Despite owning the youngest roster in the NBA at an average age of 22.9, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a complete nuisance for opponents. They have far surpassed their preseason expectations in large part because of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s leap from fringe All-Star to All-NBA. Since January 1st, the Thunder rank 3rd in Offensive Rating, 12th in Defensive Rating, and 3rd in Net Rating.
Although the on-court success is nourishing, Oklahoma City’s main goals have been player development and seeking optimal lineup combinations to pair with Chet Holmgren’s debut next season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Josh Giddey, and Jalen Williams have been the cemented starters, and the group has thrived through a 6.0 Net Rating across 364 minutes. A Shai-Dort-Giddey-Jalen-Chet lineup certainly seems formidable, but there is one player Oklahoma City cannot ignore for their starting and/or closing lineup: Isaiah Joe.
Spacing & Off-Ball Action
Joe’s main contribution to a lineup is three-point shooting and the subsequent spacing that follows. Across 147 spot up possessions, he’s produced 1.29 points per possession – a devastatingly efficient result. Joe owns a monstrous 46.9 3PT% on 196 catch and shoot attempts, which ranks 2nd in the NBA for players that match his volume behind only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. His off the dribble potential separates him from the typical specialist archetype though, as he’s beginning to experiment more frequently with self-created attempts. The clip below displays a brutal off the dribble step-back, which may quickly become a staple.
— Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) February 27, 2023
Joe is only at 55 pull-up three-point attempts, but he’s converting at a 38.1% clip. Look for those numbers to balloon due to an increasing comfort level, which is a scary thought considering he already ranks in the 99th percentile for ShotQuality’s Spacing/Gravity metric.
His shot chart also paints him as an above the break savant with negligible volume from the corners. It’s far more useful to thrive from above the break than the corners because the increased area makes it easier to find open space for a three. Dribble handoffs (DHO) become a lethal option, which is replacing the pick and roll as the new direction of NBA offenses. In the clip below, Joe utilizes a DHO and step-back to create an open three.
Isaiah Joe is going off on ESPN 🔥
21 PTS, 73% FG, 5 Threes pic.twitter.com/aD8AvrgMbb
— NBA (@NBA) February 25, 2023
Phoenix had a defensive meltdown there as the guard went under the screen while the big played drop coverage (a cardinal sin against shooters), but the point remains the same: a DHO with Joe is scary! His superb shooting stroke and willingness to screen also allows Oklahoma City to fully weaponize ghost screens and the Spain pick and roll. A ghost screen is when a player signals their intention to set a screen but instead runs past the defender towards open space. Meanwhile, the Spain pick and roll is a normal high pick and roll but an off-ball shooter sets another pick on the roll man’s defender before sprinting to space above the break.
The clip below displays Joe’s aptitude for this role. Kenrich Williams acts as the initial screener for Josh Giddey before rolling to the basket. Joe was slightly late but the effect was the same: he sets a ghost screen before continuing towards the three-point line, which sounds the sirens for Phoenix and causes both defenders to stick to Joe. The result? A wide open Kenrich layup.
Giddey 🤝 KRich pic.twitter.com/WxD4b2hBMH
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 25, 2023
The next clip portrays how seamless the offense can transition because of Joe’s schematic versatility. He sets a ghost screen on the high pick and roll for Giddey, who drives to the basket. Deandre Ayton left Jaylin Williams in the corner (who on a side note is 24/50 from three) to help inside. Giddey recognizes the weak point instantly and passes to Williams, who sets a DHO for an open Joe three.
Zai’s locked in 🔒 pic.twitter.com/KNI9wg8HJE
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 25, 2023
That off-ball action is such a weapon for an Oklahoma City team that ranks 1st in drive frequency and 8th in cut frequency. Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, and Josh Giddey already place an immense amount of stress on the rim, so Joe’s three-point shooting stretches the defense out to its breaking point.
