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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What is Wrong With the Oklahoma City Thunder?

After the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play alongside 2017 NBA regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, it was reasonable to assume that the team would be a legitimate contender--but, thus far, that has not proven to be the case. What is wrong with the Oklahoma City Thunder and why has this talented squad posted an 8-11 record?

Before we look at what is wrong, it is important to realize that some things have gone well. One might expect that adding a defensive sieve like Anthony to the rotation would cause major issues at that end of the court but, in fact, the Thunder have displayed a defensive mindset that ultimately could take them far. This season, the Thunder rank first in the league in steals, third in points allowed and seventh in defensive field goal percentage. This is a marked improvement over last season's rankings of 14th, 16th and 19th respectively in those categories. The one caveat is that the Thunder have plummeted from seventh in defensive rebounding to 26th and those extra possessions that they are allowing this season not only slow down their potential fast break opportunities but also force them to exert more energy on defense that otherwise could be saved for offense.

The Thunder's main problem so far has been on the offensive end of the court, where their numbers have dropped across the board. Last season, Westbrook was essentially a one man show but the Thunder still ranked 11th in points scored and 17th in field goal percentage; this season, the Thunder are 22nd in points scored and 26th in field goal percentage.

What has changed? The most obvious difference is that Westbrook has taken a major step back in deference to the team's two new stars. Westbrook won the scoring title last season while averaging 31.6 ppg and shooting .425 from the field on 24.0 FGA per game but this season he is scoring just 21.6 ppg while shooting .401 from the field on 18.9 FGA per game.

Many media members tend to make Westbrook the scapegoat for any problems that the Thunder experience, asserting that Westbrook is a selfish player. The reality is that Westbrook has never been a problem for the Thunder: he is unselfish, he plays hard and he produces in the clutch. Last season he was not only the team's best player but he was the best player in the league. If anything, the problem is not that he needs to be more deferential but rather that he is deferring too much to lesser talents, much like Julius Erving did initially after joining the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1976-77 season. Billy Cunningham, who replaced Gene Shue as the 76ers' coach early in the 1977-78 season, observed that the 76ers had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians"; Erving was the team's best player but he was the one who was sacrificing the most from his game, as opposed to other players deferring to him. Cunningham changed that situation around and Erving soon regained his individual status while the 76ers emerged as a perennial championship contender.

Phil Jackson understood this concept as well. While he is known for utilizing the Triangle Offense--which, in theory, is an equal opportunity system--he made sure that there was a clear pecking order on his teams. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen (during Jordan's first retirement), Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant did not have to defer to anyone when they were the best players and this resulted in 11 championships. Basketball is a team sport but championship teams are usually focused around the talents of one superstar (who is often ably assisted by a second star).

The Thunder are at their best when Westbrook controls the ball and runs the show at a fast pace. Isolation plays for Anthony and George should only be run when one of those players has a clear mismatch that will likely lead to a score or a double team that will open up a high percentage shot for someone else. Anthony must accept the role that he fills for Team USA, being a spot up shooter as opposed to being a ball-stopping one on one player; similarly, George must accept the role that suits him best, which on this team means being a back door cutter a la Dwyane Wade during Miami's great run from 2011-14 when LeBron James was the team's best player.

It is not too late for the Thunder to turn their season around. It often takes some time for star duos/star trios to learn how to successfully meld their talents together to achieve team success. For instance, Miami's Big Three of LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh did not set the league on fire at first and that trio eventually won two titles while making four straight NBA Finals appearances. The Heat's stars each had to recognize and embrace their roles: James was clearly the best player, Wade was the second best player and Bosh had to accept being the third option; defensively, each player also had to figure out and accept how he fit into the overall game plan, with James playing multiple positions, Wade using his athleticism to guard bigger players at times and Bosh utilizing his combination of size/agility to pick up the slack all over the court.

Oklahoma's Big Three is not nearly as good as Miami's but nevertheless the Thunder are capable of being an elite team if the correct pecking order is established prior to the playoffs. Less than a week ago, we saw a glimpse of the Thunder's potential when they routed the defending champion Golden State Warriors 108-91 as Westbrook posted 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists but now the Thunder must figure out how to play that way on a consistent basis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 PM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Tuesday, December 05, 2017 1:04:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I don't know how much of this I buy. If OKC's problem last year was "Russ is doing too much" and their problem this year is "Russ isn't doing enough," what is the magic Goldilocks recipe that gets them where they need to go?

