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Do the Thunder have a Josh Giddey problem?


Need any more evidence that Gilbert Arenas’ bellyaching about Europeans and foreigners ruining basketball with their sweet outside strokes is all hot air? I’ll give you one: Josh Giddey. Now that his legal woes appear to be in the rearview mirror, the whispers about his liabilities in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 5-out offense are crescendoing for the Thunder as opposing teams adopt disrespectful defensive strategies when he’s on the floor.

Draymond Green’s strategy of guarding Jaylen Brown from inside the paint backfired terribly, en route to a 52-point bloodletting, but a similar strategy also emerged in Phoenix. During the Thunder’s win over Phoenix, Suns defenders used their own hardwood infield defensive shift on Giddey. The Thunder’s point forward made them pay for it by shooting 2-for-4 behind the arc a few nights after he missed all three of his attempts in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

On the opening possession against the Lakers on Monday, it was clear Mark Daigneault wanted to get Giddey in rhythm early. On the opening possession, he dialed up a dribble handoff to Giddey into a ghost screen by Chet Holmgren that freed Giddey up to bank in a runner with Anthony Davis closing in. All in all, Giddey played fine in 29 minutes, scoring 13 points and dishing four assists in what was one of his better outings in recent weeks, but the Thunder lost, 116-104.

Giddey on the floor isn’t a fatal flaw, After all, the Thunder are in the thick of a race for the No. 1 seed in the West. But for the season, Giddey is still shooting below 35 percent on wide-open three-pointers when he has six feet of space between himself and a defender. That’s a nudge below the league average on all 3-pointers. He’s the worst among all rotation players on the Thunder and in some pretty poor company among wide-open shooters from distance. In a tight seven-game series, one of their primary offensive connectors receiving the drop coverage treatment could give a playoff opponent an advantage.

The Suns aren’t the first team treating Giddey like a self-check. In December, the Houston Rockets revived peak COVID-era social distancing rules to guard him.

During a 35-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Jason Kidd baited Giddey into letting it fly. On rolls to the rim, he bricked wide-open floaters from right outside the lane as if they were halfcourt heaves, finger rolled a layup off the backboard from point-blank range, which missed the rim entirely, and couldn’t hit a corner 3 to save his life.

It would be one thing if Giddey had Ben Simmons or Andre Iguodala’s defensive instincts to counter his constipated jumper, but he has two left feet defensively with a negative wingspan, no bounce, is iffy from midrange, and lacks a back-to-the-basket game. The Thunder lead the league in effective field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers and catch-and-shoot jumpers, and Giddey thrives as the offensive maestro when he’s given the freedom to be a playmaker. However, as Jalen Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have blossomed, the backcourt has grown crowded, pushing Giddey further and further off the ball. This season, Giddey’s minutes and usage have diminished along with his overall field goal percentage. Off-ball, he’s an awkward wallflower. The bar has been raised and Giddey’s been found wanting at times.

The upside is that Giddey has steadily improved as a three-point shooter under the NBA’s best shooting coach Chip Engelland, but there’s still room for vast improvement. Early in his tenure with the Thunder, Giddey could do no wrong. His 26 percent shooting behind the arc and 69 percent free throw shooting were cloaked by his anticipatory vision and precision passing.

Three years later, the Thunder have reached contention quicker than anyone realized while Giddey is still on a deliberate developmental track. As the Thunder’s picks develop, and as Sam Presti pulls more All-Stars out his hat, Giddey’s liabilities have become even more glaring in an ever-expanding lineup of lottery talent. Unlike Simmons’ predicament in Philadelphia, Oklahoma City hasn’t been squandering picks that make it vital for them to invest in Giddey beyond his rookie contract. They have the depth and picks galore to shell out for upper-echelon talent.

In the upcoming draft, Oklahoma City controls Houston’s top-four projected pick, courtesy of the Russell Westbrook trade, Utah’s top-10 protected from an eight-player trade in which the Thunder jettisoned Derrick Favors, and another Clippers first-round pick conveyed in the Paul George deal.

Giddey doesn’t have a ton of runway left. It’s a weird thing to say about a 21-year-old, but he’s already in year three, eligible for an extension this summer and the Thunder front office have a plethora of hungry mouths to feed. After Clay Bennett fractured the Thunder by paying Serge Ibaka at the expense of James Harden 12 years ago, Presti might be more prudent this time around in a luxury tax era that delivers more punitive restrictions on teams over the tax apron than the league did a decade ago.

There’s a solid chance he’ll stick around, but the Thunder don’t have the deepest pockets. History tells us that they’ll have to be cost-effective and Giddey will command a hefty sum. In the meantime, the Thunder will trudge into the postseason with Giddey for the first time. The upcoming stretch run, and the Thunder’s postseason reintroduction after a long absence, will give a glimpse into Giddey’s long-term viability as a contributor and into whether their core four can stick together for the long haul.

Find DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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