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The Thunder Weren’t Built For The Modern NBA

Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder washed out of the playoffs Tuesday night in a 105-99 Game 5 loss, the last sigh of a frustrating 4-1 series loss to the Houston Rockets. The game followed a familiar script, with the Thunder rushing out to an early lead as Westbrook put a good and thorough thumping on the Rockets defense. But as the game wore on, Westbrook began to tire, the Houston defense began to tighten, and the OKC bench hemorrhaged an enormous number of points. As the Rockets pulled away, the Thunder had no means to make up that ground, because the Thunder cannot shoot.

Oklahoma City’s glaring lack of shooting is nothing new. The team shot just 31.1 percent from 3 in the series, and that’s humiliating, sure, but it’s also not too far off of the Thunder’s regular season average of 32.7. Westbrook himself threw up brick after brick, going 13 for 49 from 3 (26.5 percent), many in the desperate fourth-quarter scrums that always seem to wrap up Oklahoma City’s games. But this paucity of reliable shooters isn’t simply because Kevin Durant left town over the summer and the team traded Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo; it’s the result of a yearslong failure of the Thunder to find perimeter players who fit the modern NBA landscape.

For as long as there’s been an NBA analytics movement, the 3-and-D wing player has been one of the atomic units of the mathematically sound game. The role of perimeter defender and long-range specialist isn’t necessarily new. In the generation before Shane Battier was beatified by Michael Lewis in The New York Times Magazine, Bruce Bowen, Rick Fox and Doug Christie were manning the position, and before them, guys such as the Showtime Lakers’ Michael Cooper or the Bad Boy Pistons’ Joe Dumars filled the role. But now the 3-and-D guy is more in focus than ever. Which is why it might be a surprise that there are still relatively few players who fit the description.

Over the last four seasons, the number of players who qualify1 as a 3-and-D (hitting a breakeven 33 percent of their 3s and a defensive Real Plus/Minus of at least 12) has lagged far behind the number of players who fit other traditional roles, such as the rebounding, defensive big man3 or the playmaking point guard.4

SEASON 3-AND-D REBOUNDING BIG PLAYMAKER PG
2016-17 20 37 26
2015-16 11 47 28
2014-15 18 42 35
2013-14 15 30 39
Number of NBA players in key roles, by season

Data includes regular season games only. 3-and-D players hit 33 percent of their 3s and a defensive Real Plus/Minus of at least 1. Rebounding bigs had a defensive RPM of at least 1 and a defensive rebounding percentage of at least 20. Playmaker point guards had an offensive RPM of at least 0 and an assist percentage of at least 20.

Sources: NBA.com, basketball-reference.com

The Thunder have had a lot more success finding big men — rebounding defenders like Steven Adams, or players to clean the offensive boards, like Enes Kanter — but such players are far more common than a prototypical 3-and-D guy, and even if they weren’t, a surplus of rebounding isn’t as viable as a surplus of shooting.

Yet while there isn’t an abundance of shooter-defenders, they also aren’t impossible to find for a team that knows where to look. Yes, some like Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and LeBron James are simply good at everything. And some, like Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu, are lottery picks who end up as just role players. But the vast majority of the players who turn out to be 3-and-D studs come from the late-first or second round of the draft, meaning every team has a chance at drafting and developing them. Here are the 20 players who fit the bill this season:

NAME POSITION TEAM DRAFT # 3 POINT % DEFENSIVE REAL +/-
Robert Covington SF Philadelphia 33.3% +4.3
Al-Farouq Aminu SF Portland 8 33.0 +3.2
Thabo Sefolosha SF Atlanta 13 34.2 +2.4
Jimmy Butler SF Chicago 30 36.7 +2.2
Danny Green SG San Antonio 46 37.9 +2.0
Rudy Gay SF Sacramento 8 37.2 +2.0
Andre Iguodala SF Golden State 9 36.2 +1.8
Patrick Beverley SG Houston 42 38.2 +1.6
Victor Oladipo SG Oklahoma City 2 36.1 +1.6
Solomon Hill SF New Orleans 23 34.8 +1.5
Jae Crowder SF Boston 34 39.8 +1.4
Kevin Durant SF Golden State 2 37.5 +1.4
James Ennis III SF Memphis 50 37.2 +1.4
LeBron James SF Cleveland 1 36.3 +1.4
PJ Tucker SF Phoenix/Toronto 35 35.7 +1.4
Trevor Ariza SF Houston 43 34.4 +1.3
Luke Babbitt SF Miami 16 41.4 +1.2
Khris Middleton SG Milwaukee 39 43.3 +1.1
Manu Ginobili SG San Antonio 57 39.2 +1.1
DeMarre Carroll SF Toronto 27 34.1 +1.0
The NBA’s 3-and-D wings, 2016-17

