Thunder vibes, Immanuel Quickley interest, Adam Silver and more: Mike Vorkunov’s NBA notebook

The NBA’s most interesting project rolled into Brooklyn on Sunday and rolled over the Nets. It has become a habit for the Oklahoma City Thunder of late. Over the last month, the Thunder have transcended that mystic plane between potential and being an actual good team. The vibes are pretty good with OKC right now.

Oklahoma City has 22 wins already this season, nearing its 24 wins from last season. The Thunder have won four straight games, all by double-digits, heading into Friday night’s game at Sacramento. Suddenly, Thunder-Kings has become a delightfully tasty matchup.

This is, of course, a bit surprising. The Thunder were not supposed to be this good this season. They have been viewed, fundamentally, as a long-term psyops against the rest of the league. They’ve amassed intriguing talent and a Costco shopping cart full of draft picks. This roster is so young and, before the season, still mostly unproven that the present was the future.

But the results come. Not just the record — 22-23, tied for the eighth-best record in the Western Conference with, of all teams, the LA Clippers, and just a game away from avoiding the Play-In Tournament — but the underlying numbers are kind too . The Thunder actually have the fifth-best point differential in their conference. Since Dec. 17, Oklahoma City has the league’s sixth-best record and fifth-best net rating. This last month has not been fluky, as the standings reflect an ever-rosier picture.

“We don’t really pay attention to those,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I can say that across the board about the group. We don’t really go to them after games and check them. But we’re kind of aware. We know we won 24 games all of last year and like 22 the year before. We know we’re getting better. The think guys are kind of getting addicted to the feeling and continue the growth.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is, of course, the centerpiece. He’s averaging 30.5 points per game and has taken on a leadership role. He’ll most likely be at the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City next month; he might even deserve to start. Gilgeous-Alexander has been a trove of abundance this season with his sinewy 6-foot-6 frame slithering and sliding through defenses. He’s mixing a feisty jumper while getting to the line with regularity (10.3 free throws per game).

He has gobbled up attention, but the Thunder are proving they have talent across the floor. Lottery pick Jalen Williams has cracked the starting lineup, is shooting 50 percent from the floor and has shown flashes as a scorer and point guard. Aleksej Pokuševski was making progress before he suffered a left leg fracture last month. Isaiah Joe has inexplicably become one of the league’s best marksmen this season, hitting 44.4 percent of his 3s after dropping seven Wednesdays against the Indiana Pacers.

Yet, no one has jumped out quite like Josh Giddey over the last month. The No. 6 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft has been more aggressive and more productive — 18.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists in 14 games since Dec. 21 — and those two are linked.

Giddey has started to learn how to use his 6-foot-8 body as a physical weapon. He finished a layup over Nets rim protector Nic Claxton on Sunday and gave a sly “too small” gesture on the way back up the court, part of a season-high 21 shots.

“He’s definitely physical in driving,” Oklahoma City head coach Mark Daigneault said. “That’s definitely showing up. Early in the year, I thought he was just trying to shoot over people, and now he’s taking space up. Then when he creates that kind of space and his size and strength of him, he’s getting stuff around the basket. He’s getting a lot more lately.”

Gilgeous-Alexander was a little more succinct.

“He’s confident, very confident,” he said. “He knows what he brings to the table. When he’s kicking your butt, he’s going to let you know.”

The Thunder have also built a roster to play out their own style, stocked with fungible and similarly sized wings and forwards. Most of the minutes have gone to players between 6-4 and 6-9 — 77.5 percent in all, and that’s ticked up since Pokuševski got hurt. Oklahoma City can use Mike Muscala as a conventional big or Kenrich Williams and Darius Bazley as nominal centers into small-ball lineups that can hammer teams with their athleticism. Kenrich Williams started against the Pacers, Jaylin Williams did in Brooklyn but sat the whole fourth quarter while Bazley played the whole period. Those lineups are powerful. When Kenrich Williams is at center, the Thunder are plus-18.9 per 100 possessions so far this season in 316 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass; they’re plus-1.9 in 339 possessions with Bazley as the lone big.

Next year, the Thunder won’t have to play as small. Chet Holmgren awaits. They’ll get another versatile player who can shoot, dribble and defend, and Holmgren just happens to be 7-1.

And the Thunder still have a truckload of picks in their arsenal. Next year, for example, they have their own first-round pick, the Houston Rockets’ pick (top-four protected), the Clippers’ pick (via the Paul George trade) and the Utah Jazz’s pick if it lands outside the top 10 .

That they are now at a crossroads where all of that is met with a roster that can win games makes for an interesting place in time. It would be easy to say the Thunder are ahead of schedule, except internally they might not have one in place. Sam Presti, OKC’s longtime general manager, is fond of speaking about eliminating time from his perspective in the team’s current rebuild.

Instead, the Thunder have adopted their own version of the process as their calling card, jumbling Silicon Valley dogmas with self-help standbys. Daigneault lives by one of the tenets he picked up from, “The Four Agreements,” a 1997 best-seller of wisdoms: Make no assumptions.

