protector in Holmgren, they were a good defense with middling personnel because of their willingness to break NBA conventions on where help rotations are coming from, as detailed by X user Bowser2Bowser.

Daigneault is a great X’s and O’s coach out of stoppages. His end-of-game sets are among the best in the league. The Thunder run only one out-of-bounds set, but it’s so good that nobody can stop it.

When it comes to playoff adjustments, nobody is more willing or prepared to be creative than him. 

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The Thunder are built for playoff basketball

The Thunder’s regular season success isn’t built on smoke and mirrors. They’re not a team that relies excessively on transition offense, which can be tougher to get to in the playoffs. Instead, they have by far and away the best half-court offense in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. They also have the No. 4 half-court defense. 

When games go to isolation down the stretch, no team is better suited to win than the Thunder. Of the 84 players who have recorded at least 25 isolation possessions this season, Jalen Williams, Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren rank third, fourth and sixth respectively. (On another note, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard ranking No. 1 and 2 make the Clippers a similarly underrated championship contender). 

For those who didn’t watch the FIBA World Cup this summer, Gilgeous-Alexander has already shown that he can be a closer in high-leverage situations. He was the best player in that tournament, making the All-Tournament First Team and leading Team Canada to a third-place finish. 

This is not even close to the Thunder’s final form

That the Thunder are this good, and have tons of avenues to get even better, should be terrifying for the rest of the league. They have a ridiculous 37 combined first and second-round picks over the next seven years that they can move in a trade. They also have a bevy of young players that teams would be interested in. 

Even if the Thunder don’t make a talent upgrade, they still might be good enough to win it all this year. Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren and Jalen Williams could all conceivably continue to improve throughout the season.

Josh Giddey showed signs of life against the Celtics, but it has not been a good year for him. If the Thunder can get something out of him, then that is yet another playmaker they can add to their stacked roster. 

The Thunder are already a problem, and they’re going to improve. They’re the second-youngest team in the league, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that they are one of the best.  

Source : ESPN.com

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