The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of the most interesting teams in basketball. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they have two of the best scorers of all time on their team. Serge Ibaka is a top-5 interior defender in today’s NBA. And role players like Steven Adams and Enes Kanter fill holes in the Thunder’s system.
With all of that, the Thunder are still a schizophrenic basketball team. At times their offense is beautiful. Other times, however, it is incredibly isolation heavy. Kevin Arnovitz recently wrote an article for ESPN suggesting why this offense is not a problem, and when they need to, the Thunder can run efficient, motion-based plays. This article truly is a must-read to understand why the Thunder’s heavy isolation offense works as well as when and why Billy Donovan calls motion plays.
Due to the excellent aforementioned breakdown by Kevin Arnovitz, this article will focus more on the Thunder’s defensive gameplan. And more importantly, what is the cause for Oklahoma City’s inconsistent play? But first, let’s examine just how good they have been.
Figure 1 Stats via NBA.com/stats
Overall, these numbers are very good. When the Thunder average an eFG% over 50%, they have the second best Net Rating in the NBA. When their quarterly Defensive eFG% is below 50%, they have the third best Net Rating in the NBA. When both occur, they have the sixth best Net Rating in the NBA. Consequently, when you watch the Thunder, you are left thinking, “if Oklahoma City could play consistently they would be the best team in the NBA.”
Because Kevin Arnovitz explained why the offensive system is not the Thunder’s problem, we’ll begin by looking at the Thunder’s defensive system. Their strategy here is interesting, because rather than investing in perimeter defense, the Thunder successfully attempt to prevent easy shots inside the painted area.
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com/stats
What Figure 2 suggests is that when a shot occurs within ten feet of the basket, compared with other teams that have strong interior defenders, the Thunder are one of the best in the NBA. It utilizes Differential Percentage, a stat that compares a team’s Defensive Field Goal Percentage with their opponents Field Goal Percentage, and then examines the difference. Thus, lower numbers are better.
This number is even more startling when examining the same teams, but, within six feet (or the painted are) of the basket.
Figure 3 Stats via NBA.com/stats
What this figure suggests is that, compared with other teams that also have strong interior defenders, the Thunder are the best. The New York Knicks, who utilize a similar philosophy to the Thunder, are the only team in the NBA who has a better Differential Percentage than Oklahoma City. Let’s look more specifically at what happens when the Thunder play against teams with strong interior offense.
Figure 4 Stats via NBA.com/stats
Thus, when looking at the performance of Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, and Lamarcus Aldridge in general, and then comparing those numbers with how the aforementioned three players performed against the Oklahoma City, the Thunder’s defensive strategy is clearly efficient.
This strategy has worked. The Thunder have the sixth best Opponent Field Goal Percentage in the NBA, the eleventh best Defensive Rating, the fourth best Total Rebound Percentage, and the fifth best Turnover Ratio in the NBA. Therefore, if it is not the offensive or defensive system, what explains the Thunder’s inconsistent play?
The answer is that the Thunder have one of the worst shooting guard rotations in the NBA. First, let’s look at Dion Waiters. Waiters shoots 38.3% on catch-and-shoot jumpers, which is a respectable percentage; however, only 22% of shis shots are off catch-and-shoot opportunities. Additionally, 34.1% of his shots are taken after three-to-six dribbles. What this means is that Dion generally gets the ball as an open shooter, but dribbles and drives into coverage rather than taking the open shot.
This is important because, generally, teams will double team Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant whenever one has the ball. Opposing teams will not leave Kanter or Ibaka open, thus, the shooting guard – in this case Dion Waiters – is generally the open player. This creates a huge problem, because the Westbrook-Waiters-Durant-Ibaka-Kanter lineup is the Thunder’s best lineup in terms of Net Rating (+51.3). The Thunder are, however, four points better with Dion Waiters off court than they are with him on court. Meanwhile, he has played the third-most minutes for the Thunder this season.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma City has few other options. Dillon Mattox has explained that Kyle Singler is the worst statistical player in the NBA. Thus, it makes zero sense to give him more playing time.
Andre Roberson, in this author’s opinion, makes the most sense. Jeff Siegel from Hardwood Paroxysm notes some excellent plays Roberson made in the Thunder-Cavs game on December 17, 2015. The big issue with Roberson, though, is he cannot create his own shot. 76% of Roberson’s Field Goals, and 100% of his three point Field Goals, are assisted. As he is only in his second year, this should improve over time, however it has resulted in less minutes throughout the season.
The final option is playing DJ Augustine at the Point Guard position and moving Russell Westbrook to the Shooting Guard spot. The Thunder have done a bit of this; though, taking the ball out of Westbrook’s hands late in games discounts one of the Thunder’s greatest strengths.
Ultimately, this is a big problem for the Thunder. If the Thunder had JR Smith instead of Dion Waiters they’d be nearly unstoppable because other teams can’t leave JR open from the three point line. The fact is the Thunder don’t have a player of JR Smith’s caliber at the Shooting Guard position. Until that is rectified they will consistently play inconsistent basketball.
Overall, the Thunder’s offensive gameplan and defensive gameplan are clearly effective. Thus, for Oklahoma City to play consistently and win close games, an answer to the Shooting Guard position is necessary. Ideally Andre Roberson will improve throughout the season to the point where he is a reliable option, however if that does not occur, expect the Thunder to make a move before the trade deadline.
 Figures from NBA.com Stats Page