The chart below via BBall Index shows just how dynamic the Shai-Isaiah duo can be. Catch & Shoot 3PT Shot Making essentially measures the following question: “Given the player’s degree of difficulty, how well are they shooting?”. On the other hand, Finishing Talent “analyzes a player’s ability to get to and finish at the rim” adjusted for shot quality.
As you can see, Shai dominates at creating and converting rim attempts while Joe is a catch and shoot three-point magician. Because the Thunder have two pressure points on opposite ends of the half-court, it completely warps the defense and often forces them to pick their poison.
Shooting is obviously Joe’s strength, but he’s more well-rounded than the typical shooter. In the clip below, he recognizes the defender overplaying and uses a backdoor cut to get open. The collapsing defense deterred his shot attempt, but Joe found a cutting Giddey with a nice pass. If he can continue to grow his court vision and playmaking, then it’s unclear how a defender is supposed to guard him.
Creating opportunities all around 🔍 pic.twitter.com/wXVJ6HgxKA
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 24, 2023
On-Court Impact & Lineup Combinations
The on-court results for Isaiah Joe are absolutely staggering. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Thunder score 124.5 points per 100 possessions and hold opponents to 111.7 points per 100 possessions when Joe is on the court. The difference between that offensive rating and 1st ranked Boston (118) is the difference between Boston and the 25th ranked Orlando Magic (111.2). Also per Cleaning the Glass, Oklahoma City is 13.4 points per 100 possessions better with Joe on the court compared to off. Based on the numbers, the Thunder are a 67-win team with Joe on the court and a 31-win team with him off!
In addition, Joe also paces Oklahoma City at 1.25 ShotQuality points per possession. In other words, an Isaiah Joe possession on average will produce an expected 1.25 points per possession based on shot type, defender distance, etc. That ranks in the 87th percentile among all players, but most of the players ahead of him are solely around the basket centers with dunks, layups, and put-backs in their arsenal. This naturally inflates their ShotQuality points per possession, which makes Joe’s rank all the more impressive.
As for lineup success, the following combinations are when those players are on the court together:
- Joe-Shai: 517 minutes; 12.3 Net Rating
- Joe-Jalen: 398 minutes; 7.1 Net Rating
- Joe-Kenrich: 342 minutes; 16.1 Net Rating
- Joe-Dort: 301 minutes;7.2 Net Rating
- Joe-Giddey: 255 minutes; 14.1 Net Rating
- Joe-Shai-Jalen: 212 minutes; 4.1 Net Rating
- Joe-Shai-Dort: 199 minutes; 7.2 Net Rating
- Joe-Shai-Kenrich: 191 minutes; 21.9 Net Rating
- Joe-Shai-Giddey: 77 minutes; 20.6 Net Rating
- Joe-Shai-Jalen-Kenrich: 68 minutes; 28.3 Net Rating
- Joe-Shai-Dort Kenrich: 63 minutes; 14.4 Net Rating
- Joe-Shai-Giddey-Jalen: 39 minutes; 18.5 Net Rating
Some of the samples are admittedly small, but the on-court success via Isaiah Joe’s impact remains absolutely undeniable. He completely opens up the court for Shai, Giddey, and Jalen’s drives, and his chemistry with Kenrich is exceptional. Now, imagine these lineups with Chet Holmgren’s spacing, off the dribble scoring, roll threat, rim protection, and rebounding. A Spain pick and roll featuring Shai, Chet, and Joe with Giddey/Jalen/Kenrich either cutting or spotting up? Sign me up immediately.
Overall, Isaiah Joe has a strong case to be in the starting lineup next year. Although I believe the Thunder end up rolling with Shai-Dort-Giddey-Jalen-Chet as their starting lineup, I suspect Joe will replace one of Dort, Giddey, or Jalen in the closing lineup because of his impact. Which one depends on the matchup, foul trouble, and who is having an off-night, but don’t be shocked next season when Joe scorches your favorite team to finish off a close game.