After the riveting win over the Golden State Warriors last Wednesday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder dropped a home game to the Detroit Pistons, and followed it up with two road losses against the Dallas Mavericks and the Orlando Magic — both teams with losing records.
The win over the Warriors was supposed to be a watershed moment for the team — the catalyst to turn the season around. It was proof the Thunder could not only compete with the league’s elite, but also run them out of the building. But that’s not what has happened. If anything, the Thunder has looked worse now than before.
Frustration is brewing, culminating with Russell Westbrook sitting at the end of the bench after the Magic game, utterly dejected after a third-straight defeat.
But what’s wrong with this team? Loaded with talent, why is Oklahoma City three games below .500? In an effort to diagnose some of the problems, I’m straying from the typical Week in Review format to give you seven things killing the Thunder.
Two intertwined issues constantly plague the Thunder — a heavy dependence on isolation plays and terrible shot selection.
This is play against the Pistons is indicative of the problem. Westbrook feeds the ball to Anthony, who’s posting up his defender. Watch the rest of the team. The only person moving is Steven Adams, who’s moving to get into position for a rebound. Everyone knows Anthony is going to take a jumper.
A post-up is not a bad play, and Anthony is a great scorer — so a Melo post-up is not necessarily a bad play. What is bad, however, is an obvious post-up with no secondary action. There is no pressure on the defense. There are no cuts to defend. There is no reason to send a double, because it’s not difficult to contest this shot. The only one really getting into position for a rebound is Adams. Everyone else is just standing there waiting for Anthony to take a contested shot in the hopes it goes in. This happens several times a game.
With three talented scorers, the Thunder’s offense is too often relegated to “my turn, your turn.” This results in far too many shots not occurring organically. As a result, the Thunder ranks dead last in the NBA in points coming off an assist.
Which leads me to the related issue about shot selection. Isolation plays routinely end in pull-up jumpers, which are rarely good shots. The Thunder takes about a billion pull-up jumpers per game (actually 26, which is a lot!), and shoots just 35 percent on them. Basically, the Thunder uses one-third of the shots on low-percentage looks that typically come out of isolation sets.
Oh and where is the Thunder taking these shots from? Way too often, just inside the three-point line. In fact, four percent of all shot attempts have come in the 2-4 foot area inside the arc. A very long two is about the worst shot you can take.
Part of it is poor decision making (I’m looking at you, Melo), but part of it is also poor play design. Such as this play:
Steven Adams sets a solid screen. George gets open, but his shot is from 21 feet. There is no reason this exact same play can’t be pushed back another three feet to generate a three-point shot rather than a long two.
On top of this, the Thunder does a terrible job of getting into the paint. The Thunder is near the bottom of the league in points in the paint, which is just insane when you consider that Westbrook and George are two of the premier penetrators in the league — along with Adams who is a lob-party waiting to happen.
Oh by the way, if you were excited about the Warriors win — don’t be. The Thunder’s defense was incredible, but the offensive execution was as bad as any other game — the only difference being that shots fell. On the season, one-third of the Thunder’s shots have been pull-up jumpers. Against the Warriors, that rate shot up to 40 percent. Oklahoma City converted a whopping 44 percent of those attempts, compared to 36 percent on the season.
The Thunder has done an incredible job of forcing turnovers and creating points off turnovers, leading the league in those categories. Turnovers are great, because not only does your opponent not get a shot attempt, but you can also run out in transition if it’s a live-ball turnover. The Thunder is among the league’s best in fast-break points, which is wonderful!
But when the Thunder isn’t creating transition opportunities off turnovers, the team runs a stagnant, stalled offense (see above). More than 18 percent of the Thunder’s shot opportunities come with less than seven seconds to go on the shot clock, and the Thunder is shooting just 37 percent on those attempts. That indicates the team is not using the shot clock to generate good shot attempts. The Warriors, on the other hand, take less than 14 percent of their shots with less than seven seconds to go, and when they do, they shoot 57 percent. So, if the Warriors are draining the clock, it’s because they are typically generating a better shot. But if the Thunder is draining the clock, it’s usually to hoist a contested 20-footer off the dribble.
