Two weeks into the season and some trends have begun to emerge. The most alarming trend for the Thunder is a defense that has more leaks than an Edward Snowden PowerPoint presentation.
Through the first seven games, the Thunder rank 20th in defensive efficiency and 25th in opponent points per game. The primary culprit for the porous defense is pick and roll (PNR) coverage. Notably, against the Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors, and Chicago Bulls, the Thunder, most critically in the fourth quarter of those games, switched on a high percentage of screens. For those who don’t enjoy breaking down PNR defense, the simple explanation is that, rather than trying to fight through a screen so that a defender continues to stick with his man, the Thunder have a nasty habit of casually swapping match-ups, so that the player defending the ballhandler will defend the screener, and the player defending the screener will defend the ballhandler.
Why is this bad? Well, take a look at the GIF below from the game against the Bulls. In this GIF, you’ll see that Pau Gasol comes out to set a high screen for Derrick Rose. Instead of fighting through the screen to stay with Rose, Russell Westbrook sticks to Gasol and leaves Serge Ibaka to defend Rose. After getting this switch, Rose dumps the ball inside to Gasol, who has the obvious size advantage over Westbrook, and Gasol sinks a hook shot to give the Bulls a 6-point lead with just 38 seconds to go. In other words, switching can often lead to mismatches, especially when you have a 1-4 screen like the Bulls executed in the below GIF. Your power forward ends up guarding a likely quicker guard, and your point guard ends up guarding a guy much bigger. Smart teams, which the Bulls no doubt are, will fry defenders for such infractions.
In last week’s Week in Review, I expressed similar frustration with the way the Thunder defended James Harden. It merits a more in-depth mention because it’s a recurring issue, and, coupled with poor transition defense, is a big reason why the Thunder’s defense has faltered this season.
But hey, we’re just seven games in, and the Thunder have a winning record.
- Loss vs. the Toronto Raptors, 103-98 on November 4
- Loss at the Chicago Bulls, 104-98 on November 5
- Win vs. Phoenix Suns, 124-103 on November 8
THE BEST PLAYER
Kevin Durant. In the first week, Kevin Durant just wasn’t quite Kevin Durant. Though he was awesome (Durant averaged 30 points on 48/41/91 shooting splits), he just looked a step slow, as if he missed 65 games last year or something. But surely as the sun rises in the east, Mr. Reliable is regaining the form that made him the most valuable player just two seasons ago.
This week, Durant averaged 30 points per game (on 53/44/83 splits), but also affected the game in broader ways, averaging 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. Nice to see you, Mr. Durant.
THE WORST PLAYER
Kyle Singler. Can I be frank? Okay, thank you. I just don’t get why Coach Donovan insists that Kyle Singler be the backup small forward. In the last three games, Singler played 20 total minutes, and posted harrowing numbers, including, an average of just 0.7 points per game on 14% shooting (in fact, Singler accomplished the rare feat of having a points to turnovers ratio of 1). When Singler was on the court, the team’s net rating was -28.8 points.
When you consider all 7 games, Singler’s performance is disconcerting. Singler’s player efficiency rating (PER) is -7.24, which is by far the worst in the league (an “average” player has a PER of 15). Among players with at least 50 minutes of action, Singler has the lowest win shares per 48 in the league at -0.193. His BPM of -12.3 is second worst in the NBA.
Donovan has said he prefers Singler’s defense over Anthony Morrow’s, but even Singler’s defense is bad. Opponents are shooting 15% better when defended by Singler, and no opponent has even missed a shot when defended by Singler within 6 feet of the basket.
THE BEST PERFORMANCE
Kevin Durant vs. the Phoenix Suns. Remember in January 2014 when Durant laid waste to the NBA during a stretch now-known as the Month of the Reaper? The moxie that drove such success has started to trickle back into Durant’s game. His performance against Phoenix is proof that the Slim Reaper has still got it. In 32 minutes of action, Durant piled up the points in a hyper-efficient manner (32 points on 19 shots) and added 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals with just 2 turnovers.
Oh, he also executed the Dirk-fadeway to utter perfection to cap a particularly Reaper-esque run where Durant scored 11 points on 5 of 5 shooting over the last 6 minutes of the game.
THE WORST PERFORMANCE
Kyle Singler vs. the Phoenix Suns. I almost feel bad going at Singler. I mean, the guy hustles, but he’s just not very good. (He’s Perry 2.0.) His not-very-goodness was on display against the Suns. Partly due to the large margin of victory, and partly by design, Singler played 15 minutes, scored 2 points (on 1 of 5 shooting), and, well, that’s about it.
I don’t know, man. I’m starting to wonder if this is all some clever marketing ploy for Thunderstruck 2: the Kyle Singler Story.
THE BEST PLAY
Russell Westbrook dunks it really hard vs. the Phoenix Suns. There are times when Westbrook gets into the open court, with no one around, and he delicately lays the ball into the net as if he’s setting a baby bird in a nest. Then there are times when Westbrook powers home a dunk so hard that you almost feel bad for the rim. His dunk against the Suns was one of such dunks.
THE WORST PLAY
For those new to the “Week in Review,” or if you’ve just forgotten the rules, the worst play is not limited to bad plays, but also extends to those that are on the LOL-side of things. One play this week caused me to literally laugh out loud, so much so that I had to pause the game and rewatch this play about four times before I finally got the giggles out of my system.
To set the scene, the Thunder are on defense. Dion Waiters is on the court. An errant pass flies in his direction. And then Waiters ducks. Like he literally dodges the ball.
WEEK IN PREVIEW
- At the Washington Wizards on November 10 at 6:00 p.m. CT (FSOK). In a group text among some friends, one sarcastically said, “The entire Thunder team is in DC. Should we be worried?” In response, one of my more clever friends retorted, “You should be if you’re a Wizards fan.” I hope he’s prophetic.
- Vs. the Philadelphia 76ers on November 13 at 7:00 p.m. CT (FSOK). The 76ers are having the start that Sam Hinkie hoped for–they are 0-7 on the year so far.
- Vs. the Boston Celtics on November 15 at 6:00 p.m. CT (FSOK). Did you know that Amir Johnson is second highest-paid player on the Celtics? He’s making over $12 million this year. I found this factoid interesting.
- At the Memphis Grizzlies on November 16 at 7:00 p.m. CT (FSOK). The Grizzlies have beaten bad teams, but have been destroyed by good teams. Hopefully the Thunder play like a good team.
For more commentary from John Napier, follow him on Twitter at @ajohnnapier.