The Regression of the Oklahoma City Thunder

Thunder vs. Spurs

The Oklahoma City are an incredibly gifted team when it comes to the offensive end of things. They’re one of the top offenses in the league despite a whopping 14.2% of their plays come from isolations, per mysynergysports.com.

The isolation is one of the most undesirable results in the NBA. Its very rare that teams are able to flourish from it–that’s why the Oklahoma City Thunder are special. They’re able to generate productive offense without running a lot of action that confuses the defense. When you have the type of talent on a team that the Thunder have, you tend to be able to get away with it. But the question is how long can you get away with offense like that?

When you’re playing against the best of the best in the postseason things start to slow down. When your offense is predictable, a way to stop you is easier to find. When the ball is sticking to your stars hands that allows help defense to set up on the weakside of the floor. By now, film has been studied and tendencies have been noted.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have encountered this problem for the last three seasons. Each time, the opposition was able to focus on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in their ever-so-predictable offense. They’ve got a dilemma fairly similar to the Miami Heat of 2010-11–the Heat have just been able to solve this problem, unlike Oklahoma City.

The Heat have been able to maximize the abilities of all of their players through proper spacing and becoming “positionless” as Erik Spoelstra eluded to early last offseason. By going small and being able to play with bigger teams–especially  on the defensive end–Miami has been able to morph their offense into a juggernaut that flourishes off of ball movement and misdirection. They capitalize off of the most efficient shots in the game using the corner three and getting into the restricted area. They’re punishing teams with an attack like we’ve never seen before in the NBA.

The Thunder have done the complete opposite, really. Their three most featured line ups feature some type of combination of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, or Nick Collison, per NBA.com. Out of all of their lineups with at least 30 minutes played, by far the most productive is the combination of Russell Westbrook-Reggie Jackson-Kevin Martin-Kevin Durant-Nick Collison. This lineup has an offensive rating of 140.8 and a net rating of 41.3. However, the lineup just met the criterion set with 31 minutes played in only 11 appearances this season. Why Scott Brooks doesn’t go to it more often? I’m not sure. But nonetheless, its very effective.

Last season, the Thunder only assisted on an astounding 49.3% of their field goals–a total that landed them dead last in the league. There was no way that they were beating a team like the Miami Heat with that formula–hell, I think they’d struggle with the Indiana Pacers playing that way. These are teams who are adept at playing passing lanes and suffocating ball handlers. If the ball isn’t being moved that’s playing right into their hands.

There are only a handful of teams in the league who play defense in the same way that the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers do. Luckily for the Thunder, only two of those teams are in the Western Conference. It makes their road to the Finals that much easier. The Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers are the top two teams in opponent turnover percentage forcing opponents into turnovers on 17.5% and 17.7% of their possessions respectively.

If the Thunder can grab hold of the one seed, they’ll be able to avoid the Clippers and the Grizzlies until at least the Western Conference Finals where there’s no guarantee that they’ll win. If they can’t, they may end up playing one of these teams in the second round. Certainly, the Thunder are the better team in both cases. But the Grizzlies and the Clippers aren’t far off offensively and with the rate that their defense forces turnovers, they could run into some trouble.

The Clippers would be the more desirable matchup because of the way that they’ve been defending as of late. The team that won 17 straight games seems like a distant memory and that’s because the Clippers haven’t been able to stop anyone outside of forcing turnovers. They’ve regressed back to being an average defense with a defensive rating of 103.8 which would rank them 15th in the league in that stretch.

The Thunder would be able to attack their pick and roll defense that depends heavily on both bigs being able to give coverage above the free throw line and then retreat back to their assignment in a flash. That strategy obviously hasn’t been sustainable for the Clippers who had a top three defense before the turn of the year. The Thunder are a team who loves to use backdoor cut misdirection off of pick and rolls. If they are willing to exploit that, they’ll be able to take care of Los Angeles.

The Grizzlies are a much tougher matchup for the Thunder. They’ve got a top three defense currently and force a lot of turnovers without giving up easy buckets. They’re the best in the league at taking away the easiest shots at the rim and in the corners. They’ll force the Thunder into midrange shots which they’ll likely keep taking because of their bogged down offense.

The Thunder have to make use of their offensive options if they want to beat a team like Miami and Memphis. Having the ball in Westbrook’s and Durant’s hands isn’t going to cut it. Last night, the Thunder did a great job of executing their sets and not becoming isolation heavy against the San Antonio Spurs.

Though the Thunder have boosted up their assist percentage from 49.3% to 56.4%, they’re still 27th in the league in this category. What’s worse is that in November, the Thunder assisted on 61.2% of their field goals. Since then, there’s been a regression of sorts where they dropped to 54.5% in December, then increased that to 57.2% in January. Since then, they dropped down to 56% in February and then hit a season low at 52.8% in November. They’ve slowly regressed all season long after showing that they’d markedly improved in February

Last night against the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder assisted on 55.3% of their 38 field goals. That’s improvement from last month, and there are a lot of positive signs that things could go back to what they were in November. The Thunder were running a lot of plays last night and moving the ball. Though some shots weren’t completed, the most positive thing for them is that the passes were made and the ball was being moved.

They were able to depend on others to make shots and make plays other than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Another positive sign for them is that they shot two percent under their season average field goal percentage of 48.1%. If they had made more shots, their assist percentage would’ve had a chance to go up along with that field goal percentage. That’s going to be the key for this team moving forward into the postseason. If they can keep that kind of play up, they’ll be able to beat anyone.

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