OKC has a lot of problems- surprisingly, none of them really on defense right now- but Russ is definitely one of them. He's shooting .400 from the field and 33% from 3 (which, uh, probably means he shouldn't be taking 5.5 3s a game). For all of Russ' technical passing talent, he hasn't really made life easier for Melo or Paul George, who are both shooting worse than they did last year (and in George's case, markedly so).

Russ' usage is down... but it's still very high (6th in the league). It's also still higher (33.1) than any that's won a title since Jordan. Of course, when Jordan was doing it he was shooting around .500, taking a lot less 3s (and making more of them, on average), and playing perhaps the best defense anyone at his position has ever played. Generally, title teams' best player is somewhere around 28-30 (Kobe, Lebron, Shaq, and Wade all flirted with 32 or so in title years, which were the highest I could find. RWB is not nearly as efficient with the ball as '06 Wade, '16 Lebron, '02 Shaq, or '09 Kobe, though).

Russ' cartoon usage last year was defensible because of his allegedly inferior cast*, but this year it seems counter-productive. That's no all-- or even mostly--on Russ so much as it is on the system (or lack thereof) but it's still not a recipe for winning basketball.

*Though with the benefit of hindsight we can now see that the problem was less who he had and more how OKC was using them; Oladipo looks like a guaranteed All-Star, Sabonis is a valid starter, and even Kanter has goosed his rebounding and added 8 points to his shooting percentage.

If OKC wants to win games, you're right that Anthony and George need to stop pounding the rock... but so does Russ. Three players that skilled should be doing all kinds of interesting stuff, whether it's weird screening combos, dribble handoffs, or secondary actions off of RWB's initial PnR penetration... but by and large they're not doing those things. I've only seen a few OKC games so far this year, but what I've seen is usually either:

1) A misguided isolation for one of their three stars that sometimes works.
2) RWB shooting off the PnR (this is good, usually, but can't be your whole offense).
3) RWB passing off the PnR to someone who either immediately shoots (ok, but they're not making enough of them) or holds the ball and lets the defense reset.

I'm more inclined to blame the coaching than I am the players, but everybody--including Russ-- is somewhat culpable, and I don't think jacking up the usage of a guy shooting 40% (and, weirder still, only 70% at the line) is going to fix things.

For the record, none of it is unfixable, either. I think OKC will improve, but I don't think they'll turn into a Finals team until/unless they implement a system that makes sense for their personnel and takes some of the burden off Russ.

 
At Wednesday, December 06, 2017 7:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree with your conclusion that OKC will improve but will only turn into a Finals caliber team if they implement an offensive system that better matches the strengths/weaknesses of their personnel.

Regarding some of your other points, here are my thoughts:

1) I don't believe that OKC's problem last season was "Russ doing too much." The problem was that when he took even the briefest rest, the team fell apart. The Thunder played like an elite team when he was on the court and they played like a Lottery team when he was off of the court.

2) As I indicated in the article, I do not believe that the best player should be sacrificing the most. Westbrook should play similarly to the way that he did last season, with perhaps a slightly lower usage percentage, and if/when he is double-teamed then his teammates--two of whom are former All-Stars--should pick up the slack by doing what they do best (as opposed to isolating and acting as if they are the team's best player).

3) I disagree with your implicit assumption that Westbrook should shoot less often because his shooting percentages this year are lower. My assumption is that if Westbrook plays his game--as he did last season--then his shooting percentages will return to normal. I agree with you, though, that in general Westbrook should either shoot fewer three pointers or else he should improve his three point percentage. I felt the same way, to a lesser extent, about Kobe Bryant--but I also think that it is understandable, at times, for Bryant or Westbrook to believe that a semi-open three pointer early in the shot clock may be the best shot available in certain situations (depending on who is on the court and what kind of defense OKC is facing).

4) Sabonis is a second year player who was bound to continue to improve. It will be interesting to see if Oladipo can sustain this performance level. Kanter has always been a solid scorer and rebounder. OKC had to give up something in order to get an All-Star in return. In theory, George should take pressure off of Westbrook when they are on the court together and George should be able to lead the second unit (a la Pippen when he played with Jordan) when Westbrook needs a breather.

