As mentioned in last night’s recap, the Thunder are 27th in assists per game. Second to last in assist-to-turnover ratio.
But they’re also third in points per 100 possessions (108.3), third in points per game (101.5) and third in field goal percentage (47.5). Any way you slice it, the Thunder have one of the very best offenses in the NBA, despite being a bad assist team.
How does this add up? If the Thunder don’t score via assists, then how do they score?
Here’s the breakdown: OKC takes 24.4 shots per game at the rim (13th), 9.5 3-9 feet out (23rd), 7.1 10-15 out (19th), 17.3 16-23 feet out (25th) and 18.9 3s per game (15th). Pretty much everything in the middle, or bottom half.
But here’s the catch, of those 24.4 shots a game at the rim, only 44.8 of them are assisted, which is second to last in the league. On mid-range jumpers, just 24.4 are assisted, which is last in the league. On long 2-pointers, 45.1 are assisted, 27th in the league. Overall, just 49.09 percent of OKC’s baskets are assisted, which is 29th in the league. So it should be obvious that the Thunder do a lot of shot creating on their own. It’s not so much a teammate setting up a teammate, as it is clearing space for a scorer to do work.
One big place that reflects this is Kevin Durant’s scoring. He’s more efficient than ever (shooting almost 51 percent from the field!) and yet he’s doing more and more of it on his own. Only 45.1 percent of KD’s field goals have been assisted this season. That’s down from 62.4 percent last year. And 52.0, 56.5 and 59.2 the three years before that. Do you think it’s any coincidence that Russell Westbrook has seen his assists drop from 8.0 and 8.2 the last two seasons to 5.5 this year? Part of that is because Westbrook is shooting more (18.5 FGA this season), but most of it is simply because KD doesn’t need him as much as he used to.
Pay close attention to the Thunder’s offense. There’s a lot less screening, a lot less running KD off a baseline pick, a lot less pindowns. It’s a lot more about getting Durant the ball in an isolated situation where he can post, put the ball on the floor or shoot over the top. Durant is still hitting some catch-and-shoot stuff, but not nearly as much as before. Durant is evolving as a player, which is a great thing. He can get his own shot almost any time he wants it. And he doesn’t need someone’s help to do it. He just needs a little space and the ball in his hands.
So the question is, is this a sustainable model for the postseason? The way I see it, yes. Very much yes. At least compared to the past model, this is a major upgrade.
Because what was the issue within the Thunder offense late in games last postseason? Two things: 1) Stagnant, stalled ball movement and 2) they couldn’t get Durant the ball. Between defenders holding, grabbing and pushing KD around, the Thunder weren’t able to just run that same old offense and have Durant curl off a pick to knock down an elbow jumper. So most of the time the offense was 15 seconds of Westbrook tried to find a way to get the ball to Durant, then looking at the shot clock and seeing it at eight and then trying to create something out of nothing. It worked better than you might think as OKC made it to the Western Conference Finals and darn near the NBA Finals. But where it failed, it crashed and burned with the Thunder blowing a 15-point lead to the Mavs and another seven-point fourth quarter lead.
The Thunder’s offense has been a bit unchained in a sense, letting Westbrook loose to playing more as a hybrid point guard than a true point guard. Trying to harness him as a pass first point man really makes zero sense. That’s cutting him off at the knees. Marginalizing his talent. Caging him in. If you had race horse that was faster than any other, would you only use him to ride to the race, just because that’s what horses are supposed to do? Or would you try and maximize his ability and get everything you can get from him? It really doesn’t make any sense to hand Westbrook the ball and tell him to just pass to Kevin every time he sees him. He’s too good for that.
Durant is creating more. James Harden is a scorer and creator. And Westbrook has turned into a devastating one-on-one scorer. Yeah, I suppose the blame for assists being so down (about two a game from last season, where OKC was 23rd) probably starts with Westbrook because he’s averaging almost three fewer per game. But what do you want him to do? Stop scoring and start trying to get more assists? Remember, assists are a two-part process. Someone has to make a pass and another guy has to score. Russ is just cutting out the middle man. Instead of giving it to Serge Ibaka with the chance he fumbles the pass or clang the jumper, Westbrook is doing it himself. Maybe we should start giving Russ assists on his own baskets.
Scott Brooks said after the win over the Jazz he’d prefer the team to be assisting more. But he said as if to be saying, “Of course I think we could do better. I think we could shoot better too since we’re not making 100 percent of our shots.” In a dream world, the Thunder’s offense would be more efficient than it already is. It would assist on more baskets, find more open shooters and cutters and score better.
But it’s already better than its ever been. Don’t tell the team that though. Because their mentality is, just because it’s great doesn’t mean it can’t be better.