CP3 Heads Are Better than One: How the Thunder Point Guard Trio Is Torching the NBANanae Yamano

CP3 Heads Are Better than One: How the Thunder Point Guard Trio Is Torching the NBA

Sitting at 40-24 and the fifth seed in the West before the Orlando restart, Oklahoma City has been one of the more surprising teams in the league this season. The Thunder are a very top heavy team with a severe lack of wing depth, and with a good core of the five or so best players at their disposal, it’s key for OKC to take advantage when these players are sharing the floor together.

Look no further than the combination of the Thunder’s three point guards–Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander–which has been the catalyst behind one of the more fun and surprising teams in the league. When these three players share the court together, good things tend to follow. Oklahoma City’s offense turns up another level, with multiple playmakers of contrasting styles roaming the perimeter at all times, setting teammates up for open looks or creating shots for themselves. On the other end, despite the height disadvantage that happens when you have 6’0 and 6’1 guards sharing the floor together, the Thunder have managed to play stifling defense and force turnovers at a very high rate. But just how dominant has this lineup been?

Across the board dominance

The Thunder’s three man lineup of Paul, Schröder, and Gilgeous-Alexander has been the best three man lineup in the entire NBA this season (minimum 200 minutes played) with a net rating of +28.6 per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.

According to Jacob Goldstein’s luck-adjusted lineup data (learn more about luck-adjustment here) the three guard lineup is also the best in the league with a +21.94 net rating per 100 possessions, narrowly edging out the Clippers trio of Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, and Landry Shamet, who are a +21.59 per 100 possessions:

Simply put, OKC’s three man lineup has been the best in the NBA this season. As their go-to trio toward the end of games, the lineup has resulted in the Thunder being the best clutch team in the league this season, and it’s not even close.

To get a more accurate representation of how good this lineup has been and to filter out any other small-ish sample sizes, I decided to set the minimum minute requirement to 400 minutes. OKC’s guard trio was so far ahead of the next best lineup in 2019-20 (coincidentally, another OKC lineup: Paul, Schröder, and Danilo Gallinari) that I decided to go through every season that NBA.com has available lineup data for (starting in 2007-2008) and track the five best three man lineups over the past 13 seasons.

TeamPlayersNet Rating
2015-2016 Golden State WarriorsAndre Iguodala, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson+29.0
2019-2020 Oklahoma City ThunderChris Paul, Dennis Schröder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander+28.6
2015-2016 Golden State WarriorsShaun Livingston, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green+27.1
2015-2016 Golden State WarriorsAndre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green+26.8
2013-2014 Oklahoma City ThunderNick Collison, Kevin Durant, Jeremy Lamb+25.5

This is something I wasn’t expecting to see. There the Thunder are, with a 35 year old point guard, a 22 year old sophomore guard, and another guard who has been relatively ineffective for his entire career, up there with multiple best-ever groupings of the 73-9 Golden State Warriors.

I mean, look at this chart from CleaningTheGlass, which filters out garbage time for all their data on the site.

The numbers of this lineup are inconceivable. 100th percentile in net rating, 100th percentile in points-per-possession, 100th percentile in eFG%, and 100th percentile in FTr. It’s almost impossible for any offensive numbers to be better than that. They are doing all of this while getting it done defensively as well, ranking in the 93rd percentile for points-per-possession, 81st percentile in eFG%, and the 89th percentile in forcing turnovers.

The Thunder’s guard trio has been demolishing defenses this entire season with a combination of premier shotmaking and playmaking, which has led to a 127.1 offensive rating and 67.5 true shooting percentage this season for the lineup. Surprise, surprise: both lead the league.

But how have the Thunder done it? How has this idea of a three guard lineup, posited by Billy Donovan before the season and questioned by everyone else (myself included), resulted in one of the best three man lineups in recent NBA history?

Shotmakers

Throughout his career, Chris Paul has been known a master of the midrange (check out this awesome video by ESPN for a more detailed breakdown of his proficiency), and that certainly hasn’t changed this season.

This season CP3 has taken it to another level, ranking second in the NBA in eFG% on pull-up jumpers and first in eFG% when attempting midrange shots.

It also helps that the other two guards involved in this lineup have increased their efficiency in this area as well, giving Oklahoma City three players who rank in the top 11 for field goal percentage in the midrange.

Shai Gilgeous AlexanderDennis Schröder
2018-2019 Midrange:2018-2019 Midrange:
46.2%42.7%
2019-2020 Midrange:2019-2020 Midrange:
47.7%48.1%

Teams have started to take note of the Thunder’s proficiency operating within the midrange area as well. According to BBall-Index’s gravity metric, the Thunder have three of the top players in the league in terms of attention attracted within this area of the floor. This allows for the trio of guards to kick out to open threes (where Gallinari is the main beneficiary), or allow them to operate within the PnR and work the middle of the floor.

