One of the larger talking points about the Thunder the past few seasons has been the inconsistency of their starting five.
Because of Oklahoma City’s prowess off the bench with James Harden, the Thunder’s lineup of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins was universally agreed upon to be one of the team’s weaker five-man groups. The Thunder almost seemed to just be surviving those first six or seven minutes until Harden could check in and get things settled.
That’s changed this season. And changed in a big way. Instead of a liability, OKC’s starting five is officially its best lineup. They’ve played more minutes together than any other and have a net rating of +13.5, making it one of the best in the entire league.
Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com dove in to exploring the evolution of this lineup today:
Much of the Thunder’s early offense results from Westbrook pulling up or attacking on the secondary break, or hitting Durant with an outlet pass. Particularly in transition, both Westbrook and Durant are always looking for a body that can precipitate contact. Only James Harden has used more possessions in transition this season than Westbrook, and three-quarters of Westbrook’s possessions on the break result in a drive to the basket or a pull-up jumper.
In the half court, Westbrook is a master of finding seams and holes. Thanks to his accelerated first step, the slightest opening will do. To this end, Ibaka’s ability to extend to the 3-point line has done wonders for this unit’s spacing, and Westbrook is the primary beneficiary. Westbrook isn’t dependent on high screens — say, relative to a point guard like Chris Paul — but he’ll use them a fair amount depending on matchup. He’s still a little too eager to take a dribble jumper coming off those picks, but he probably takes more flak than he deserves.
The Thunder are a team that will look to attack what they deem as mismatches. Ibaka will get the opportunity to post up when he’s matched against a small-ball 4. Westbrook takes additional liberties against smallish point guards. Durant is almost always a mismatch for his defender, so there’s not much of a variable there.
Not much more to add because Arnovitz certainly covered the bases extremely well. (Seriously, go read it all.) But I’ll reiterate one of his larger points: The biggest change I see is that Westbrook is a much more aggressive force early in games, with Durant then asserting himself at any lull. It often seemed like the Thunder were sorting of waiting for Harden to check in to really get going last season.
Because the Thunder don’t have a luxury on the bench anymore, the starters are coming off the blocks much stronger. Durant and Westbrook, who both completely hold the keys to OKC’s success now, aren’t pacing themselves anymore. It’s about firing out and trying to build a lead the second unit can attempt to hold on to.
Maybe it’s more of a philosophical change than anything else. Not that the starting five was taking it easy or something in season’s past, but strategically, there might be more of a sense of urgency there than previously.