Why Oklahoma City's sizzling start comes at the expense of the reeling Spurs

Jalen Williams, Jeremy Sochan
Jalen Williams, Jeremy Sochan / Joshua Gateley/GettyImages

The NBA is built on rivalries, and one of the more under-the-radar rivalries is between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. While both teams have been in rebuild mode for the last few seasons, they were heated rivals during the 2010s. In fact, the two teams squared off three times in the playoffs between 2012 and 2016, with the Thunder toppling the Spurs twice in dramatic fashion.

In 2012, the Spurs had won a staggering 20 straight games, including 10 straight playoff games, heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. Of course, the Thunder, which then featured Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka, stormed back and beat the Spurs four straight times en route to the NBA Finals.

OKC later upset a juggernaut Spurs team in the 2016 West semifinals, giving them bragging rights, though it was the Spurs who beat them in 2014 en route to a championship. Since then, both teams have successfully rebuilt and now feature the two most talented young cores in the NBA. However, the Thunder are rolling, while the Spurs are terrible. What gives?

How Oklahoma City stole the Spurs developmental Thunder

From 2005 to 2022, former Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland was instrumental in developing many a Spur. His notable accomplishments were helping Tony Parker develop into a deadly mid-range shooter and Kawhi Leonard become an above-average shooter. However, after failing to agree to a new contract with the Spurs, he signed a lucrative deal with the rival Thunder.

A season later, we are just now starting to see the ramifications of that move for both teams. The Spurs currently rank just 28th in offense and 28th in 3-point percentage, and several young players have seen their development slow. Former starter turned backup point guard Tre Jones has been working on expanding his range out to three, the biggest remaining hole in his game. However, he has yet to make a noticeable improvement in that area.

Meanwhile, Keldon Johnson has been wildly inconsistent as a shooter, going from being a near-40% 3-point shooter two seasons ago to being below average last season despite a red-hot first 15 games. He is hovering around league-average now and it's still unclear whether he is a good shooter or not.

Then there is Jeremy Sochan, who, despite having made strides as a foul shooter with his one-handed free throws, still has a clear hitch in his shot. To his credit, he is shooting 38.2 from three, although on low volume, with the team's daring him to shoot it.

He may still turn into a good shooter but progress may be slow, even slower with him playing with the ball in his hands more as opposed to spotting up. It's hard to say whether those three players would be better off with another season or two of Engelland's coaching but it appears that the Thunder are experiencing a shooting boom.

They are number one in 3-point and free-throw shooting, helping them rank 5th in offensive rating. Compare that to last season where they ranked 17th, 6th, and 13th, respectively, and it's clear that they are making steady strides since adding Engelland. The Spurs can't say the same since losing him.