Per Game Gravity Rankings: Midrange

  • Chris Paul – 8th (98th percentile)
  • Dennis Schröder – 18th (96th percentile)
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – 37th (91st percentile)

Now, I’m definitely not advocating for the midrange shot here. If you aren’t extremely efficient from there, you’re better off not taking it. But if you’re Paul–one of the best midrange shooters of all time–your team benefits from you operating a majority of your offense in that area; whether through the PnR or pull-up shooting, it gives his OKC teammates spacing that they haven’t had in quite some time.

The orbit: Gravity and spacing all over the floor

While those shooting percentages are outrageous, there’s more. When Paul, Schröder, and Gilgeous-Alexander share the floor together, the Thunder also lead the entire NBA in eFG% and eFG% at the rim. In addition to those league-leading categories, they rank in the 92nd or better percentile in every other location on the floor.

Truly, historically elite offensive ability is recorded in these minutes shared.

When these three guards are sharing the floor, the Thunder also lead the league in both points per-possession and per-play within the halfcourt. For the Thunder guards, it doesn’t matter where the offense comes from: in transition or in the halfcourt, they’ve been executing at a near perfect level all season.

Some of the Thunder’s best performances of the season with the three guard lineup have come in home games versus strong teams like the Clippers and Mavs; one of the most dominant performances came on the road against the Suns on January 31, where the trio was a combined +22 in only 10 minutes of play.

This three by Schröder happens all because of Paul’s gravity. Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, and Jevon Carter are all watching for what Paul is going to do with the ball. Paul ranks in the 77th percentile in per game three point gravity, per BBall-Index. It also helps that Schröder has become a drastically better catch & shoot player this season, shooting 41.5 percent from three compared to 35 percent last year.

Here’s another pretty nice action by the Thunder allowing Schröder to get going downhill immediately, taking advantage of his quickness and catching Mikal Bridges flat footed for a split second on the perimeter.

Towards the end of that Suns game, Ayton got switched onto one of OKC’s guards almost every possession. Playing with three guards who have a wide range of abilities and contrasting styles–Schröder’s quickness, Paul’s PnR mastery and shooting, and Shai’s craftiness in the PnR and at the rim–really complicates how opposing teams defend these three players at once. Ayton stands no chance against Schröder’s speed here, and the Sixth Man of the Year candidate converts a tough finish.

Burned. A couple possessions later, Ayton sags off Schröder a little bit and leaves just enough room for Schröder to get off a three pointer.

It also helps to have a nice runner/floater game to take advantage of backpedaling big men, who can’t reverse their momentum in time to fully contest your shot. This is a spot (Non-Paint Restricted Area) where Shai has excelled this season, ranking in the 76th percentile in eFG%.

Playmakers

You can’t create all of these open looks for players without some top tier playmaking from your lead guards. Luckily for the Thunder, they have two of the top PnR ball handlers in the league in Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander. For Paul, this is just another year to add to his career-long dominance: he’s run the PnR on 49.3 percent of his offensive possessions, up from his 36.4 percent frequency on the Rockets last season. Despite the massive increase in volume, Paul still ranks in the 95th percentile in points-per-possession when operating as the PnR ball handler, second in the NBA behind Damian Lillard.

One the other side, Gilgeous-Alexander has continued his improvement in his sophomore season. Despite a slight decrease in frequency due to the presence of a lead ball handler in Paul, SGA has made massive strides in this department, going from 0.86 points per possession and the 58th percentile last year to 0.97 points per possession this season, a ranking that puts him in the 83rd percentile.

Take a look at the trio’s Box Creation numbers, which is the number of open shots created for teammates by drawing the defenses attention.

Ben Taylor’s Box Creation:

Chris Paul10.096th Percentile
Dennis Schröder7.592nd Percentile
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander4.676th Percentile
per BBall-Index

Here’s an example of two of the dynamics we’ve looked at: Paul’s midrange gravity as well as his mastery in the PnR. Paul does an excellent job of recognizing that Brandon Clarke has left the paint to come up and try to contest his patented elbow jumper. This leaves Steven Adams wide open in the process, leading to an easy dunk for the big man.

These easy points come with the advantage of having a plus shooter and decision maker running the offense. But the points can come more subtly when the skills and decisions are spread out across the floor. Although Shai hesitates for a split second on the pass to Schröder here, you can see Kevin Porter, Jr. and Collin Sexton completely abandon Schröder in order to guard Paul–who is drifting to the open space. The on-ball and off-ball threats from Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul allow Schröder to break wide open in the corner for an easy three.

