When people talk about the Thunder, they talk about Kevin Durant. About Russell Westbrook. About Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin. About the efficiency, the explosiveness, the excitement, the dunks, the dominance that is on the offensive end of the floor.
The offense is averaging 110.1 points per 100 possessions, tops in the league. In fact, it’s the best mark since the Suns in 2009-10, who averaged 112.7 per 100. But that separates the Thunder from that Suns team, and most every other team, is that they’re able to pair a dominant offense with a suffocating defense.
As Ben Golliver of SI.com wrote today, the Thunder are doing incredible work not just offensively where they’re statistically the best in the league, but on both ends of the floor when you consider offense and defense in tandem.
The NBA’s No. 1 offense and No. 6 defense, the Thunder are leading the NBA in net rating, producing 9.8 points per 100 possessions more than they concede. The 29-9 Clippers, ranked No. 4 on offense and No. 3 on defense, are just behind them, producing 9.7 points per 100 possessions more than they concede. The 29-11 Spurs are third by this measure at +5.4 points per 100 possessions. From there, it’s a steep drop: the Heat are fourth at +5.2 points per 100 possessions and the Knicks are fifth at +5.2 per 100 possessions. To get a sense for the range involved, the 9-28 Bobcats currently rank dead last by this measure, conceding 8.9 more points per 100 possessions than they generate.
It takes zooming back to a decade worth of data to realize how impressive the Thunder — and the Clippers — have been so far this year.
Golliver put together the list of teams since 2003 with the top net ratings: The Thunder are currently third on it, behind the 2008 Celtics and 2009 Cavs.
The offense being great? No shock. The Thunder boast two of the most efficient players in the league (Durant and Martin) to go with the explosiveness of Westbrook and the extra dimension Ibaka’s mid-range game brings.
But the defense is where OKC has come along. Golliver broke down the progression of the Thunder’s overall net rating: 2008: -9.0; 2009: -6.5; 2010: +3.7; 2011: +4.0; 2012: +6.6; 2013: +9.8
The Thunder preach continual improvement. Where there it is, presented perfectly on paper. Scott Brooks often talks about the Thunder being a defensive team, and it’s kind of easy to scoff at it because the focus is always on the offensive firepower. Not much do people talk about the Thunder’s defense. And why would you? It’s a whole lot more fun to talk about dunks than good help rotation.
But the Thunder aren’t a one-way team as some assume. They genuinely are a strong defensive team. Durant has been stereotyped as an average defender because of his build, but he’s quietly progressed to be one of the better defenders in the league. It’s true. Ibaka is a shotblocker, but he’s improved mightily in his discipline, help defense and pick-and-roll coverage. Thabo Sefolosha is a premier wing defender, Westbrook is solid on the ball and Perk truly is a stout interior presence.
(Side note on KD’s defense: OKC allows 2.8 points per 100 fewer with Durant on the court, which is solid. Per Synergy, KD allows opponents to shoot 38.0 percent against him. And opposing small forward have a PER of just 8.0 per 48 minutes against him. Point is, Durant is a good defender. Get on board with it.)
What the Thunder do is pretty simple: They don’t allow points in the paint (39.4 a game, sixth overall), they don’t give up a ton of free throws (21.1, ninth), they cover the 3-point well (35.2 percent, 10th) and they hold teams to a low percentage overall (42.6, second).
How? Because the Thunder force more long 2s than any team in the league, and hold teams to the sixth lowest percentage on them. With the length and size the Thunder feature, jumpshots are mostly invited, because they can contest them so well. If you think back to most of the games the Thunder have lost, it’s come on nights that have felt like teams were really hot against them. Because they were. They were knocking down those contested jumpers, which happens.
Brooks is wrong though: The Thunder aren’t a defensive team. They are an extremely well-rounded team. Dominant offense, high-quality defense. Put it all together and you’ve got one damn fine overall team.
The Thunder have maintained this balance now over 38 games, almost half a season. Can they sustain it the whole way, and more importantly, will it carry to the postseason? Considering the fact the Thunder have a history of getting better at things each successive year, I’d think so.
Stats via NBA.com