On TrueHoop TV today (special guest: me!), Henry Abbott brings up a pretty crazy thing: The Thunder’s offense, statistically speaking, is the best its been in the history of the franchise. Considering the worries that hovered over this team after trading James Harden away, that seems to be a pretty significant development.
Here are the numbers: The Thunder have an offensive rating of 113.1 (first in the league), score 110.4 points per 100 possessions (first in the league), score 106.1 points per game (first in the league and boast two of the top seven scorers in the league.
Pretty good, considering they were supposed to struggle to find their way after losing such a key offensive player like Harden.
I touched on this last night, albeit without much conviction, but a little working theory I have is that the Thunder might be better off without Harden because it’s meant increased offensive responsibility for Durant and Westbrook. It’s like we’re all acting surprised that two 24-year-old superstars came back this season better than they were last season. You’d think we’d know by now that improvement and development are kind of their thing.
Now, the numbers don’t exactly agree with that entirely because Durant’s usage rate is actually down this season compared to last (30.6 to 29.7). But part of that is due to him shooting less, I think. Westbrook’s is down a touch too, from 32.0 to 31.6. He’s shooting less too.
As Abbott wrote way back in November, the secret sauce to Thunder success is actually in those lower usage rates. But somewhat contradictory, also in the fact that Durant and Westbrook is the main facilitators of the offense, if that makes sense. As a combo, they’re the focal point more than ever now, but their development has pushed them to rely more on their teammates. It’s like the Thunder traded a three-headed monster for a two-headed one with a whole bunch of arms, if that makes sense.
My point is this though: What was once a terrifying prospect has become a significant strength of this season’s Thunder team. The fear was what to do without that third option, that contingency plan if Westbrook went haywire and Durant was off. Where do they go? Obviously Kevin Martin seems to be the answer, but he’s far less involved that Harden. Serge Ibaka has taken his game to another level, but he’s not exactly a guy that carries a team.
Here’s what’s happened: The Thunder haven’t needed a “break in case of emergency” player, really. A few select games Martin was hot in the first half while Durant and Westbrook were not, or Ibaka had a big night shooting. But for the most part, Westbrook and Durant — specifically Durant — have been stunningly consistent. Consider this: KD has had four games — out of 41, mind you — in which he’s shot under 40 percent. Four!
Roll over to Westbrook who is having maybe the best season of his career. The worry was what happens when Westbrook goes haywire, but he’s proving yet again he’s more reliable than you think. Assists are up, turnovers down, PER way up. His jump hasn’t been quite as impressive as Durant’s, but he’s taken a step forward, clearly.
The other question: What about crunchtime? What about not having Harden there?
The dirty little secret about Harden is that he wasn’t quite the crunchtime savant we made him out to be. He hit some big shots and of course there was the takeover against the Mavs in Game 4, but last season his usage rate in clutch situations was just 6.5 percent, down from 21.6 the rest of the game. (Sidebar: In the postseason it was 17.5, which is one reason to pump the brakes a bit, because outside of the Finals, there’s no denying Harden’s impact in the playoffs.) The Thunder plan late in games was the same then as it is now: Get the ball to No. 35 first, then No. 0. KD’s usage is 43.7 in clutch situations, Westbrook’s is 32.0. Martin’s, 8.6, which as you might note, is actually higher than Harden’s.
What’s apparent to me is that Martin is much more of a blend player than Harden. Martin isn’t a ball dominant player, a guy that needs it to either playmake or score. He’s terrific as a spacer and spot-up shooter. He’s trying to discover the line between primary scorer with the second unit and blend player with Westbrook and Durant, and I think he’s getting closer. Last season with Harden, the Thunder often interchanged between isolation and pick-and-roll. With the added involvement of Ibaka, the Thunder share and space much better this season.
Last year, OKC was dead last in team assists. This season, 18th. I don’t think that’s an accident.
Now let me backtrack: Would I rather have Harden on this team right now? Of course. You can’t replace that kind of talent. But I don’t think there’s a chance that more freedom for Durant and Westbrook have allowed them to blossom into a tandem unlike any we’ve ever really seen.
The great unknown is how this translates to a seven-game series in the playoffs. That, we don’t know and I know I have still have some sweaty palms about. But I do think 2012-13 Thunder are better than 2011-12 Thunder. And the reason for it is simple: 2012-13 Westbrook and Durant >>>>>> 2011-12 Westbrook and Durant.