It really is funny to watch four defenders immediately turn their attention to Paul and SGA on the wing. Throw in a nice ball fake from CP3 like this, and those defenders all freeze for a fatal split second.

Another one: a really nice dump off pass from Schröder to Adams and a strong finish. The execution to end the first half and the game by the guard trio was really fantastic against the Clippers back on December 22, when Oklahoma City rose above .500 for the first time this season.

The other side: Defending to their strengths

For the past two seasons, the Thunder were the best team in the league at forcing opponent turnovers. Due to the loss of an All-Defense caliber wing in Paul George, it was going to be hard to replicate what they were able to accomplish since 2017-2018. This year, the Thunder have ranked just 18th in forcing opponent turnovers. However, when the three guards have shared the floor together, they’ve been excellent in this category. The trio ranks in the 89th percentile in forced turnover rate among three man lineups this season, per CleaningTheGlass.

One of the more impressive improvements I’ve seen throughout this season has been the defense of Schröder. He sits at a solid 1.04 Defensive-PIPM, which is drastically better than last year’s mark of -1.0. Here he shows good effort in tracking Terry Rozier and essentially being a pest all the way up until the shot. Shoutout to Adams as well for playing this perfectly and contesting the shot.

Although the guard trio doesn’t get out in transition that often (35th percentile) they capitalize on the opportunity when they do, ranking in the 96th percentile in points added through transition per 100 plays. Shai usies his 7’0 wingspan to pick off this lazy pass from Dillon Brooks and finish in transition.

The Thunder have been “hiding” Paul–the six-time NBA steals leader–on defense this year to an extent. He’s spent 59.1 percent of his defensive possessions defending shooting guards and small forwards, and defended tier 4 usage players 23.1 percent of the time (high usage players have mostly been assigned to players like Terrance Ferguson and Luguentz Dort). The lower skilled ball-handlers he draws are more vulnerable to forced turnovers, like this swipe on Kelly Oubre, Jr.

A turn of fortune?

All success comes with a little bit of luck, and the only person or thing that has shown to possibly stop this lineup is regression to the mean. As stated earlier, despite the lineup continuing to be atop the NBA in terms of luck adjusted net rating data, the trio goes from a +28.6 per 100 to a +21.94 per 100 possessions when adjusting for luck. This is mainly due to Thunder opponents shooting an unsustainable 30.9% from three when the three OKC guards share the floor.

Due to the fact that Schröder will be leaving the bubble at least temporarily to be with his new baby, you have to wonder how the Thunder will fare when they are unable to bring out this death trio. I think the most likely scenario is Donovan sticking with a starting (and closing) trio of guards in Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Lu Dort.

Andre Roberson has looked better than anyone expected in scrimmage play, but even if he earns crucial minutes, he doesn’t have the guard skillset to mimic the trio’s dynamic. He could potentially play alongside a three-guard unit, but isn’t a candidate to replicate the core of what the Thunder do at their best.

Although Dort isn’t nearly the ball handler or facilitator that Schröder can be, he provides very solid defense and size that the Thunder lack when they unleash their favored three guard lineup. The other option is to roll with the former starter in Ferguson, and… I’ll just let the numbers do the talking here. There’s a reason Ferguson’s fourth quarter minutes dropped from 5.4 per game to 4.7 after mid-January (when Dort was phased into the rotation permanently).

On-court efficiency (via PBPstats.com):

Paul/Gilgeous-Alexander/Ferguson (598 Minutes)

  • NetRtg: -5.02
  • OffRtg: 114.37
  • DefRtg: 119.39

Paul/Gilgeous-Alexander/Dort (292 Minutes)

  • NetRtg: 4.72
  • OffRtg: 120.10
  • DefRtg: 115.38

Experimenting with Dort could be a silver lining to Schröder’s absence. Dort is much more equipped to defend wings and bigger guards like James Harden or Russell Westbrook than Schröder, and a popular combatant strategy could be to counter OKC’s death lineup by overwhelming them with size. An opponent like Boston can stay “small” while towering over the Oklahoma City trio on the perimeter with guard and wing combinations built around Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown.

Regardless of all the variables to this point, the Thunder’s guard trio has gone from a questionable idea to one of the best lineups in recent history. How Oklahoma City manages when Schröder leaves the bubble is an unknown, but it was fun watching this trio execute to near perfection this season. Perhaps the timing works out and the Thunder advance far enough for Schröder and the other guards to be put to test in a series against other world-beating lineups on teams like the Clippers and Lakers. We’ll have to wait and see.

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