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The Theory of Change for the Thunder

The Theory of Change for the Thunder
AP Photo

AP Photo

ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe published a deep dive look at the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday as part of his weekly column. If you haven’t read it yet, set aside some give it a look. Out of the material presented in the column, some of them may be seen as bitter pills that have to be swollowed, but there’s a lot of optimism in there.

A matter of perspective

Being from Dallas and observing the Mavericks for as long as I did, the Thunder were a team I noticed and kept an eye on. I certainly admired them from afar. It’s been interesting watching the development of the Thunder from the perspective of being Dallas’ playoff opponent over the last handful of years. They were the team that made it to the Conference Finals, on the cusp of greatness, but just weren’t quite ready back in 2011 when the veteran-led Mavericks won the title. The next year, OKC had continuity, youth, and a little more experience on their side. The end result saw them thoroughly decimate Dallas en route to a 4-0 series sweep in the opening round. That series marked the only time that a team led by Dirk Nowitzki had been swept in a seven-game series. Facing the Mavericks, learning from them, and growing in part by facing them proved to be the launching pad for the franchise.

Going from watching the Mavericks to watching the Thunder on a regular basis is like going from watching a play to going to a rock show. That’s not a knock on the Thunder. Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league and has orchestrated one of the more efficient and fluid offenses the league has seen (more on Billy Donovan later). The Mavericks are also more of a slower-paced team. Going from that to seeing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook running the floor like gazelles has been quite the jolt to my eyes.

Despite that athleticism and speed, the previous incarnation of the Thunder, with Scott Brooks as the head coach, was constantly knocked by observers for their vanilla-like offense. Some would say there still isn’t that much there now. Durant certainly disagrees with that notion.

Looking at the Thunder with more of an observant eye, one thing I’ve noticed is that this certainly feels like Westbrook’s team than Durant’s. The two feed off of each other, and each individual’s mere presence on the floor is enough to completely alter the way opponents approach defending each player. Their gravity is incredible.

Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat head coach, commented about the concept of gravity when it came to trying to guard Dirk during the 2011 Finals. He mentioned that each player has varying degrees of gravity and they pull, bend defenses to different degrees. With Dirk’s size and ability to space the floor, his gravity was off the charts. Both Westbrook and Durant are able to do this but in their own unique ways. Durant’s way is much more similiar to Dirk’s, while Westbrook almost likens more to LeBron James. Okay, pick your jaw off the keyboard and try and follow me here.

LeBron is absolutely impossible to stop when he’s charging on the break. On top of that, he’s an all-around threat as a rebounder and creator. Westbrook hasn’t developed the consistency in range that LeBron established over his career (and has subtly deteriorated), but he’s still carved out a stop-on-a-dime elbow jumper.

According to NBA.com/Stats and their tracking, Westbrook is a beast in transition. According to them, transition is when the possession-ending event comes before the defense sets following a possession change and a transition from one end of the court to the other. Westbrook has 206 field goal attempts in transition and 360 points scored in transition. Both of those numbers lead the league.

Westbrook has taken his game to new heights as Durant has continued to be a threat to score the minute he steps onto the floor. The fact that the Thunder possess two players that command gravity like they do does so much to their offense. Back to saying this is Westbrook’s team. On Wednesday, ESPN.com posed the question on who the real MVP for the Thunder is.

Those statistics could be misrepresented, but Lowe cited some great usage statistics in his column. What he shared certainly backed up what the eye test has displayed. Westbrook ranks third the league in usage rate; Durant is 13th. On average, Westbrook records 76.2 frontcourt touches per game, compared to just 49.7 for Durant, per NBA.com/Stats and their player tracking data.

A potential changing of the pecking order in OKC could really impact the future of the organization (more on that later). To his credit, Durant has never voiced displeasure about the possible perception that dissention is present with Westbrook. Though it was in reference to playing at Madison Square Garden recently, you get a sense that Durant doesn’t get caught up in potential hangups such as this shift in OKC’s paradigm on offense.

The infrastructure

I’m still getting a feel for Sam Presti and the organization as a whole. One of the things that the Mavericks had working for them was the fact they had a clear chain of command and vision at the top of the organization. While the roster was turning over year after year, the likes of Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, Rick Carlisle, and Dirk Nowitzki have been fixtures. With those pieces at the top, things always seem to find a way to sort themselves out, even when things suggest it won’t work out.

The Thunder succeed where the Mavericks have ultimately failed: finding young talent that show promise and work to develop them. There are growing pains that go along with that, but the Mavericks have had their own issues when it comes to finding those supporting players that have their best basketball still ahead of them.

I’ve had a hard time getting a grasp on Billy Donovan as a coach. He’s already playing from behind, mainly due to Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors. Plenty of people are going to see the results a first-year coach had and instantly assume that Donovan is capable of the same thing. While he is capable of coaching a team to a championship, irrational nature comes into play when people expect or demand that Donovan follows that trejectory. On the surface, it seems like Donovan tries to show he is an authority with coaching when he talks to the media. Either that, or he doesn’t realize he’s extremely long-winded with his answers. It also feels like he has been falling into the same habits when it comes to substitution patterns, mainly for Durant and Westbrook. I often wondered if the front office wanted him to maintain the status quo for the time being as he continued to get acclimated to the NBA style of play. It’s either that or the players are telling him that they prefer to keep things the way they’ve been.

Faults or not, he deserves credit for creating sets that are incredibly hard to defend.

(h/t to Anthony Slater, NewsOK.com)

There’s so much misdirection going on in this play. The Thunder can create mismatches when Durant receives the ball from Steven Adams. Once that happens, that freezes the defense. In that moment, Westbrook decides it’s time for a footrace to the paint. When there’s a footrace with Westbrook, you’re more than likely going to lose. It becomes unfair when he decides when the race is going to start, which is what he does here. This is just a great play they can run in just about any scenario.