Data includes regular-season games only.

Sources: basketball-reference.com, nba.com

Since the Thunder allowed Thabo Sefolosha to leave via sign-and-trade in 2014, the Thunder have struggled to find perimeter role players who can both shoot from distance and hold their own on defense. This season, Oladipo has taken on Ibaka and Durant’s spacing responsibilities (and beginning next year, much of their salary cap space) while being a worse shooter than either. In past seasons, the Thunder’s meek supporting cast could be somewhat attributed to the luxury of having Durant and Ibaka — both excellent spot-up shooters — which let the Thunder fill out the roster with more specialized (or, to put it less generously, more limited) players thanks to Durant and Westbrook’s versatility. But even that strategy eventually reached its limits late in games, when the Thunder offense would grind down to Durant holding the ball, surrounded by questionable-at-best shooters. And this season the issues have only intensified: The Thunder placed their man on the table above, sure, but only after replacing one of the best players in the league with a baseline role player.

That’s because the few shooters the team has come up with in recent years have all been uniformly bad defenders. Teams can get away with having mediocre defenders who can shoot — think Kevin Love and Channing Frye on the Cavs — but not apocalyptically bad ones. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, the Thunder filled that role with Anthony Morrow, who was the functional counterweight to Andre Roberson, a superb defender who might as well be shooting with his eyes closed. Morrow shot 38.7 from 3 in 2015-16 for the Thunder but was one of the worst defenders in the league, with a defensive RPM of -3.05. This season’s Morrow is Alex Abrines, a 23-year-old out of Spain who shot 38.1 percent from 3 and made the opposing offense 4.3 points better when he was on the court. The maxim might be that a player only needs one elite skill to be useful to an NBA team, but the corollary is that he can’t be among the worst in the league at everything else to be useful to a playoff contender.

These specific deficiencies showed themselves during those late-game panics against the Rockets. The Oklahoma City bench units have been lambasted for their startlingly bad numbers without Westbrook, and the shooters’ inability to play defense is a big reason why. The defense gave up 117.1 points per 100 possessions (-12.1 net) when Abrines shared the floor with Westbrook, and a shocking 147.1 points per 100 (-42.1) when he was paired with Jerami Grant, one of the Thunder’s other sort-of shooters off the bench.

It’s clear that the Thunder roster cannot persist in its current state, and in the first season after losing a player like Durant, certain allowances ought to be made for holes in the team’s roster. But the persistent lack of shooting in Oklahoma City, and the persistent rostering of one-dimensional players in a league run by multidimensional lineups, is reason enough to question whether the problems facing the Thunder are ones the team is capable of overcoming.

Footnotes

  1. These cutoffs are somewhat arbitrary — they’re only meant to broadly capture the essence of the role — but if anything they stand to underestimate the number of players with the skills to perform roles other than 3-and-D. That’s because there’s a theoretically limitless number of players who fit the 3-and-D description, while rebound rate and assist rate are limited by the number of opportunities for a team, so the thresholds wouldn’t pick up a good rebounder like Steven Adams who yields rebounds to Westbrook, or a point guard such as the Spurs’ Patty Mills, who shares time with distributors like Kyle Anderson and Manu Ginobili.

  2. While playing at least 15 minutes per game in 20 or more games.

  3. Defensive RPM of at least 1 and a defensive rebounding percentage of at least 20

  4. Offensive RPM of at least 0 and an assist percentage of at least 20.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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