5) My biggest concern about OKC is if Melo can figure out how to be a contributor to a winning program without playing alongside the likes of Kobe, LeBron, Durant, etc. (i.e., without playing on Team USA). I believe that Westbrook is returning to his 2016 form and that George is increasingly understanding his role but Melo is the biggest question mark.

 
At Wednesday, December 06, 2017 8:06:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Watching some of the Thunder's games, including a recent one against the Pelicans, I thought Westbrook was playing negatively in that he spent too much time trying to get Anthony or someone else on the floor going, leading to passes that led to turnovers or botched shot attempts where Westbrook has to clean up and try to fire something off at the last second. When Westbrook takes initiative and goes out to score 30 or more points, they win.

Anthony doesn't seem to currently shoot at a high enough level to be a true spot up shooter for the team but he does actually seem to be playing better defense. His role seems unclear to me.

 
At Thursday, December 07, 2017 1:04:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

1) That is mostly true, but exaggerated. The Thunder were a mid-tier playoff team when Russ was on the court (+3.3 Net Rating; lower than the overall ratings of both the Jazz and Clippers, and 40th overall among players who started at least 50 games), but an atrocious one when he was off it. His turnovers and shooting percentage--both well below what you want for your A+ stars-- seemed to be and may well have been largely a function of an insufficient supporting cast, but suggesting the team was "elite' when he was on the court ignores the actual results generated. There is a lot more truth to the idea that they were awful without him (especially in the playoffs) than there is to the idea that they were "elite" with him; they were good but clearly not great when he played, and abysmal when he didn't.

2) I don't think RWB should be sacrificing the "most;" that should be Melo. But with two other All-Stars (and a well above average center besides) I don't believe it's necessary for Russ to either 1) record a Jordan-esque usage percentage nor 2) jack up a ton of shots he can't reliably make. Presently, he's doing both.

3) If last season is Russ' "normal" shooting percentages then he shouldn't be the best player on an allegedly contending team; you are fond of setting 45% from the field as the bar for elite players; Russ last season shot .425 and about 34% from deep. Again, acceptable on a depleted team (or, perhaps more accurately, a team that did not know how to best leverage its supporting cast) but not remotely what is needed from the #1 option on a contending team.

That said, I do not necessarily think he should shoot less often overall, but I do agree that he should shoot fewer dumb shots; there is no longer a good reason for him to shoot contested threes he can't make or out of control full-speed layups that he mostly can't make early in the shotclock, but Russ seems to love both.

4) You are right that second year players generally improve, but rarely do they add 13% to their shooting percentage, more than double their rebounding, and double their scoring and assisting average. OKC obviously did not know how to maximize his skillset--for one thing, he basically never saw the ball inside the 3 point line-- and to suggest that the massive difference in his numbers from last year to this is merely a function of natural growth is silly.

Oladipo may or may not maintain his current All-Star production, but I'd be shocked if he slipped all the way back to OKC levels. Turns out empowering players to do more than stand in the corners and wait for a pass injects a little bit of unpredictability into the offense, and opens up the game for them. Who'd have thunk it?

You are right that Kanter has always been a capable scorer and rebounder but he is presently shooting 9% better than last season and recording 5 extra boards per game (in just five additional minutes). Again, these margins are large enough that I think they're unlikely to be entirely early season noise.

Given that OKC also never fully unlocked Durant's defensive potential, never got Russ to stop jacking 3s, and can't seem to get Melo and George to play within the flow of the offense, I'm more comfortable suggesting that they're bad at getting the most out of talented people than I am that the pattern of improved performance outside of OKC is an increasingly improbable coincidence.

5) I disagree that Melo is OKC's biggest issue. I think that an over-reliance of single action and/or one-on-one ball is their biggest issue, and all three stars are a symptom of it. Even if you replaced Melo with, say, Trevor Ariza, the offense would still be a sputtering and predictable stop-start affair with little variability (though they'd make a few more spot-up 3s). Until that changes, OKC remains a pretender, regardless of personnel.

