The seeds of this NBA season’s most effective, fun, and convention-bucking trio were planted in July, when Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan quickly realized three of his five best players were point guards: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder.
Donovan initially read the positional overlap as an extremely convenient dilemma. He fantasized about their compatibility and all the different ways their offense could swarm. But none of it would be possible unless all three embraced selflessness in an environment that, in the aftermath of Paul George’s trade request, was ostensibly defined by an every man for himself ethos.
“I gave a lot of thought in the summer to playing those three guys together,” Donovan told SB Nation. “I didn’t know how it would work because as a coach you have a vision of how you want them to play, but you also, inside that vision, have to make sure that all three of them are playing to their strengths.”
Even though the very idea of a position is increasingly antiquated in today’s NBA, selling those who expect to orchestrate offense with the ball in their hands on minutes where that might not be the case wouldn’t be easy. Before training camp, all three sat with Donovan to discuss the benefits of sacrifice, ball and man movement, and the myriad ways they can make life easier for each other when all are on the floor, particularly in crunch time.
“We had to come on the same page,” Schroder told SB Nation. “We had to talk to each other.”
In training camp, Donovan remembers an instantaneous chemistry. Paul, Schroder, and Gilgeous-Alexander had an immediate desire to get each other involved. They were constantly aware of who was hot, or had the best matchup.
“I saw an incredible unselfishness by all of them, to make sure that they all knew from each other: ‘I don’t have to have the ball all the time. We can all play together,’” Donovan said.
Some basketball teams never discover their best self. They can’t find the right offensive system, rotation, or defensive strategy. For any of a million different reasons. In an alternate universe, Oklahoma City could’ve easily seen their three point guards as an unplayable hindrance. Instead — at 21-16, five games ahead of the eight seed and four games back of the two seed — they might be the NBA’s most potent triumvirate. There are 536 three-man lineup combinations that have logged at least 200 minutes this season. Paul, Schroder, and Gilgeous-Alexander lead all in net rating, outscoring opponents by 26.7 points per 100 possessions, with an offensive and defensive rating that would rank first by a country mile.
As a group of pragmatic improvisers that realize mismatches created by their own speed, gravity, and rhythmic perception will inevitably appear on every possession, they’ve helped turn Oklahoma City into a basketball intelligencia.
They’ve had success regardless of who else is on the court, but when paired with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams there may not be a team in the entire league that can slow them down. Think about it: how many rosters have three players who can competently cover Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, or Schroder, and what are the chances that at least one won’t muck up their own crunch-time offense?
“Most teams have one or two really good defenders,” Gilgeous-Alexander told SB Nation. “It’s rare you find a team with three really good defenders. It’s hard for them to guard all three of us at the same time. It’s something I’ve adjusted to and it’ll make me better in the long run.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul, and Schroder are all in different stages of their careers, but each one is having an incredible individual season without stepping on another’s toes. They can run effective pick-and-rolls and score at all three levels, but do it in their own way, at their own speed. Schroder is blurry, Paul is under control, and Gilgeous-Alexander exists somewhere in-between, an off-balance, 6’5 wunderkind whose unpredictability meshes neatly with the other two.
Matching up against them as a set defense is hard enough, but trying to get organized in transition is almost impossible. Look what happens when Patrick Patterson and Landry Shamet fail to match up correctly in the crunch-time play below:
A 24-second possession is an eternity for defenses trying to keep three resourceful, creative ball handlers from turning panic into opportunity. Plays don’t break, they evolve.
When all three share the floor Oklahoma City’s effective field goal percentage is 58.7 percent, which is nearly three percent better than the first-place Milwaukee Bucks. But what makes them so fascinating is how frequently they operate from the mid-range, where more shots are launched than at the rim or behind the three-point line.
That’s mostly thanks to Paul’s galaxy brain, puppeteering pick-and-roll coverages with elite sense, anticipation, and a pull-up jumper that basically never misfires. At 34 years old and the heartbeat of these units, he’s somehow still able to rollerskate in and around defenses to get a bucket whenever he wants one, and is currently drilling 66.2 percent of his pull-up twos in the fourth quarter. (Nobody has attempted more of them this season.) He’s also scored 103 points in the clutch, which is 20 more than any other player.