“There’s no schedule,” Daigneault said. “That’s the biggest thing. There’s no schedule. There’s a way of operating that we’re very confident in and that we’re just going to bet on. And that’s having, first of all, competitive guys and the team guys that we’ve known developing them, helping them grow through experiences, teaching professionalism, having a good environment and trying to play a style that scales forward.

“When the outcomes come, they come. And how they come, they come. There’s a lot of ups and downs too. We’re obviously playing well right now. We’ve gotten a little bit of success here with our head down. And so we’re not gonna pick our head up and start looking around. We’re just going to keep our head down.”

Quickley seizes chance

Tom Thibodeau has never been shy about playing best and favored players. He has made a career of it. Still, the New York Knicks’ rotations over the last month have been something to behold.

As The Athletic‘s Knicks beat writer (and Master of the Pun Arts) Fred Katz pointed out, the Knicks have basically been riding a six-man rotation for more than a month. Since Dec. 27, no team has received fewer minutes and points from its bench. The Knicks have four players in the top 18 in minutes per game in that span, including Nos. 1 and 3. When Thibodeau loves, he loves hard.

That has been to the benefit of Immanuel Quickley. He is playing the kind of minutes Knicks fans have pined for during his first two seasons in New York. He had 17 games of 30 or more minutes played over his first two seasons but is averaging nearly 36.8 a night over his last 12 games. He has played 30-plus minutes 13 times already this season.

Immanuel Quickley (Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

Quickley’s been productive too, averaging 18.3 points and 4.2 assists. While his 3-point shooting has yet to come around as expected — just 32.9 percent this season — he is making it up with playmaking skill and strong defense. He’s a nice complement to Jalen Brunson in the backcourt, with length and tenacity.

This long stretch seems to have solidified his place with the Knicks. Katz reported that the Knicks were willingly calling other teams about him earlier this season, but one NBA executive said this week he doesn’t believe Quickley is throwable in a trade anymore.

We’ll see what happens to the Knicks rotation now that Thibodeau has to deal with the latest hit, an injury to Mitchell Robinson. Robinson fractured his right thumb Wednesday night in a loss to the Washington Wizards and had surgery Thursday, and the team said he’ll be re-evaluated in three weeks. Robinson has been a difference-maker, with the team 10.5 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court than off, per Cleaning the Glass.

Adam Silver speaks

There were a few interesting tidbits from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s news conference Thursday in Paris while the NBA is out there for the Chicago Bulls–Detroit Pistons game.

• Silver mentioned that in trying to schedule more international games, the league will discuss team travel rules in its discussion with the NBPA during the current collective bargaining agreement talks. Silver said it’s “highly likely” the NBA has a game in Paris again next season. The NBA is also looking at trying to get a game in Greece; Silver mentioned that Giannis Antetokounmpo has told him multiple times he wants the Bucks to play a game in his home country.

• Silver was asked about this season’s scoring surge and if the league would do anything to try to tone that down. He didn’t seem to have much of an issue with where things are now.

“We’re not traditionalists in that we’re afraid to make changes,” Silver said. “We are constantly reassessing. That’s what Joe Dumars and Byron Spruell’s jobs are, together with our competition committee. We’ll continue to look at it. I think the fans are telling us, and responding with record ratings, that the game is exciting as ever. But we’re not afraid to reexamine it. Generally, we don’t make rule changes mid-course or during a season. But we sit down at the end of the season, we look at all the data, and we’ll assess it. But it’s interesting.

“As I mentioned at the top of the press conference, four of the top five scorers are international players, and these great shooters are coming from everywhere now. We want a multifaceted game. I hear some of the criticism of we want it to be all 3-point shooting. For those who have been covering the league for a long time, I remember people were saying it’s all about dunking and guys can’t shoot. Now it’s they shoot too well, it should be more than an inside game. We’ll keep looking at it.”

• Silver also reiterated that he wants the NBA to lower its age minimum to 18. He said he has made that proposal to the league in CBA talks and “that’s on the table in collective bargaining right now.”

As for those CBA talks, Silver had no update. He and NBPA executive director Tamika Tremaglio were both in Paris on Thursday, and he said NBA and NBPA officials have been meeting all week in New York.

Not great, San Antonio

The Spurs are at risk of making history, but definitely not the kind Gregg Popovich will like.

If a 50/40/90 shooting season is the gold standard, then what do you call it if a team allows its opponents to do that? Opposing teams are shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from 3 against the Spurs this season — both league highs. That means the Spurs are close to giving up the gold standard in shooting over a full season. Only four players this season who qualify for the scoring leaderboard and have taken at least 100 3s are hitting the 50/40 plateau, while the Spurs are at risk of letting the whole league do that against them.

Not only would the Spurs be the first team ever to give up a 50/40 season, according to Basketball-Reference, but no team has even let opponents shoot 50/39 against it for a whole season. Only one (the 1990-91 Nuggets) has even allowed a 50/37 season.

Equity deals

The NBA struck another equity deal this week. It announced a partnership with StellarAlgo, a fan data company, and said it took a “meaningful” stake in the company.

It’s another move for the league’s investment arm, which has taken a share of roughly 20 companies so far as it continues to build out its own venture capital operation.

(Top photo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)


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