It’s difficult to discern whether the Thunder’s 148-124 victory over the Cavaliers on Saturday was more indicative of the Thunder’s recent offensive progression, or of the Cavs’ total defensive meltdown. Well okay, not really. The Cavs defense is a mess.
But one unescapable fact is this: when Oklahoma City’s offense works, the team wins. Take the most basic statistic of all, without any need for advanced metrics or fancy splits. When the Thunder scores 100 points, the record is 22-9. When it doesn’t, the record is 4-11.
This teaches us two very clear lessons: In order to win, the team needs to play at a face pace, and they need to be hitting shots.
Ok, duh. That second point seems obvious right? Basketball, after all, is a game decided by whichever team scores more points, which they do by making shots. But if you’ve seen the Thunder play for most of this season, you know that the team has struggled at times with this simple task. This is not a great outside shooting team, or even a good one. The Thunder ranks 24th in the league in mid-range shooting percentage, 25th in corner three percentage, and 19th in total three-point percentage.
While we’ll probably never be able to solve the mystery of players who are proven to be good shooters missing most of their shots (as Westbrook, George, and Anthony have all taken turns doing this season), some of the issue is roster construction. Alex Abrines continues to warm the bench, and Andre Roberson’s (much-needed) return has sent Terrance Ferguson back to a reserve role, leaving very few true catch-and-shoot floor spacers on the floor at any given time.
However, there have been spurts where the Thunder has impressed from behind the three-point arc. In the case of Saturday’s win over Cleveland (14 made threes), even a full game. When OKC does, the offense is practically unstoppable and the team is practically unbeatable.
Again, it seems like a pretty straightforward observation but the difference is shocking.
The Thunder averages 10.4 threes per game. When that can be bumped up to 12 made threes, a.k.a. a good perimeter shooting game, the record is 12-5 on the year (14-15 without). Aside from the extra points, the benefits are immense. More floor spacing, faster pace, and intangibly but undeniably more fun.
I get all that. And I do think that if the Thunder can be a more effective and consistent shooting team, the ceiling is raised several notches. But that’s not even my point.
Does anything else even matter anymore? With the Rockets shooting 43.1 three-point attempts per game, with Trae Young firing up 20 threes by himself in Saturday’s Bedlam matchup in the college ranks, it seems as though all of basketball is being reduced down to just one skill. In my humble opinion, it’s basketball perversion.
If you carry over the 12+ Threes Made Test to the rest of the league, you’ll find that teams that have hit 12+ threes are 278-180. That’s including games from all of the worst teams in the league, playing at winning percentage that would give them the seventh best record in the entire league, fighting for a two-seed in the east and a four-seed in the west. The Lakers and Pacers aren’t exactly powerhouses, but they’d combine for 19-4. The Raptors are 17-1 by themselves. Three-point shooting frequency and effectiveness are rewarded handsomely in equal measure.
It’s unfortunate really, when you think about the amount of skills that are involved in a given basketball game. Dribbling, passing, defensive positioning, rebounding. The list goes on and on. And don’t get me wrong, teams still need to do those things, but the statistical value of this one skill, three-point shooting, is simply overpowering at the moment.
In the current environment, there are really only three skills: 1) Ability to shoot and make threes, 2) Ability to generate more threes for teammates, and 3) Ability to stop opponents from making threes.
All of the Thunder players can be evaluated and compared accordingly. For example, Steven Adams is exceptional in factor two because of his screens, ability to create more possessions by grabbing offensive rebounds, and causing defenses to contract because of his rolls to the basket, which more than makes up for a lack of factor one, especially when adjusted by position. Abrines is good in factor one, but not so much in two and three. And so on.
There’s no way to “fix” this, and I don’t even know if it could be categorized as a problem. It’s simply the reality.
Yet the Thunder appears to be one of the teams choosing to fight back against the winds of change. Sure, it’s working for the Spurs, but that franchise is an outlier in essentially every way. I’m not sure the Thunder is good enough to fight against opponents and math. That’s sad.
I hope they prove us all wrong. Not just for their sake, or for the sake of my fandom, but for the sake of the sport of basketball as a whole.
Is that too dramatic?