“Dennis and all us, we have a joke,” Paul said. “When we get to the elbow we yell ‘layup’ because that’s our version of a layup.”
After a two-year sabbatical in Houston, where he conducted fewer pick-and-rolls and wasn’t earmarked to marshal the offense how he normally would, Paul is once more coasting on the tried-and-true Point God formula that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Right now, 49.3 percent of his possessions end as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. On the Rockets it was 36.4 percent.
The timing couldn’t be better, as more and more teams feel incentivized to play the percentages. Long twos are welcome with a door mat, and Paul is more than happy to walk all over it.
When the defense hugs up to take his shot away, that’s when everybody else’s instincts are able to shine:
Paul has been essential, an actor and director at the very same time. But the genius behind OKC’s sets whenever they go small is how interchangeable the roles are. Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder average more pick-and-roll possessions than Harden, Jimmy Butler, and LeBron James; Schroder is making 52 percent of his long twos and Gilgeous-Alexander is their leading scorer. Everybody cuts. Everybody drifts. Everybody understands timing and angles and where to be, with or without the ball.
“We’ve got elite point guards who can go and make decisions, so it’s kind of unique,” Schroder told SB Nation. “But I like it. It’s really, really hard to guard.”
Offense isn’t a problem, and, unlike most three-guard lineups that tend to deflate on the other end, neither is defense. Steven Adams helps as a back-line defender who gobbles up rebounds, but the three guards have also done an admirable job on their own assignments. When asked why these lineups have had so much success this season, defense is all Paul wanted to talk about.
“We’re so versatile in that we can put all different types of defenders on you. Shai finally learned how to defend the post, it only took him maybe 25 games,” he said, smiling. “But me and Dennis mix it up too. Dennis is a pest, picking up 94 feet.”
They allow 97.3 points per 100 possessions. The gap between that number and the first-place Milwaukee Bucks is also what stands between the Bucks and the 14th-ranked Brooklyn Nets. But their margin for error is probably more narrow than it would otherwise be. Adams is solid, but also stretched thin in certain matchups. Look at this play against Denver, where Gilgeous-Alexander fails to rotate off the weak-side corner, causing OKC’s center to crash back and then race out to contest Nikola Jokic’s three.
This is what that same play looks like when the Thunder switch. In both, Paul can be seen telling his 21-year-old teammate where to be.
Some of the Thunder’s success with this lineup is due to opponents only hitting 28.5 percent of their threes, and teams that can play small with more muscle on the wing may be a problem going forward. But thanks to how well OKC takes care of the ball, and the frequency with which why get to the free-throw line, they’re able to get back on defense and set up in the half-court.
In general, Donovan is much less concerned with any size-related disadvantage than a desire to keep at least two of his point guards on the floor at all times. When two of the three are on the bench it’s been a disaster.
Since Thanksgiving, lineups featuring Paul, Schroder, and Gilgeous-Alexander have averaged 7.7 minutes per game. Before it, they only tallied 4.9. (The Thunder were 7-11 before Thanksgiving, and have been a Western-Conference-best 15-5 since.) They close just about every first half and fourth quarter with those three guards — who, by the way, rank second, third, and fourth in clutch plus/minus — but are trying to figure out ways to utilize them in the third quarter, too.
“For Chris he’s generally coming off like about six minutes and Dennis is coming in playing with Shai so you have those guys and you kind of get through the first quarter and then you get into the second quarter and then you can kind of get them all in there to close,” Donovan said. “But you also have to look at how long a guy has been on the floor, how long has he been playing, is he well rested, and you’re trying to keep two of the three on the floor at all times.”
It’s the natural balancing act that comes with any personnel group this quirky. Over a month ago, I cast doubt about their three-guard lineup in my notebook, referring to the experience of watching them as a tightrope walk that made me lean forward in my seat, anticipating either a tragic fall or that first triumphant step on the other side. As great as they’ve been, the inherent volatility that’s tied to lineups this slight justified a bit of skepticism, and for some it still might. What they mean, from a big-picture sense, is also debatable. Can this work in the playoffs (which the Thunder are almost guaranteed to make)? Does it merit Sam Presti making a win-now trade before the deadline?
But until they stumble, the plucky Thunder and their three point guards remain a puzzle the rest of the NBA has yet to figure out. There might not be a more delightful story in the entire league.