(h/t to Anthony Slater, NewsOK.com)

Lowe referenced how there are times where Adams looks like Tyson Chandler. This was how the Mavericks were destroying teams last season prior to the Rajon Rondo deal. Whether it was Chandler, Brandan Wright, name your big man and point guard, the Mavericks were able to create instant death via lob passes. This is what you can do to create scoring opportunities for a big man who still needs refinement with his post moves. The opposition simply has to give something up. There isn’t a defense in the world that can shut everything down. Here, the opposition is giving up their defense in the paint at the expense of guarding Westbrook on the perimeter. Westbrook has the facilitating skills to find Adams. The biggest change this season is that Adams has developed more on offense. Sure, this is nothing more than #AdamsSmash but it shows he has the hands, body control, and footwork to be an aggressive rim roller.

What’s scary is that when a skilled defense tries to counter and come to protect the rim from the weak side, Westbrook still can make the right play. If you notice, Tayshaun Prince is stuck in no-man’s land. If he committed to Adams, that leaves KEVIN FREAKING DURANT open on the corner. Westbrook is more than capable to make that pass. Again, a solid set play.

The island

Speaking of the corner, that brings us to the conundrum the Thunder could be facing with Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters. Roberson’s 3-and-D skill set is a great fit within OKC’s system, but he still struggles with his shooting. Teams are willing to give things up on defense, and they’re willing to give up the most dangerous perimeter shot in the league because Roberson hasn’t shown sustained consistency with it.

Waiters has filled in for Roberson while he’s rocovering from a sprained right knee. Waiters has been the most puzzling player I’ve witnessed in quite some time. He has the skills to be quite an amazing player, but he never seems to really find his footing. It does appear, though, that Waiters might be gaining some traction playing alongside the starters. Offensively, Waiters is shooting 37.9 percent on corner 3s this season. Roberson is shooting just 34.8 percent with 20 fewer attempts. Waiters’ percentage are up from last season where he shot 33.6 percent on corner 3s. On top of that, he’s been able to hold his own in terms of defensive assignments. Whether it’s guarding the likes of Arron Afflalo, Andrew Wiggins, or James Harden, Waiters has actually defended the opposition well. Maybe more responsibility and more attention to detail defensively has allowed him to produced more streamlined results on offense. Simply put, when Waiters is engaged in the game, he’s quite an added dimension for the team. This stretch of play will force Donovan to decide whether this adjustment to the starting lineup due to injury is either temporary or permanent.

What lies ahead

On paper, Oklahoma City sounds like a team that is in a tremendous situation. They’ve got two superstars, supporting players that are still either young or relatively young and are showing signs of getting better, and a young coach who appears to be finding his way at the highest level. It sounds promising, but there’s the looming threat of time hovering around the franchise. Durant is going to be a free agent this upcoming summer. Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will be free agents next summer. While Durant and Westbrook are still “young,” they’ve heard for the last five years that they are a team that’s primed to be a title contender yet they don’t have a ring. It’s tough to win a championship, and luck hasn’t always been on their side. Be that as it may, results are what are going to matter.

Durant is going to have to carefully decide what his next move will be. He’ll obviously want to take into account who his teammates will be. There aren’t many current combinations around the league that are going to be that much more appealing to play alongside than the ones he’s currently with. Sure, Serge Ibaka hasn’t been the same player this year, but you could do a heck of a lot worse than him as your third running mate.

There is the looming threat that the Warriors could be motivated to try to pursue Durant in free agency, thus creating an attack on offense that would be apocolyptic for the opposition. There are things to consider though for those worried: Durant is Durant, but Golden State is pretty damn good right now. If they’re poised to be a back-to-back champion, would they really want to potentially mess with a good thing in order to try to bring Durant in? It could be messed up regardless in free agency for the Warriors, but does bringing him in make things better or worse? The Warriors could simply just decide that taking a valuable weapon from the opposition is worth the risk. Then again, it’s up to Durant if he wants to leave OKC or not. No matter what other teams do in terms of working through salary cap gymnastics to create cap space, Durant could opt to stay with OKC for at least one more season.

The Thunder have quietly established a 38-13 record this season. In most seasons, that record would have them be the focal point of the NBA universe. Instead, they float under the radar and look ahead. The calendar does bring two things into focus. There are concerns with the fact that OKC is still trying to figure out their best five-man lineup they can roll out on a consistent basis. Then again, it’s still just February. No matter how things are looking right now, you want to prepare in order to be hitting your stride and playing your best brand of basketball in April. The other thing to note is that after hearing about how great the Warriors are, the Thunder are finally going to get a chance to share the floor with them and do so quiet often. The schedule shows that the Thunder will square off against the Warriors a total of three times over the next month. That will provide a lithmus test for the Thunder and allow them to see what they need to work on.

It all boils down to the fact that OKC needs to use the next few months to set themselves up to be healthy and hitting their peak as the playoffs approach. That’s all they can do. Once you do that, you let the chips fall where they may. Injuries happen in the playoffs, so someone on Golden State tweaking their ankle or hamstring could create a wide open pursuit to the championship.

The Thunder most definitely want to avoid becoming a never-was. That is a threat that is staring them right in the eyes of the court of public opinion. Before getting there, OKC assumes a different title. Like Lowe said, after years of being assumed to be in the thick of being in the championship conversation, the Thunder are now relegated to underdog status. That’s a role where the Mavericks ultimately thrived. While it’s a different mindset and approach, an “us-against-the-world” mentality certainly holds some value if the Thunder want to embrace that.