When Oklahoma City made its trades at the deadline to bring in Kendrick Perkins from Boston and Nazr Mohommed from Charlotte, it was clear what the intention was: offense for defense.
Out went two quality offensive starters in Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic and into the starting five came two defensive experts in Serge Ibaka and Perkins.
The Thunder, who won 50 games a season ago mainly on the legs of terrific defense (6th in efficiency) slipped drastically from that (15th now), winning largely behind a most efficient offense. Last year, OKC gave up 98.0 points per game. This year, that number rests at 100.8 ppg, but had risen as high as 103.
It really doesn’t matter how you win, as long as you win. This isn’t Brazilian soccer. OKC isn’t inclined to win beautifully with perfect offensive execution and wonderful defense. Just have more points at the end, no matter the cost. But in watching this Thunder team for the first 55 games, it was pretty obvious that the team was kind of getting by just by the skin of their teeth. OKC was winning a ton of close games and almost seemed fortunate to be so successful. And as a result, optimism for a deeper postseason run wasn’t great.
But post-trade and more specifically since Perkins assumed his spot in the starting five, Oklahoma City’s defense hasn’t just returned to form, it’s been the best it’s ever been. With Perk starting, OKC is allowing just 91.1 ppg, has only allowed a hundred once (against Minnesota) and is 6-1. In those games, OKC’s defensive efficiency is 100.7, which would be third in the NBA.
That, is improvement. And I’m pretty sure it’s not any kind of coincidence.
Zach Lowe of SI had an interesting tweet yesterday. “In 95 minutes (before Portland), OKC’s starting line-up has yielded fewer points per possession than the Bulls.” As he noted as well, those games had come against largely subpar opponents, but it’s hard to dismiss the numbers just because of that. Because in the 65 games without Perk in the starting five, the team looked different. In the 56 games before the trade, the Thunder’s defense was entirely average. Put the old starting five on the floor for these last seven games and I think OKC probably wins four or five still, but they come only because the Thunder outscored the other team. It has nothing to do with stopping them.
The Thunder are dominating games now. That’s not something we saw the first three quarters of the year. OKC’s point different is now at +3.6, which is the first time it’s risen higher than last season’s (+3.5). With Perk in the starting five, OKC is winning games by an average of 11.7 ppg. Again, mediocre competition, but still, the Thunder has topped Miami (by 11) and Portland (by nine) in that span.
Yes, the Thunder’s scoring a bit less, but the efficiency hasn’t dipped. OKC is just playing slower. With Perk, the team’s pace is right at 90.5, down from 92.7 for the season. But the offensive efficiency is still excellent. On the season it’s at 110.9, but the last five games it’s been at 111.6. So yeah, fewer points, but better points.
So what’s the big difference? Why has it all changed? Was Jeff Green really that terrible defensively? It’s simple: OKC is just more conventional. They match up well with everyone now.
The one game OKC lost during this was against the Raptors and that was mainly because the team was asleep 90 percent of the game, but also because Toronto is the rare team with a 3-point shooting center. Other than that, there’s no more, “OKC is going to struggle inside…” type things. Like Bill Simmons said, the Thunder just makes sense now. Great scoring point guard, all-world scorer in Durant, a shotblocker in Serge Ibaka, a paint plug in Perk and a good bench to go with it all.
The Thunder is a much better team than it was those first 56 games. Just inserting Ibaka has had an incredibly positive impact. I’ll admit, I was hesitant about it despite seeing the obvious benefit, but it’s impossible to deny how much better OKC is just with Ibaka starting and getting 30 minutes a game. Add one of the premier defensive centers next to him and you’ve got a team with one of the better front lines in the league. What a change from January, eh?
The sample size is still a bit small to draw any serious conclusions about exactly how much better the Thunder are now, in terms of how far they can go in the playoffs. Is the team a contender? Probably not. But are they capable of making a run to the Western finals? Absolutely. They make sense now. They match up well with everyone. Like any other team in the postseason, it’s about the Thunder’s best players just playing well. No longer is it about the Thunder getting beat just because they can’t match up.