With the Thunder’s encouraging 3-3 start it seems like most of the buzz is on the team’s new found defensive identity. I still find it stunning that Coach Brooks has made such a huge turnaround in team defense from last year with virtually the same working roster that was in use at the end of last season. We have the same starters and quite a few of the same supporting cast as well. Yet both units are putting the stops on the opponent this year. It’s great to watch.
Last season’s team allowed opponents to rock and roll at about 109 points per 100 possessions, which was good enough (or bad enough depending on whether your glass is half empty or half full) for 20th in the league. Depending on the pace or speed with which a team plays, there are usually just a few less than 100 possessions in a game. Of the 10 teams that had a worse defensive rating than the Thunder to end the season, not a one of them made the playoffs, and only the Phoenix Suns had at least a .500 record. Put another way, last year’s Thunder allowed 103.1 points per game, which ranked 22nd in the league, and the 8 teams that were worse were stinky and watched on TV during the playoffs.
This year the Thunder are holding the opponent to just 97.2 points per 100 possessions, good for 4th best in the league at this time! Let that soak in for a second. Better than teams like Cleveland, Dallas and the Lakers…(and Orlando). We are also 4th in points allowed per game at 89.2. The turnaround has been nothing short of amazing and coach Brooks deserves a ton of credit.
Most of us Thunderjunkies knew that while we were not so good defensively last season, by comparison we were down right atrocious offensively. Our offensive points per 100 possessions was a paltry 102.9, which placed us 29th out of 30 teams, and we scored just 97 points per game, which was 23rd worst. However, two teams that scored fewer points per game than the Thunder made the playoffs last season: the Pistons and the Hornets. And two other teams that were right in the same neighborhood of points scored per game also qualified: the Spurs and the 76ers.
The big secret here is that you don’t necessarily have to score bunches of points to be a successful team and win a lot of games. The key is that you just have to force the other guy to score fewer points than you. That’s what the Thunder have going this year and its the recipe many other good teams are using successfully this year and in years past.
The league average right now is 99 points per game scored. The teams that are populating the bottom half of the list of points scored per game are the teams you’ve been watching in the playoffs for the last few years. Teams like Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Detroit, Portland, Chicago, San Antonio and the Lakers. Again, the recipe Brooks is working with is a well used success story: staunch defense and quality offense. That is opposed to the D’Antoni’s and the Don Nelson’s (and P.J. Carlesimo’s) that want to run and outscore the opponent at every turn and play just enough defense to get the ball back and score some more.
Part of the equation of course is to value each possession and get good shots each time down the floor. Brooks this year has the team taking it’s time on offense. Instead of running after every defensive rebound and steal (or made basket by the opponent), Brooks has Westbrook just lightly jogging up the court and setting up offense. Not that he’s walking it up, just that he’s not running at every possible opportunity. Last year we always ran after defensive rebounds and steals.
Pace is possessions used per 48 minutes. Last season at the gate Carlesimo decided we were going to be a running and gunning team. In his 13 games he and coach Westhead wanted to run at a blistering pace. In those games our pace was 96.15, which was third fastest, right behind D’Antoni’s zippy Knicks. After Brooks took over he continued to have the team run, but not quite as much. The team finished the season at a pace of 93.6, or 8th fastest in the league. The idea is that you get out and get quick buckets before the defense gets set.
Running at a fast pace can work for a team. D’Antoni had it going with Phoenix, and Coach Karl has it working nicely with Denver, but in a copycat league the smart money is on getting quality shots every possession, not just fast buckets. This season coach Brooks has been able to survey the landscape and put in his system with a training camp. The result is that we are operating our offense at a very slow pace of just 90.1 possesions/48. That, like our overall defense is a remarkable departure from last season. Going from 8th fastest team last year to 4th slowest this year is quite a change. The writing was on the wall last year. We didn’t win a single game when we ran at a very fast pace. Of our 23 wins, only two came when our pace was at 96 possessions used or higher. The other 21 wins came when we moderated the pace. We can debate why that is, but fact remains: we won more games when we slowed it down, and it seems to be working for us this season.
I still think our offense is a work in progress. It’s still not that great, but I think it will slowly improve as our team matures. But most importantly the team is taking it’s time and trying to impose it’s will on the other team by using each possession carefully.