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The Starters: How the Thunder first five has become a menacing lineup

The Starters: How the Thunder first five has become a menacing lineup
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

It’s funny thinking back to the summer, a time when Thunder fans collectively freaked out about how awful OKC’s starting lineup was likely to be in 2014-15. Oops.

The Thunder starters, bolstered by the additions of Steven Adams and Andre Roberson, are demolishing teams this year. The group is outscoring opponents by 34.5 points per 100 possessions (118.3 offensive rating, 83.8 defensive rating), the best mark of any NBA lineup that’s logged at least 75 minutes.

That dominance stretches beyond just this season. The group saw 62 minutes last year and produced at similarly impressive levels. Just north of 150 minutes is still a small sample, but it’s enough to form at least one conclusion: This year’s starting lineup is awesome.

The offense is what really stands out. OKC has mostly seen cupcake defenses over the past few weeks (just two of the teams they’ve faced—the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers—are above league-average on that end). But scoring at best-of-all-time levels is tough to do regardless of competition. Doing so while lugging around a wing who shoots five percent from 3 is borderline miraculous.

The starters are playing at a bottom-five pace, but that number is misleading. It’s more a testament to their suffocating defense than anything else. The group is actually getting out in transition a ton.

On a per minute basis, just a handful of lineups score more fastbreak points than OKC’s starters do. Only one of those lineups (a Phoenix Suns group) plays at such a slow tempo. Some of those points come off turnovers, but Russell Westbrook is still looking to run every chance he gets.

At first, it looked like Westbrook was just jazzed to be healthy and back on the court (and that could still be the case, as the Thunder are mostly playing at insane speeds when he’s out there). But I’m beginning to suspect that running to this extent is actually a preplanned strategy—a way to use the team’s natural athletic advantage while limiting the damage Roberson can do in the half-court.

Roberson is a terrible offensive player, and opponents are clearly aware of that at this point. Defenders will leave him and roam the rest of the court with no hesitation. Against Phoenix, Gerald Green blatantly ignored a Roberson clear out and blew up a play intended for Kevin Durant.


Limiting stuff like that is obviously important, as is the potential defensive rebounding boost the Thunder gets from running. Teams aren’t quite so eager to throw their wings and guards at the offensive glass when it might result in Westbrook running it down their throats at the other end.

Thanks in no small part to their work in transition, the starters are living at the rim. Half the group’s shot attempts are coming in the paint, per nbawowy! (which hasn’t yet been updated to include the Sacramento Kings game), and they’re drawing fouls at a big clip because of it.

They’re also killing it on the glass, pulling down 41.9 percent of their misses. That tops every other 75-plus minute NBA lineup by a comfortable margin. Adams has been an animal, and Serge Ibaka and Roberson are also grabbing their fair share of boards.

Defensively, the group has been predictably smothering. It’s posting the highest defensive rating in the league among big-minute lineups, and opponents are shooting poorly from virtually every spot on the floor, per nbawowy!.

When watching these guys play defense, I can’t help but think that this is what Sam Presti has been building toward all these years. It’s the ideal Presti lineup, with tons of length and elite athletes at every position. There are still some kinks to work out—Adams in particular is still figuring out the nuances of hedging and retreating back to his man—but even so, they’re stifling.

Opponents are shooting just 44 percent at the rim against the starters and have had to settle for a massive amount of mid-range jumpers (most of which they’re missing, per nbawowy!). If there’s one nit to pick, it’s that the group is allowing 34.5 percent shooting from three, a roughly average mark. But they’re so good at packing the paint and running potential shooters off the three-point line that it’s easily forgiven.

One play against Sacramento was particularly impressive. With about 7:40 left in the fourth quarter, Darren Collison split a Westbrook-Adams double and had the defense scrambling. He got Durant to bite on a fake to a Ben McLemore, and dished it to Rudy Gay, who was beyond wide open in the corner. Somehow, Roberson—who had picked up Collison on the drive—managed to loop around the paint and contest the shot, which Gay missed.

It’s almost unfair that, just by virtue of their length and athleticism, the Thunder can erase mistakes that would cripple almost any other team.

The big question is, of course, whether any of this is sustainable. The defense almost assuredly is. It likely won’t keep up quite this pace (they’re fouling at suspiciously low levels), but the starters will be one of the league’s best defensive groups all season.

As for the offense…maybe. Obviously this type of production is way out of reach, but they could at least be quite good. It all comes down to Westbrook.

Westbrook has rampaged through defenses all season, and the way he’s doing it is encouraging. He’s punted away the three-pointers and is attacking the rim (and getting to the line) relentlessly.

(Sidebar: I have no way to back this up, but it feels like Westbrook has been Eurostepping more this season. I love it. He’s not crafty at navigating through the paint with it like James Harden was, but when he has room to work with, he’s petrifying. Watch how he staples Gorgui Dieng to the floor for an easy layup. Fun stuff.)


Even the jumpers Westbrook is taking are closer than usual, many of them a product of the post game he’s leaning on more this season. He’s never taken close to this few shots from between 16 feet and the three-point line, per Basketball-Reference.

Those are all encouraging signs. But none of them are new. Westbrook’s had a stretch like this before. In February of 2012-13, he abandoned his jumper in favor of more drives to the rim, putting up 28-7-4 per 36 minutes on 60 percent true shooting. In March, he abandoned all that, and his true shooting fell to a more typical 53 percent.

Only time will tell if Westbrook’s turned a shot selection corner. But even if he hasn’t, the Thunder starters appear poised to destroy the league this season.

Thursday’s game against the Golden State Warriors should be a great measuring stick for the starters, their first test against a truly good defense. Even without Andrew Bogut, the Warriors are tough defensively, ranking fourth overall in the time he’s missed. Golden State has athletes on the wing, they’re willing to switch on almost everything and they can hide their only poor defender (Stephen Curry) on Roberson.

Regardless of what happens Thursday, the OKC starters are likely going to spend the better part of this year terrorizing opponents. The group we all spent months agonizing over has grown into the Thunder’s best lineup, a vicious defensive squad that has—to this point—been every bit as good on the offensive end. Sometimes, basketball is the best.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com unless stated otherwise