Even without Kevin Durant’s ankle injury, we’ve known since the day of the Kendrick Perkins trade that it’s going to be awhile until we see the Thunder, as currently constructed, at full strength. With Perkins targeting a March 18 game against the Bobcats, the first in a six-game stretch at home, as the day he returns from a knee sprain, Oklahoma City could be looking at only 15 games with its entire lineup before the playoffs.
The steep learning curve is helped by the fact Perkins will have plenty of time to absorb the Thunder’s offensive sets and defensive schemes before the first time he steps on the court. It’s almost like a mini-training camp, albeit without practice, before he suits up, and then he’ll have the next few weeks to get back into true basketball shape in time for the playoffs.
But for once this season, the main concern for the Thunder may be the offense from here on out. True, the Thunder has only played one game with Nazr Mohammed and Nate Robinson, the other two pieces OKC acquired in the trade deadline deals, and that one turned out pretty well other than KD’s ankle turn. Still, anything other than a no-doubt win over the Pacers, who entered Wednesday five games below .500 in the not-so-rugged Eastern Conference, would have been a disappointment whether the Thunder was missing one starter or not. Indiana doesn’t have much in terms of a stopper on the wing or in the backcourt, which is where OKC obviously gets most of its scoring, so any offensive troubles in that game would have been truly troubling.
The issue going forward, as John Hollinger and others have pointed out, is how well the Thunder will be able to score with a painted area that is likely to be more clogged than it was with Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic drawing defenders away from the basket. Hollinger took pains to point out that the loss Sunday to the Lakers, which his column was about, was only one game. And I’d like to add that because Mohammed and Robinson didn’t play at all, OKC was playing the game as if it had its old roster but Green and Krstic sat out. Not exactly a winning formula against the defending two-time champs.
It’s true, though, that Perkins and Mohammed aren’t going to draw defenders as far out as Krstic did, and Ibaka doesn’t have Green’s 3-point range (or at least the propensity to shoot 3-pointers, as Green’s detractors would form the argument). That could prove problematic for Russell Westbrook’s drives and KD’s mid-range jumpers. Defenders won’t have to do as much recovering to alter the shots.
But there’s data out there that shows the concerns could be a bit overblown. Check out the five-man unit numbers on basketballvalue.com. The most similar lineup to what OKC will be using when Perkins comes back, or with Mohammed as the five, in terms of offense is probably Westbrook-James Harden-Durant-Ibaka-Nick Collison. That unit has a decent (unless you’re superstitious) overall rating of 6.66 and an adjusted +/- of -1.12, which is too small of a negative to worry me all that much. The overall rating is higher than the Thunder’s as a team as well. Collison probably draws defenders about as far away from the basket as Perkins or Mohammed do, and Perkins may be the one guy for OKC who can set better screens than Collison.
One thing that worries me is that Harden has to get a lot of his points in lineups involving Westbrook by creating his own shot, and he’ll probably be getting plenty of crunch-time minutes with Westbrook in key games down the stretch and in the playoffs. To my eyes, he has better on-court chemistry with Eric Maynor in terms of having the ball delivered to him where he likes it and being able to get up a quick, high-percentage shot.
So will Harden lose some of his offensive effectiveness with that clogged lane? Hopefully not, but only time will tell. A big caveat is that Harden is the third scoring option in lineups with both Durant and Westbrook, and the second or first in lineups with one or neither of them, but his adjusted +/- stats are much higher with Maynor than Westbrook in most cases. Harden has played his rear off in February and was huge against Indiana, but he seems to have as much to lose as anybody with more bodies in the paint, and the Thunder needs him to be the no-doubt third scoring option to have success in the postseason.
But the single biggest key, in my mind, to creating a little bit more space in the paint for the new Thunder offense is for Ibaka to develop a quicker trigger on his mid-range jumper. Krstic fired off his jumper as quick as you please, so even defenders who didn’t sag off of him very much could be pretty demoralized when a teammate found the Chairman with even a little bit of space on the outside. Ibaka, not so much. He hits those shots at a high percentage, but his defender is able to cheat a heck of a lot more when he moves out of the lane. Remember how easily Andrew Bynum blocked Ibaka’s baseline jumper in the second half of the Laker game Sunday? Bynum was right in Ibaka’s face, and Air Congo shot it anyway. Bynum knocked the ball two or three rows up behind the Laker bench. Ibaka needs a lot of space for his jumper to be effective right now.
That’s not something that can be changed much during the season. I’m sure that will be something Ibaka works on over the summer, and I’d be pretty surprised if he doesn’t come back next season (assuming there is one … *sob*) with a quicker jumper and other improved and added aspects of his game. Those extra few feet of room could make a big difference, but they’re not likely to be there for the rest of the year.
For now, I’d expect to see even more of KD running around and curling off of screens like Ray Allen does and Richard Hamilton used to. There could be side-effects of that, like having to have KD basically rest on defense, but who knows. Hopefully the team will develop ways to keep a few bodies out of the lane for Westbrook’s drives. I’m sure the coaching staff is hard at work trying to figure out how to maximize the offense with the new pieces on the roster. But there’s not a whole lot of time.