It’s mind-boggling that with all the offensive talent on the roster, the Thunder ranks 17th in the league in pace, basically running a grinding offense designed to create mid-range pull-up jumpers off isolation sets (for some perspective, the Thunder was 8th in the league last season in pace).
Late Game Execution
Another topic that has been discussed ad nauseum has been the Thunder’s late game execution. In games decided by less than ten points, the Thunder is 1-7, and in games with a scoring margin of five points or less within the final five minutes, the Thunder is 1-9 — aka “clutch time.”
Late in games, the Thunder tends to revert to its worst habits — namely isolation. A whopping 69 percent of the Thunder’s points come unassisted in clutch time, and far too many attempts come off plays like this:
I know I’m picking on Carmelo Anthony, but this play is such a good (bad?) example of all that’s wrong with the Thunder’s crunch-time offense. In a one-possession game, with less than two minutes to go, the Thunder isolates Anthony on the wing. Sure, he’s got the mismatch, but even on a mismatch, is a 20-foot contested turnaround jumper really the best shot? A total waste of a possession when possessions are at a premium.
I wrote a bit about this last week, but if the items mentioned above didn’t make it clear, the Thunder has an offensive problem more than a defensive problem. However, great defense can hide or mitigate the detriment of bad offense. The Thunder is one of the league’s elite defensive teams — ranking 10th in opponent field goal percentage, fourth in opponent scoring and third in defensive rating.
In nine of the eleven losses, the Thunder was in a position to win (within five points with less than five to go). But, with the offense being so terrible, any defensive breakdown wipes out the margin for error. As a result, any loss of defensive focus likely puts the Thunder on the losing end of a close game. It should be no surprise then, that in losses the Thunder’s defensive metrics look way more ordinary. The team allows opponents to shoot 48.6 percent (which would rank last in the NBA), opponents score more than 105 points per game (which would rank 15th), and the defensive rating jumps to 107 (which would rank 23rd).
Through the Thunder’s putrid start to this season, Billy Donovan has preached patience. He claims he knows what needs to be done, but there is a difficulty in getting the team develop new habits. “It’s impossible to be a really great basketball team without being able to have the stamina to do the things you’re talking about for 48 minutes,” Donovan said after the loss to the Magic. “For me as coach, I feel responsible in terms of helping [the team] see that more clearly, and for whatever reason, I haven’t been able to help them see that clearly enough.”
In essence, Donovan says he’s been preaching what needs to be corrected, but the team has struggled with correcting those things on a regular basis. The stagnant offense, isolation, poor shot selection — the issues that plague the Thunder have been a point of focus for the coaching staff.
Yet here we are 21 games into the season and is the Thunder any closer to developing the habits that Donovan says are required? The answer is a resounding “no.” Growing pains were inevitable, but the maturation of this roster should be evident at this point. Responsibility, at least in some part, has to fall on the coach’s shoulders.
Leadership is new to Westbrook. For most of his career, he played the side-kick, the bad cop to Kevin Durant’s good cop. But last season, Westbrook had to step into an elevated role, and he led by example, punishing teams with an unmatched combination of athleticism and effort. But now, with running mates unlike any he had last year, he’s struggling to lead this team. What was special about the win against the Warriors was how everyone rallied behind his pace-setting effort. In most other games, though, the integration of George and Anthony seems forced by Westbrook, not fluid.
This is also a new situation for George and Anthony — previously lone wolves themselves with their former teams. For those two, leadership can be deferential. More than Westbrook, George and Anthony must adapt their playing styles. Donovan talks about developing positive habits, and the guys leading that charge should be George and Anthony.
Though 21 games have passed, there are still 61 to go. The Thunder is bad right now, but has all the talent needed to be great. While hopes of a top seed are fading fast, the ultimate goal of competing for a title is still attainable. To reach that goal, the Thunder needs to correct these seven things.