So far this season as we all know the Thunder have hung their hat on terrific defense and sort of average or middling offense. It’s been a good formula; turning a 23 win team into a 41 win team (thus GUARANTEEING a winning season) with 17 games to go. How cool is that?
But if you’ve been paying attention you’ve probably noticed that the defense has been slipping a bit lately. The team certainly still has a defensive mentality, and a defensive identity, but lately we haven’t seen the team get out and just stuff the opponent for 48 minutes. Instead what we’ve seen is the Thunder playing sort of “situational” defense, where for example in the New Jersey game the team played just good enough defense to keep them down 10 or so until a couple of big threes had them threatening. The Thunder then tightened up the defense for a couple of possessions to seal the win. Rather than play all out D every possession I think we are seeing the team play say 75% of it’s defensive intensity for a lot of the game and then really getting after it when the situation gets tense or out of a timeout when the Coach is imploring them to tighten it up. We’ve seen that a number of times lately.
The numbers bear out the idea of a slipping defense. For a big chunk of the season the Thunder were tops in the league in opponent FG%, allowing the other team to shoot somewhere in the area of .430. Now the team is third at .441 allowed. By Defensive rating the team has dropped from a usual 3rd or 4th best to 6th best. Last night the Thunder let the Utah Jazz who score an average of 107.5 points per 100 possessions drop 118 pts/100 and score 111 points in our house with three key players out. The Nets dropped 102 on us; the Kings dropped 102 and 107 on us, the Nuggets dropped 119 on us, the Wolves dropped 107, the Knicks dropped 118…
I say all this as an example, but the point I am driving at is the fact that the defense is slipping necessarily a bad thing?
Again, more defense is preferable to less defense, but in the Thunder’s case, maybe it’s not so bad to have an “opportunistic” or “situationally” strong defense if there is a benefit on the other side.
The goal is of course to win games, and the Thunder have won 5 in a row and only lost 3 of it’s last 20 games, but surprisingly the Thunder have been doing it with a better balance of offense and defense. I don’t know exactly how or why, just that while the Thunder defense has been slipping a bit, the offense has been more than making up for void.
For most of the season the Thunder have been in the bottom half of the league in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) in the area of 106 points scored per 100 possessions. The Thunder have been slowly creeping up the ladder and now find themselves in the 14th spot, breaking into the top half of the league and now averaging 107.1 points per 100 possessions. This is no small feat considering just how terrible our offense was last season with the same cast for the most part.
As an example, in the last 13 games (since the Knick game, where the numbers seemed to have turned) the Thunder have scored at an offensive rating of 109.23 points per 100. That’s excellent. Meanwhile the defense has slipped a bit to 104.6 points per 100 allowed. The difference between the two is the efficiency differential, which is at +4.63 over the last 13 games. That’s also excellent. For most of the season the efficiency differential has been somewhere around +3.5.
Using the Pythagorean formula a +4.63 efficiency differential would net us about 11.4 wins over the remaining 17 games, or 52 wins or so for the season. The point being that while the defense had indeed slipped a bit, the offense has picked up enough that by the numbers the team is actually experiencing a net positive boost in efficiency because of improved offense.
Granted the last 13 games have only seen us match up against 4 serious deep playoff threats so some of this should be taken with a grain of salt, but the fact remains that the offense has improved more than the defense has slipped for whatever reason.