Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is arguably the best driver and one of the best overall creators in the league, but his excellence in this regard isn’t entirely unique in a league largely dominated by ball-dominant stars.
That’s why he knows he needs to embrace his duties off the ball if he and the budding Thunder, who are committed to playing an inclusive style of offense with their array of multi-skilled players, want to realize their collective potential.
“The best teams that have played the game, the teams that have won the most games, won the most championships, they play together,” Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters a day before OKC opened its season with a 20-point victory over the Bulls.
“I don’t know if you saw the ‘Last Dance’ documentary,” SGA continued, “but there was a point in Michael Jordan’s career where he had to learn the Triangle offense and learn to play [without] the ball in his hands 24/7. So if Michael Jordan has to do it, I definitely have to do it.”
This is one of those elements of basketball that makes perfect sense through an objective lens, but when you’re in the heat of a game, as the best player, there is always going to be an instinct to take matters into your own hands.
There’s a time and a place for that, and certainly, SGA is going to rank among the leaders in scoring, assists and usage. As he should. But over the years we’ve seen the apparent ceilings of these single-star systems that rely, perhaps too often and heavily, on the stagnant, individual creation of a Houston James Harden, a Portland Damian Lillard, a Luka Doncic or Trae Young.
Not only is this type of give-the-ball-to-the-best-player-and-get-out-of-the-way offense predictable, but it runs the risk of alienating the players with whom the star is sharing the court. This is one of Steve Kerr’s core beliefs with the Warriors; when everybody feels involved on offense, everybody commits to the other parts of the game and buys into the system as a whole.
A more equitable, democratic offense in which everyone, to a degree, is empowered with a say in the outcome of a given possession is less viable, of course, if you don’t have multiple players capable of creating the necessary offensive advantages to justify taking the ball out of your best player’s hands.
But the Thunder do.
Sure, SGA is the best of the bunch, but Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, rookie Cason Wallace and even Lu Dort can operate at the point of attack, particularly in a flowing system, instigating defensive breakdowns and creating for shots and/or openings for teammates. When this happens, SGA can find himself on the receiving end of the creation rather than having to do the heavy lifting all the time.
In the clip below, SGA begins off-ball as Jalen Williams starts the possessions with an entry to Giddey. The intent of the design is to get SGA the ball on the move, which happens on the dribble handoff, but nothing materializes. The possession keeps flowing. SGA hits a roll pass to Giddey, who kicks out to Williams, who swings it back to SGA for a wide-open 3-point attempt.
Pay no attention to the missed shot. This is an inclusive offense in which SGA works both on and off-ball as multiple people become involved, and it results in a great shot on the backend.
A player of SGA’s caliber can create that same shot for himself most of the time, but getting it this way, at least some of the time, keeps the whole offense engaged and the defense guessing.
Here again, SGA starts off-ball and simply makes a cut to the top as Williams and Giddey go into their own two-man game. Giddey especially, but Wiliams too, is too good with the ball to not be provided with some consistent opportunities to do his thing.
This time, it’s Giddey getting into the lane and finding Williams on the baseline cut.
You’ll notice that SGA doesn’t do anything on this possession but stand behind the 3-point line as a floor spacer. That’s fine. When we talk about stars committing off-ball, not everyone can be, or even should be, running around like Stephen Curry. SGA isn’t that kind of on-the-move shooter. His off-ball movement will be more about subtle relocations and timely cuts that drag defenders with him. Sometimes, in fact, his just stepping aside to allow others to create, while being ready as a secondary playmaker if necessary, is good enough.
Watch the clip above again. SGA could’ve demanded the ball on the initial defensive rebound, but Dort grabs and goes. Once Giddey successfully sucks in the defense, watch Zach LaVine as he loses track of Williams. Look at his eyes. He is watching SGA, who is one pass away. LaVine is expecting the ball to go back out to him. It’s a natural instinct. He’s the best player.
This is the attention stars command just by existing as an off-ball threat, and the openings it creates for others. LaVine, preoccupied with SGA’s whereabouts, is paying no attention to Williams as he cuts right behind him.
I have one more play to highlight, and I love it. The rookie Wallace gets to start this possession, with SGA stationed at the elbow. Again the design is for SGA to come off the cross screen and receive the ball, but the action is cut off. So Wallace goes the other way to Chet Holmgren.
At this point, SGA can do one of two things: Run to the ball for a hand-off, as a lot of ball-dominant stars would, or cut through the lane, taking his defender with him, thus allowing for Wallace to circle back and become the primary playmaker on this possession. He chooses option B. And Wallace gets a clean look that he knocks down.
Again, this is nothing fancy. It’s just a superstar taking the occasional opportunity to empower teammates, even rookies, with creative duties he would be justified in taking for himself. For one game, it added up to 30 assists for the Thunder, 20 of which came from someone other than SGA. Giddey had six. Williams had five.
But over the course of a season, this adds up even more. Everyone is involved, so when the time comes that they need to make a big play in a big game, they’re ready. And equally important, SGA isn’t wearing himself out as the Thunder have honest hopes of making a deep playoff run.
It’s great stuff, from a great player, who is taking the right approach to make sure the Thunder put their best foot forward, collectively, in becoming a great team.