 
At Thursday, December 07, 2017 7:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

According to the numbers at Basketball Reference, OKC had a +4.0 On/Off number during the 2016-17 regular season when Westbrook played and a -8.5 On/Off number when he was not in the game. I recall some stat indicating that the Thunder performed like a 55-60 win team when Westbrook was on the court and like a 15-20 team when he was not but I cannot find that stat at the moment and that stat may not have been for the full season, though I doubt that the trend changed much from the midway point or whenever that stat was first reported. It is also worth noting that the Thunder were essentially equivalent to a 60 win team when Westbrook notched a triple double and they were well below .500 when he did not. Westbrook dominating the ball is not necessarily a bad thing at all, but we both agree that he should eliminate (or at least reduce) certain shots from his repertoire.

The On/Off numbers during the playoffs were remarkable: +2.7 with Westbrook, -60.1 without him. In theory (assuming that the Thunder turn things around and become a top four seed), just a little All-Star caliber help for Westbrook should take the Thunder a long way in the playoffs.

I agree that it would be ideal for Westbrook's FG% to rise to the .450 range but if he can hover around 10 rpg and 10 apg (which no other player in league history other than Robertson has done to the extent that Westbrook has done it in the past season and change) then he can be "forgiven" for shooting a little worse than that.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of Oladipo, Sabonis and Kanter but--assuming that George plays to his potential and stays in OKC--the Thunder made a good decision to at least attempt to give Westbrook an All-Star partner.

 
At Thursday, December 07, 2017 7:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

I agree that Westbrook should spend less time force feeding Melo and more time just playing his game. If Westbrook plays his game, then the opponent will either have to double team him or concede 30-40-50 points. If Westbrook is trapped, he will pass and that is when George and Melo can go to work.

 
At Thursday, December 07, 2017 9:39:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree that OKC's On/Offs without RWB were terrible. I disagree that a +4 (or +2.7 in the playoffs) per 100 rating when he was on the floor is "elite," given that entire teams (including, as mentioned, Utah and LAC) had higher ratings as a whole. By comparison, the Cavs outscored opponents by 8.4 when Lebron played, the Spurs by 8.5 when Leonard played, the Clippers by 14 when Paul played, even the Rockets by 6.9 when Harden played. The Warriors are in a class by themselves above even "elite," but they outscored opponents by over 17 with Curry on the court.

Perhaps we are quibbling over the term "elite," but suggesting that OKC played like a meaningfully contending team with RWB on the court and a terrible one with him off it is inaccurate; they played roughly like a 5 or 6 seed with him on the court, and like one of the worst teams in the league with him off it. Worth noting for comparison here is that the Cavs without Lebron (-8.6) were even worse than OKC without RWB (-8), but because they were so good when Lebron was on the court (+8.4) it didn't matter. That's more what I consider "elite."

It is true that OKC did much better when RWB netted a triple double than when he did not. Perhaps on the games where he actually recorded triple double they put up elite-ish numbers (not sure how to check that) but obviously despite averaging a triple double he did not put up those numbers often enough to turn them into an elite team, even if you factor out the minutes he sat.

I do not disagree that OKC should have traded for George; that's a no brainer. My point is that OKC pretty obviously could not figure out how to get the most out of Oladipo, Sabonis, and to some extent Kanter, just as they're currently struggling to maximize the talents of Melo, George, and RWB. The problem may be less about the specific people they put around RWB, and more about their systemic inability to leverage their talents properly.

 
At Thursday, December 07, 2017 10:04:00 PM, Anonymous JT said...

OKC is starting to turn it around now. in the last 3 games I've seen attempts from westbrook to move without the ball a few times per game. that is better than zero times which is what was happening before. PG & Melo are also more integrated and familiar with the team, with Melo being the one to sacrifice a few shot attempts per game. all of this makes a big difference and they will continue the gelling going into late December and January. this team has a tremendous potential. they rank 3rd in opponent PPG at present despite a number of issues (lack of training camp, questionable lineups by Donovan, bad in game match-ups, etc.) and even Melo has been playing defense since the start. they will be scary good post all-star break.

 
At Friday, December 08, 2017 10:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I think that we agree for the most part on the larger issues and perhaps we are indeed quibbling about how to define elite.

 
At Friday, December 08, 2017 10:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JT:

I agree that OKC is starting to turn things around but--as the loss to Brooklyn shows--this is still a work in progress.

I also agree that OKC will likely be very good after the All-Star break and heading into the playoffs. Their defense has been very good throughout the season, which is evidence of good coaching and of the players buying in to participating in a winning program; with those factors and that kind of commitment in place, the offensive problems are very solvable.

 

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