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The Thunder’s Problems Are Fixable

We’re only one-fifth of the way through the NBA season, but for those of you scoring at home, the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks — teams that acknowledged they’d be rebuilding after failing to make it work with their all-star forwards — have better records than reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were expected to be contenders after their blockbuster trades for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.

Just as mind-boggling: Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in Indiana and Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott in New York — swapped for George and Anthony — are outplaying the big names they replaced, a notion that’s becoming harder to ignore as the season wears on.

All of which raises two key questions: What are the Thunder doing wrong, and what fixes are needed to solidify the team as a top challenger to the Warriors out West?

At the start of the season, the conventional wisdom suggested that the Thunder would be among the league’s most dominant offenses while sporting a mediocre defense. But the opposite has been true: The defense is doing the heavy lifting while OKC’s ball-dominant stars figure out how to not only coexist, but also thrive as a trio.

Only a few possessions into the Thunder’s season-opener, against the Knicks, the team’s dazzling defensive ability was on display.

When its defense is set, the club can force several extra passes by rotating seamlessly, forcing the opposing team to string out possessions.1 With perhaps the NBA’s two best perimeter defenders (George and Andre Roberson) and a physical rim protector (Steven Adams), the Thunder — who rank third overall in defensive efficiency — will likely be among the stingiest, most disruptive defensive clubs all season.

But as games drag on, that defensive dominance often fades. Oklahoma City leads the league by a country mile in defense in the first quarter, surrendering just 84.5 points per 100 possessions. But that number falls off with each additional period, going from 99.1 in the second quarter (fourth in the league) to 104.5 in the third (18th) to 109.8 in the fourth (24th). It increases to a whopping 147.7 in clutch situations, when games are within 5 points during the final five minutes of play (dead-last in the league).

One key reason this happens: The aggressive defense that the Thunder use doesn’t work as well once Billy Donovan starts putting in backups, who lack the length and athleticism that the starters have. Oklahoma City relies heavily on switches — when players swap defensive assignments on the fly in hopes of neutralizing the opposing team’s pick-and-roll strategy — a scheme that functions fine when the first group is on the floor. But the slightest change, like Raymond Felton spelling Westbrook or Alex Abrines checking in for standout defender Roberson, can throw things out of whack.

Notice, in the video below, how Felton opts to switch instead of staying with San Antonio’s Patty Mills. The swap leaves the 6-foot-1 Felton covering Rudy Gay, who is 7 inches taller — a mismatch that the Spurs immediately attack: Pau Gasol throws a lob to Gay over Felton’s outstretched arm.

Another issue: Oklahoma City’s starting unit becomes an offensive liability in late-game scenarios if the team is behind. The group struggles to create good looks for itself in the closing minutes of contests, partly because of how teams are able to ignore Roberson, one of the NBA’s worst shooters. Watch here, in the final eight minutes of a tight game with the Clippers, as Roberson is left alone at the 3-point line — he doesn’t even look at the basket before passing the ball. Defenders don’t even bother to follow him out there; he is a career 26 percent shooter from deep and is 49 percent from the line.

Yet the biggest question facing the Thunder at the moment is the obvious one: Can all three of the team’s star scorers play together, or are they doomed to function as three individuals who wear the same jersey?

George and Anthony were brought in to ease Westbrook’s burden — last season, the Thunder were largely a one-man show on offense and Westbrook broke the single-season usage rate record — and to give a club that couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn2 some reliable shooting.

But unlike the teams in the West they’re chasing — the Warriors, Spurs and Rockets — the Thunder aren’t synchronized on offense yet. Data from Second Spectrum highlights that Oklahoma City throws fewer passes than any other NBA team. And the club leads the league in isolation rate, according to Synergy Sports Technology, meaning that Thunder players go 1-on-1 more frequently than members of any other team. Each member of Oklahoma City’s star trio essentially takes the same number of shots each game, a rationing that would be great if it didn’t look as though Westbrook were harnessing his offense to make it that way. (Donovan suggested that Westbrook’s struggles this season stem from his trying too hard to make his new teammates feel at ease.)

This isn’t the end of the world for the Thunder. Their 7-9 record is underwhelming, but their net rating and point differential suggest that they should have about three or four more wins than they do — a sign that things may begin to break their way. Beyond that, there’s some precedent to suggest they will be fine.

The 2010-11 Miami Heat club that united LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had some things in common with this season’s Oklahoma City team. In addition to boasting a top-10 defense, the Miami trio struggled to play off one another until closer to the middle of that season.

James, for instance, shot worse when Wade was on the court, and Wade shot poorly when sharing the floor with James. Both players shot better when playing with Bosh, but Bosh’s shooting declined when playing alongside either of his star teammates. (Anthony shoots far worse when playing with either George or Westbrook; Westbrook shoots considerably worse with George and slightly worse with Anthony; George shoots slightly better when playing with either one of his teammates.) For Miami, the trends began easing toward the end of 2010, and the Heat ended up making a run to the finals.

The Thunder are probably banking that some of the offensive woes — Westbrook, Anthony and free-agent signing Patrick Patterson are all shooting career-worsts from the field — will fix themselves. But other methods might help the team’s ball movement and create better looks. Westbrook and Anthony have enjoyed huge success in 1-4 pick-and-roll sets (1.15 points per direct screen, according to Second Spectrum3) and could turn to that more frequently. And it’s worth watching to see whether Donovan, who has implemented a handful of misdirection screen sets that involve all three stars (or just two when one is taking a breather), dials up more handoffs to get the players going downhill more often — a play type that the Thunder have used sparingly so far this season.

It’s still a bit too early to panic about the Thunder, even if they are playing sub-.500 ball and dropping close games. Based on what we’ve seen from their defense, if and when their offense gets going, it should transform them into the contender so many people thought they’d be this season.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Going into Wednesday’s games, opposing teams took a little more than 18 seconds, on average, to complete a possession against the Thunder defense after a made basket, according to advanced-stats site Inpredictable — tied for the NBA’s third-highest mark.

  2. Even when Thunder players were left wide open last season — meaning 6 feet of space or more — they only made 32.5 percent of their 3-point attempts. That was the worst mark in the NBA.

  3. The league average on such plays is 0.92 points.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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