OKC’s Ball Movement and the Importance of Context

Jan 19, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) passes the ball around Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 19, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) passes the ball around Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

The NBA may be a copycat league, but it’s not uncommon for teams to buck the trend in pursuit of a competitive edge. The San Antonio Spurs are one example, deemphasizing three-point attempts at a time when the league average has continued to climb. This pivot seems to play to their roster’s strengths, as evidenced by their top-three offensive rating.

A similar observation could perhaps be made of the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose ball movement has declined even as the Golden State Warriors and others have made it a rallying cry.[1. In a recent a16z interview, Andre Iguodala indicated that “325 passes per game” has been an important benchmark for the Dubs.] I qualify this statement because I doubt that OKC has deliberately sought to deemphasize passing. Yet it nevertheless ranks last in the league with 263 passes a game — a reduction from its 270+ average over the past two seasons — all while posting a top-three offensive rating of its own.

As the Warriors and Spurs distance themselves from the pack, it’s unsurprising that OKC’s approach would be questioned, prompting Kevin Durant to issue the following response (via ESPN’s Royce Young):

"Look, we’re not the San Antonio Spurs. We’re not going to make 30 passes in a possession. We’re not that. Of course people want us to be that. That’s great basketball, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not that. We’ve got guys that can score. We’ve got two guys on this team that can get a bucket. There’s going to be times we gotta ISO. There’s going to be times we gotta be aggressive to look for our shot or make a play."

Durant’s detractors have raised legitimate questions. OKC has a low percentage of assisted field goals, and while its 45 percent unassisted eFG tops the NBA, it’s still 14 percentage points below the mark when passing precedes the shot. Moreover, it uses isolation plays about eight percent of the time (a top-10 frequency rate), even though they yield a mere 0.83 points per possession, a subpar result on a generally inefficient scoring option. OKC clearly has room for growth.

On the flip side, it’s fair to wonder just how much offensive improvement we could reasonably expect with increased Thunder passing. Would the needle move far from the 109.2 offensive rating where it’s currently pointed? Or, given the already lofty baseline, would diminishing returns apply and render the idea unworthy of pursuit? In looking at the underlying fundamentals of OKC’s field goal attempts, we find that it has the sixth best shot quality in the NBA. It’s also purposeful with the limited passes that it makes, converting 11 percent of them into assists of some form — a rate that places them among the top three. Extra passes may just nibble at the edges.

If the potential benefits seem minimal, the downside risks are nothing to ignore. As Seth Partnow suggests, one of the drawbacks of increased passing is that the ball may be out of Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s hands when shot creation is needed. This presents a significant opportunity cost by my estimation. Durant and Westbrook are the only teammates that rank among the top five in Offensive Box Plus/Minus, Offensive Real Plus-Minus, Daily RAPM Estimate, and HBox. Although we have to be cautious about placing too much stock in all-encompassing metrics, I think the rankings reinforce the idea that OKC has a rare comparative advantage, which it should fully exploit or at least think twice about sacrificing.

Tactically, increased passing could also carry the risk of additional turnovers. As it is, OKC has one of the higher ratios of bad-to-made passes[2. Passing Turnover data come from NBA Miner. Passes Made data come NBA.com/Stats. All numbers are current as of January 25, 2016.]:

TeamPass TOV / GamePass Made / GamePass TOV / Made
Houston Rockets7.3288.12.53%
Sacramento Kings6.3283.02.23%
Oklahoma City Thunder5.8263.42.22%
Phoenix Suns6.8309.62.20%
Milwaukee Bucks5.8296.01.98%
Golden State Warriors6.4324.71.97%
Indiana Pacers5.8305.81.91%
Los Angeles Lakers5.3278.11.90%
Brooklyn Nets5.4289.71.88%
Denver Nuggets5.5293.81.86%
Philadelphia 76ers6.0324.01.85%
Chicago Bulls5.6302.61.84%
Detroit Pistons5.1275.21.84%
Washington Wizards5.6305.91.83%
Portland Trail Blazers5.2286.21.82%
Minnesota Timberwolves4.9280.81.76%
Los Angeles Clippers5.0291.91.71%
Atlanta Hawks5.5322.71.71%
Cleveland Cavaliers5.2305.31.69%
Miami Heat5.1302.71.68%
Memphis Grizzlies5.0309.81.63%
San Antonio Spurs5.5339.71.61%
Boston Celtics5.1321.31.58%
Orlando Magic4.9312.71.58%
Utah Jazz5.5351.61.57%
Dallas Mavericks5.0338.81.49%
Charlotte Hornets4.4311.01.42%
New York Knicks4.8344.81.38%
New Orleans Pelicans4.2304.71.37%
Toronto Raptors3.9307.81.27%

This is obviously a cursory look at the data, and a more systematic study would need to be conducted before drawing any hard conclusions about passes and turnovers. Suffice it to say that OKC has maintained this ratio over the past three years. Any consideration of enhanced ball movement must take into account the possibility that there might be costs. With its current roster, the tradeoff may be difficult to tilt in a favorable direction, or the investment and effort, especially midseason, may outweigh the marginal benefits.

Overall, when we see the Warriors and Spurs dominate the league with a particular approach, it’s tempting to follow their lead. But context matters. Personnel matters. To borrow from Ian Levy, “there’s more than one way to skin the efficiency cat,” and if a team already performs at an elite level with a system that plays to its roster’s strengths, it should be judicious about deviating from what it has. Durant has a point when he asserts that OKC is “not the San Antonio Spurs.”

Besides, what about the defense?