With this season’s edition of the Thunder, we all can’t stop talking about one thing. It’s the one thing that keeps us all from feeling like this team is truly a contender.
Deee-fense. Clap clap.
It’s been mediocre all season and downright awful in stretches. With what the team did last season defensively, watching them give up 60 points in a half, allow 46 percent shooting nightly and nearly 40 percent from 3, it’s easy to be frustrated. Something is missing defensively. Whether it’s Ron Adams or just an overall commitment to that end by the players, there’s been a big step taken backward.
But the same thing keeps getting repeated. Despite that, the team is 33-17. The team is still first in the Northwest and fourth in the West. The team is winning. It’s almost like nobody understands how. Without great defense, how are these guys doing it? IT MAKES NO SENSE.
Offense. Scary excellent offense.
Consider this: Since Dec. 1, the Thunder have the league’s best offense in terms of efficiency. Overall, the Thunder’s scoring 110.8 points per 100 possessions, good for fifth overall in the league. If you want a traditional measure, Oklahoma City is averaging 104.6 points per game, also fifth in the league.
For whatever reason, all of this seems to be overlooked while people (myself included) continue to harp on the average defense. Maybe it’s a muscle memory thing where we all remember how this team won last season and we got used to it. Now that they’re winning by playing a quarter and a half of defense while lighting up the scoreboard, we’re unconformable with that. Maybe it’s because everyone thinks that defense wins championships. Maybe it’s because the team itself, most specifically Scott Brooks, never stops talking about it.
But give credit where it’s due. And Oklahoma City’s offense is due some credit.
Basically what it is, is that the Thunder has two top 10 offensive players on the roster. Between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, there’s always an option to score. Whether it’s hitting a tough jumper, driving and finishing at the rim or getting to the line, even through a bad, busted offensive set, OKC has options.
There are some good schemes though. The Thunder’s quietly developing a pretty solid pick-and-roll with Russell Westbrook keying it. Jerry Sloan said of OKC’s pick-and-roll game, “We couldn’t handle it. We weren’t able to handle any of it. They killed us with that.”
Zach Lowe of SI pointed out one of my favorite offensive sets OKC runs today, but what makes it so darn good is that Westbrook can zip through the lane and finish. Most point guards don’t have that ability. Add in three or four go-to sets and you’ve got a legitimate tough to defend offense.
OKC loves to run Durant baseline and let him set up his man off a screener then let Westbrook pick a place to go. Sometimes it’s Durant curling, sometimes it’s a backdoor cut and sometimes the defense overhelps and Jeff Green or Serge Ibaka peels off for an easy layup. Again, how is this so effective? Because of the options. Defenses are keying on Durant as he runs off three or four screens to get open. All eyes are there. Westbrook had gotten really good at sensing when that first look is shut down and either creating improvisationally or by deferring to a next look.
It’s not because of just wonderful execution or terrific schemes though. It’s because the Thunder gets to the line at a high rate (30.3 free throw attempts per game, second overall) and makes them (25.1 makes per game, first overall). The Thunder’s shooting 46 percent from the field as a team on the season (14th overall) and ranks 26th in 3-point percentage. So don’t get confused here and think the Thunder has an offensive system that’s just incredible.
So where is OKC scoring from? The Thunder is 10th in shot attempts at the rim according to HoopData but sixth in makes per game at the tin. OKC does a good job refraining from long 2s for the most part, other than Durant. From 16-23 feet, OKC attempts 21 shots a game, 14th in the league (they make around eight a game, 13th). Other than at the rim, OKC does most its damage from 10-15 feet, taking 8.2 shots a game (seventh in the league) while making 3.3 (sixth). And again, 3-pointers aren’t really in the Thunder’s arsenal, so it comes down to free throws, scoring in the paint and knocking down long 2-pointers. In terms of true shooting percentage, the Thunder is 10th at 55.5 (free throws help a ton there).
I think one reason a lot don’t see the Thunder offense as being that great is because the team averages just 20.3 assists per game (23rd in the league) and is 26th in percentage of field goals assisted (54.3 percent). There’s just not a ton of ball movement and cutting going on within the Thunder offense. It’s not necessarily one-on-one isolation stuff either, but OKC has talented enough offensive weapons to create good looks without a pass. Westbrook and Durant again being two of the best in the league.
Thing is, does it really matter a whole lot why the Thunder’s offense is so good right now? In most ways no, because the point of the game is to put the ball in the basket a whole lot and it doesn’t matter how you do it, but in other ways yes, because of the simplicity of the Thunder offense, I fear come playoff time it won’t be a system difficult to zero in on. Relying on free throws isn’t always a good thing when you go to Los Angeles and the game is only played with referees on one end.
Most agree offense is sexy, but defense is what ultimately wins when it matters. But it’s not like this Thunder team is a new version of the Suns or Warriors. It’s not about speed or points, it’s about efficiency. And OKC’s offense is efficient. Plus, these guys do in fact defend. They just don’t do it for 48 minutes.
The Thunder might not be where they were defensively last season, but they are a much improved offensive team (finished 12th in offensive efficiency last season at 108.3) and have steadily improved on that end starting around January of last year. The Thunder offense at times is pretty elementary. It’s kind of simple. It’s get the ball to Kevin and Russ and move out of the way for the most part. But it’s working and working really, really well. Scott Brooks understands where his bread is buttered and generally does a really nice job of making sure everything is where it needs to be.
At some point, the Thunder will start putting together all of this on both ends. And when they do, that’s when we’ll know what they’re truly capable of.