The way people talk about the Thunder, especially after their loss to the Cavs on Sunday, one would think they have no chance to reach the finals. People cry out hundreds of issues with this team and are convinced that OKC has a minuscule chance to beat San Antonio and none to beat Golden State. In the views of many, the Thunder are the Utah Jazz of the 90s, a team with two hall of famers that can’t put it all together.

Frankly, the critics have a point. Let’s face facts, Oklahoma City are not a team built around analytics. They run isolation plays the eighth most times in the association, have the ninth lowest three-point attempt rate, and spend a lot of effort going for offensive rebounds. Moreover, the Thunder have had the second easiest schedule in the NBA this year and are 1-3 against the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavaliers. Three teams that, more than likely, Oklahoma City will need to defeat in order to win a title.

And, as I noted much earlier this season, the Thunder’s biggest problem is a weak guard rotation that results in a lack of offensive creators. The arrival of Cameron Payne has absolutely helped this issue. The rookie has the fourth highest Player Impact Estimate (a stat that calculates the number in-game events a player is responsible for) on the team as well as scoring twelve percent of OKC’s bench points. Nevertheless, at twelve minutes per game, Payne’s impact is minimal. This is problematic because, as Zach Lowe notes:

How do coaches who have (presumably) watched Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle pepper every lineup with one alpha creator for a decade-plus still manage to roll out punchless bench mobs? When TNT and ESPN broadcast Thunder games, they are ready at the start of every second quarter with camera shots of Westbrook and Durant on the bench — a cue for the analysts to discuss how Billy Donovan adheres to this insane holdover policy from the Scott Brooks era. You can watch the games on mute, and follow the conversation.

Zach Lowe

ESPN NBA Senior Writer

 

And Lowe is absolutely correct, but his theory points to another problem, the Thunder don’t have adequate bench talent to stagger their lineups. Because of OKC’s lack of bench creators, Westbrook almost always has to be in the game when Durant is not, and vice-versa. The dilemma Donovan faces is, rather than fielding a bunch of mediocre lineups for a good portion of the game, it is better to play one really bad lineup for a very short period. This stems from the Thunder’s lack of bench creators, and no, Randy Foye, Dion Waiters, and Anthony Morrow do not count.

So, for God’s sake, why do I think the Thunder can win the Western Conference? In summation, it is because the brass in Oklahoma City have not forced this team into becoming something their not. In fact, Nylon Calculus recently ran a piece that suggested OKC’s decision not to force an analytics-heavy system on its players has statistically paid off. But, more importantly, let’s try to understand why the Thunder’s system has paid off.

First, calling a spade a spade, OKC runs less isolation possessions than the Clippers, Cavaliers, and Raptors. This belief that all the Thunder do is dribble and shoot is simply false. Secondly, the Thunder’s system has resulted in the third best passing efficiency in the NBA. I wrote last week why pass efficiency is absolutely crucial, but, let me explain in the context of this team. Oklahoma City’s goal is to exert as little unnecessary effort throughout the game as possible. What I like to call this is “energy efficiency,” and here, OKC excels. Let’s examine this statistically:

Playoff Teams' Adjusted Assist-To-Pass Percentage

Figure 3 via StatMuse

Playoff Teams' Distance In Miles Per Game

Figure 3 via StatMuse

These two images track two individual sets of data – pass efficiency and miles ran – of the sixteen current playoff teams. What they show is the Thunder are incredibly efficient passers and minimal runners. This is not to say they are lazy, rather, OKC is more deliberate with how it exerts energy. It does not try to confuse the opponent with extra ball movement or passes. This is due to the Thunder’s talent. It is useless to waste energy if Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, when fully energized, can score at will. Consequently, Oklahoma City’s system, while seemingly archaic, actually makes a significant amount of logical sense. Thus, a more analytically favorable system like what the Warriors and Spurs run provides no comparative advantage for these teams over the Thunder.

Additionally, the Thunder matchup well against both the Spurs and Warriors, at least compared to the rest of the NBA. Beginning with the Spurs, the Thunder’s greatest strength is the Spurs’ greatest weakness: point guard play. As you can see below, the Spurs allow more points to opposing point guards than they do any other position.

Figure 3 via StatMuse

Furthermore, the Spurs barely rank in the top half of NBA teams at defending the isolation. This is important, because it is more than likely that the Thunder will attack the Spurs using a two-man game with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The impact of this is magnified because, looking at Figure 1, San Antonio exerts much more effort than Oklahoma City does. And while none of this means the Spurs will lose to OKC, if there is any team that could break San Antonio’s stout defense, it is the Thunder.

Moving on to the Warriors, the matchup advantage is more of a basic analysis: Oklahoma City is the only NBA team that can keep pace with Golden State’s scoring. The biggest question in this matchup, though, is if the Thunder can attack Steph Curry. Golden State will hide him on whatever guard in the game that is not Russell Westbrook. It’s not that Curry is a bad defender; rather, it just is not worth him exerting defensive energy. In my mind, the best option is Andre Roberson, who moves at a very fact 4.79 miles per hour on offense. This rapid movement, used correctly, will force Steph to exert energy on defense, which is unusual as he only averages 3.57 miles per hour on that side of the court. Moreover, it is faster than anyone outside of Danny Green that Steph will have to guard on San Antonio and Cleveland. Ultimately, though, the next few Warriors-Thunder matchup will allow us to know how much of a problem this will become in the playoffs.

Overall, the Thunder’s system is unconventional, they aren’t analytically strong, lack many statement wins, and have zero feasible off-ball guards sans-Westbrook. And while these are all problems, ignoring how OKC’s system is the most effective for their team is foolish. The Thunder are what I like to call “effort efficient” and use it to defeat their opponents. It is because of this and their significant talent that Oklahoma City has a greater likelihood than commentators acknowledge of winning the Western Conference.

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