After sifting through prospects for three years, the Thunder have clearly identified that All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a star worth building around.
Last season, they took a leap, winning 40 games with a group that didn’t fit naturally with him. They will need to start prioritizing players that highlight his skill set sooner rather than later, and that brings up the biggest looming question that they face.
What should the Thunder do with Josh Giddey?
Giddey has turned into a nice prospect in his own right. His averages of 16.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game last season have been matched by only two players in NBA history at age 20 or younger — Magic Johnson and Luka Doncic.
While Giddey is obviously nowhere near those two, he is similar in that he’s an unusual type of player who needs the ball in his hands to be at his best.
That brings up a potential conflict with Gilgeous-Alexander, who is obviously the better player and also one of the more ball-dominant superstars in the league. To be clear, the two have never expressed any animosity toward each other, nor have the Thunder indicated that they’d be interested in trading either one. But on paper, they’re not a natural fit with each other.
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The fact that SGA has succeeded so well in a system that has yet to be customized for him is a testament to just how good he is. The Thunder try to play a five-out offense in order to clear out for his drives, stationing everyone on the perimeter.
Opponents aren’t totally buying into those shooting threats. The spacing that he was working with ranked 296th of 367 players, according to basketball data analyst Krishna Narsu.
The shooting issues are team-wide. The Thunder ranked 17th in 3-point percentage and 18th in attempt rate last season. If they ever got four shooters around Gilgeous-Alexander, then he could one day take a leap into MVP discussions.
Giddey isn’t the only contributor to the spacing problem, but he is a big one.
He made modest improvements as a shooter last season, hitting 32.5 percent of his triples. But that’s still a weak point in his game — just look at his ghastly 16.7 percent shooting from deep in FIBA World Cup play. Defenders will sag off the strong side corner, normally a cardinal sin of help defense principles, in order to show an extra body to SGA.
The numbers back up the idea that the Giddey-SGA pairing doesn’t work. When Gilgeous-Alexander played by himself last season, the Thunder had an outstanding plus-8.5 net rating. In minutes with Giddey, that number plummeted down to minus-1.5.
|SGA with Giddey||1,411||-1.53|
|SGA without Giddey||1,005||+8.51|
|Giddey without SGA||957||-4.09|
|Both players off court||599||+0.95|
(Via PBP Stats)
It is unusual for a two-man group to play so many minutes and perform so poorly. Of the 98 pairings that played at least 1,400 minutes last season, Giddey and SGA ranked 78th in net rating, per NBA Stats.
Ideally, Gilgeous-Alexander would have a guard playing next to him that is a great shooting threat and can play elite defense to take the toughest assignments away from him. While Giddey is a good cutter, he’s not a floor spacer. He’s also a weak defender at this early stage of his career.
That’s not to say that Giddey is a bad player. The World Cup showed how great he can be when he’s the primary guard on his team. He averaged 19.4 points, 6.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game while heading Australia’s offense.
And Gilgeous-Alexander has been possibly the MVP of the entire tournament without Giddey, averaging 23.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists for Canada. Those two might play better apart, which is a good problem to have. Giddey is a solid prospect that could bring back a lot in a trade.
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Giddey’s best skill is his superb passing ability. He’s already turned into one of the best inbounders in the league. He’s able to throw absolute dimes when he has a chance to survey the whole court, and he has completely mastered the art of the bounce pass.
Giddey also seemed to develop more confidence in his driving and finishing ability while playing for Australia. Per Instat, he shot 63 percent on attempts within six feet, up from 53 percent last season with the Thunder. His free throw rate skyrocketed, from 1.9 per game with the Thunder up to 5.2 for Australia, thanks in part to those increased drives.
Giddey has never had much shake on his drives. He’s not a superb athlete, and he relies a bit too heavily on a floater that avoids contact. But at 6-8, he does have great size at the guard position.
During the World Cup, he became more comfortable at getting a shoulder down to initiate contact and create space.
That driving ability doesn’t shine when Giddey is playing alongside SGA, who has led the league in drives per game over the past three seasons. The Thunder want to have multiple driving threats, but they move the ball side-to-side less frequently when SGA is leading the show.
Giddey also got way more opportunities to work out of the post with Australia and excelled in those situations. He’s able to leverage his size against smaller guards to back them down.
And he has a better post bag than you’d think, even breaking out a pretty Dirk Nowitzki fadeaway against Georgia.
Those opportunities to play out of the post don’t happen on the Thunder. Giddey logged only 15 post-ups last season, per NBA Stats.
Coach Mark Daigneault talks about sacrifice when referring to the responsibilities of his two young guards. He seems to know that the two work better alone, too — he’s tried to keep one in when the other sits as much as possible.
The pairing can work because both players have been willing to embrace that sacrifice, and they are good enough to find ways to contribute in situations that might not maximize their skill sets. But it’s tough to envision a scenario in which they fulfill their maximum potential together.
At the World Cup, Giddey showed that he’s capable of more than what he’s doing alongside Gilgeous-Alexander. For Giddey’s sake — and the Thunder’s — there may be a day in the future when the front office begins exploring what’s out there for the talented young guard.