The Modern Era of Thunder Basketball
July 4th, 2017, may seem like a forgettable date in Thunder history, but it could turn out to be one of the brightest. No, it was not because Oklahoma City signed a marquee free agent — quite the contrary. It’s memorable because the Thunder signed Patrick Patterson and finally began moving into the modern era of basketball.
Former Thunder fan-favorite Serge Ibaka long held the reins at starting power forward in Oklahoma City, but was never the true floor-stretching big the Thunder needed to keep up with an evolving NBA landscape. While he did expand his mid-range shot to the three point line, it came at the expense of his field goal percentage around the rim — yielding him a fairly one dimensional option.
After trading Ibaka for floor-stretching veteran Ersan Ilyasova, two-way project Victor Oladipo, and newly drafted swiss army knife Domantas Sabonis, the Thunder was left with two power forwards who were floor stretching bigs in theory, but they were never great fits. Sabonis too young to be a consistent threat, and Ilyasova too old and unathletic to fit the mold. But even with a flawed roster, Thunder GM Sam Presti pushed forward with his vision.
Despite leading the media and fanbase on a “summer of internal development” goose chase, Presti swung Oladipo and Sabonis for superstar small forward Paul George. This, combined Taj Gibson signing a two-year deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves, meant the Thunder was without a starting power forward — or really any power forward at all. That’s when Presti reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out career 3-and-D stretch-four, Patrick Patterson.
But what does this all mean in the grand scheme of things? From a team building standpoint, the Thunder is now in the luxury tax, but is inarguably better than last season. In any normal year this roster might be the title favorite, but with Houston adding Chris Paul, San Antonio adding Rudy Gay, and Golden State getting cheaper and somehow better, the Thunder is likely the fourth best team in the Western Conference.
Presti is far from done with this roster, but let’s forget about the front office talk and look at a few interesting on-court results the Thunder is going to experience.
Along with George, Patterson is going to fundamentally change the way the Thunder plays. They’re going to push OKC into the modern age of basketball by providing three point shooting and defensive versatility — a combination the Thunder has long searched for.
With 2Pat and PG-13, Russell Westbrook will experience more freedom to work as a facilitator. Nick Sciria of Nylon Calculus did the grunt work to prove this with his Spacing Rating model he charted. Unsurprisingly, last year’s playoff starting five (Russ-Dipo-Roberson-Taj-Adams) ranked dead last in the league at 0.0 percent spacing. Swapping Taj and Oladipo with George and Patterson bumps the Thunder from the bottom, to league average with a 50 percent Spacing Rating. For more on the methodology and how the rest of the league ranks, check out Nick’s article here.
Russell Westbrook Will Be Better
What Russ did last season should be appreciated because he produced one of the greatest efforts ever in an offense that played to his weaknesses. But not only should we appreciate last season more, we should also be prepared for an even better season from the Brodie — perhaps not in raw statistics, but rather in efficiency.
He is no longer without help, and a contested Russ three is no longer a good shot for the Oklahoma City offense. Look for Westbrook to pull back from the 7.2 3PA a game and settle back into the 4-5 3PA sweet spot. With space, he will be able to take fewer contested shots and get to the rim more.
According to Basketball-Reference, 29 percent of Westbrook’s field goal attempts were within 0-3 feet of the basket, and 30 percent were from the three-point line. Those numbers are down and up respectively from his 37 percent and 23 percent split from 2015-2016, and should return to previous form with the addition of George.
When it’s all said and done, Russ could very well earn both the scoring and the assist titles next season. He was a historically inefficient MVP, but was second in the league in Potential Assists (assist opportunities squandered by a missed shot, foul, or TO) at 19.6 per game. With an improved roster full of shooters and athletes, his assist numbers should increase naturally as the better players make open shots that lesser players missed last season.
The PG-13 Solution
Paul George may have fixed the point differential problem OKC faced all of last season. Without a serviceable backup point guard, or any type of outside playmaker, the Thunder was absolutely dreadful when Russ was off the floor. In the playoffs, the Thunder was +4.9 per 100 possessions with him on the floor. When he sat, the team was -51.3 per 100 possessions. That’s a real number, folks — the Thunder was outscored by 51.3 points per 100 possessions in only 46 minutes of Brodie-less postseason basketball.
With an All-Star talent in George, the Thunder can now stagger the Westbrook/George minutes so that OKC almost always has a star on the floor to keep the team steady. George is a versatile scorer and an All-Defense level talent. He can score coming off screens (19 percent of his scoring last season), as a pick-and-roll ball handler (17.5 percent), in isolation (17.5 percent), and he’s no stranger to getting buckets in transition (11.8 percent).
His versatility should be enough to allow Enes Kanter and Raymond Felton to have the ball in their hands as PG13 plays off ball, but he’s also comfortable taking over the game and playing as a point forward. Westbrook water breaks should no longer be the stuff of nightmares.
Paul George and Patrick Patterson are two players that analytics really like. George had a 2.59 RPM in the 2016-2017 season, which put him 11th among small forwards and 37th overall in the league. This was down over two full points from his 2015-2016 campaign where he had a 4.93 RPM — good for 4th among SFs and 13th in the entire league. George’s true self is somewhere closer to his ’15-16 season, as he took a lot of last season off on defense. Now on a top four team in the Western Conference, he has motivation and another superstar to keep him accountable for laziness (and vice versa).
On the other hand, Patterson had a “bad” season by most accounts, but managed to rank 9th in RPM among Power Forwards with a 2.31 RPM. Unlike most players from the Thunder roster the past couple seasons, Patterson can be a plus player on both sides of the ball. Per Josh Lewenberg of TSN.ca, Toronto was +1004 with Patterson on the court over the past three seasons, -38 when he sat — reason enough for Thunder fans to get excited.
Golden State South?
With the signing of Patterson and trading for George, the Thunder finally has the players to correctly pull off a five-out lineup. Consider the Spacing Rating from earlier — with the Thunder’s new starting lineup, the team would have had a Spacing Rating of 50 percent last season. If OKC wishes to experience maximum spacing while still being a plus defensive lineup, they could trot out Russ-Abrines-George-Grant-Patterson. This lineup not only involves three plus defenders (George, Grant, and Patterson), but has a Spacing Rating of 95 percent! That’s only 5 percent lower than Golden State’s Death Ball unit and higher than the Rockets best shooting lineup last season by 0.1 percent.
This could be fun.
Ushering in a New Era
While George may only be a one year rental, at the very minimum he is bringing OKC out of a salary cap nightmare and will provide one heck of an exciting season. I am more optimistic than most in regards to George re-signing, but that’s partially due to my own desire to see modern basketball become the norm in Oklahoma City. As the Gandalf of Oklahoma, Sam Presti, said of George, “His skill set is dynamic and at the forefront of the evolution of the game.“
With Paul George and Patrick Patterson officially on the Thunder roster, fans should expect a new age of basketball in OKC. The organization has embraced basketball’s evolution, and finally has a roster that reflects it.
I can’t wait to see it in action.