20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

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.

Labels: , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 PM