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3 points: Crafty Thunder, a comeback story in Utah and some bad NBA scheduling

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In this edition of our weekly trip around the NBA, we’re highlighting the secret behind the Oklahoma City Thunder’s explosive offense and a one-time draft bust finding a home. Also, we’re taking the league to task (that’s right, TO TASK!) for some poor scheduling decisions. 

1. OKC’s non-screen screening

The 27-13 Thunder boast the NBA’s fourth-best offense. By now you’ve heard all about this. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an unstoppable force and MVP candidate. Chet Holmgren is already a premier stretch-big. Jalen Williams is a bull with the ball capable of burying all sorts of tough twos. And the roster is stuffed with lights-out 3-point shooters, like Isaiah Joe (42.2% on 5.2 attempts per game) and Lu Dort (a career-best 42.5% on 4.6 attempts per game).

The Thunder have multiple weapons that can shred defenses in multiple ways, and they deploy this talent in lots of interesting ways. One go-to tactic is that they “slip” screens — meaning the player positioned to set the pick rolls to the hoop before actually making contact with the opposing defender — more than anyone else in the NBA. 

Entering Tuesday night’s matchup against the Clippers, Thunder screeners had “slipped” 23.1% of all screen-and-rolls that ended in either a shot, turnover or pass leading to a shot, the most in the league (the Pacers are at No. 2, 22.1%), according to data tracked by Second Spectrum. They led the league last year in this category, as well. 

One reason is that the Thunder pride themselves on throwing all sorts of different players into pick-and-rolls. Sure, Holmgren will do some typical screen-and-dive stuff, but they’ll also toss in some various versions of guard-guard pick-and-rolls. On many of these actions, there’s no need to actually set the screen, since a switch would often be irrelevant — there’s no mismatch hunting if the two defenders guarding the pick-and-roll are both similar-sized wings — and so the quick slip, and the way it’s timed, can throw off a defense and be more effective in confusing a defense and triggering rotations.  

There are many reasons the Thunder have emerged this season as true title contenders. One is because in Mark Daigneault — the current Coach of the Year front-runner — they have a coach on the sideline with the creativity and intelligence to unleash all their talent in all sorts of interesting ways. 

2. The Kris Dunn revival

As recently as last fall, Dunn’s NBA career appeared to be over. After being selected fifth overall by Minnesota in 2016, he spent time in Chicago and Atlanta before a series of leg injuries cost him the majority of the 2020-21 season. He proceeded to bounce between 10-day contracts and G-League deals. 

Then in February 2023, he landed in Utah, where he remained after a pair of 10-day deals. He impressed the Jazz enough that the team brought him back this season. But no one within the Jazz organization could have anticipated the impact Dunn would have going forward.

On the surface, Dunn’s numbers look pedestrian: Five points and 4.1 assists in 17.1 minutes per game. But Jazz head coach Will Hardy’s mid-December decision to insert Dunn into the team’s starting lineup changed the team’s season, and has upended the Western Conference playoff picture. 

Fifteen of Dunn’s 16 starts this season have come since Dec. 16. The Jazz are 12-3 in those 15 games. On the season, they’ve outsourced opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Dunn on the court, and are 11.5 points better with him on the floor. 

Most of that dominance has come on offense. They’re scoring at a top-five rate with Dunn on the floor, with Dunn’s selfless style — he’s attempting just 4.4 shots per game — elevating Hardy’s new-look, small-ball starting five. The grouping of Dunn, Collin Sexton, John Collins, Simone Fontecchio and Lauri Markkanen — who is putting together another All-Star case — has thrashed defenses. 

Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, Dunn is wreaking all sorts of havoc between his typical hustle plays and smothering point-of-attack defense, especially on ball-handlers coming out of the pick-and-roll.

The Jazz will be one of the most fascinating teams to follow in the lead-up to the trade deadline. We know they’re in a post-Rudy Gobert/ Donovan Mitchell rebuild, but they’re also now 22-20 and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. Will Utah look to flip players like Sexton, Collins, Jordan Clarkson or Dunn for future assets, or see where this group takes it? And if the Jazz do decide to chase a playoff spot, that could mean trouble for one of the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Golden State.

3. Bad NBA scheduling 

Tuesday night’s NBA slate featured two marquee matchups, both on national TV.

The first, the Denver Nuggets in Philadelphia, showcased the league’s previous two MVPs in Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, two players who also happen to play the same position. In other words: this was as good a matchup as fans can get, and the Nuggets and Sixers only play each other twice a season. Yet for some reason, the league decided to make it the second night of a back-to-back for the Sixers. 

Then, later that night, we got to see the ascendant Thunder take on the Clippers in what might be a Western Conference Finals preview. Yet once again, one of these two teams — in this case the Thunder — was also playing on the second night of a back-to-back. 

This comes less than a week after the Boston Celtics got thrashed in Milwaukee by the Bucks in a national TV game. This should have been a possible Eastern Conference Finals preview, but the Celtics, coming off an overtime win the previous night at home, fell behind by 37 points at halftime and didn’t play their starters coming out of the break.  

Look through the league’s national TV schedule every week and you’ll find all types of exciting matchups — only to then realize that one team is playing on the second night of a back-to-back. NBA writer Tom Haberstroh dug into the data recently, if you’d like to see the exact numbers: 

One upcoming example: The Heat will play the Grizzlies on Jan. 24 then the Celtics the next night on ESPN. 

To be fair to the league, this does seem to be happening less than it used to, and I’m sure the NBA can and would reply with some sort of data illustrating as much. And there are examples — like Tuesday night — in which the schedule doesn’t impact the play on the court (both games ended up being fun, and the Sixers even defeated the Nuggets). 

But given how much emphasis commissioner Adam Silver is placing on player participation — an emphasis born out of a desire to boost the value of the NBA’s TV rights contract, with its current deal expiring at the end of next season — the NBA should be going out of its way to eliminate all national-TV back-to-backs. It would be a win for its teams, business and fans. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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