Let’s quickly take a look at the Western Conference standings, shall we?
You’ll see that I’ve helpfully highlighted a middle section there for you. That’s because it’s currently the most interesting group of teams in either conference.
The Thunder, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Clippers, and Nuggets are separated in the standings by a total of three games. They’re all at least three games behind the tied-for-third Timberwolves and Spurs heading into Monday night’s games, as well as at least four games ahead of the 10th place Jazz.
In all likelihood, four of these five teams will make the playoffs and one will be left at home come April. So, over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to dive deep on what each of the five teams does what, what they don’t, and why and how those attributes do or don’t align with what we expected of them before the season.
First up: the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What they do well
Oklahoma City unsurprisingly has one of the best defenses in the league. Yes, their starting lineup features two below-average defenders in Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony; but (a) Anthony has been far better at defending up a position for years, and he’s finally been put in a role where he does that full-time; (b) both Westbrook and Anthony have given greater effort this year than in years past; and (c) the heavy lifting on defense is done by a trio of star-caliber defenders, including two of the best wing defenders in the league in Andre Roberson on Paul George. (Steven Adams is the third member of the trio.)
And the bench — while low on true impact defenders of Roberson, George, or Adams’ caliber — is nevertheless stocked with long-armed athletes like Jerami Grant and Josh Heustis. Even Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson have played a role, seamlessly fitting into Billy Donovan’s defensive framework around the stars.
As a result, the Thunder rank fourth in the league in defensive efficiency heading into Monday night’s play. Per Cleaning the Glass, they’re third in points per possession allowed in the half-court and second in the percentage of opponent plays that are half-court possessions. It can be convincingly argued that the only defense definitively better than OKC’s so far this season has been Boston’s.
The defining characteristic of the Thunder defense is its ability to create disruption and force turnovers. Oklahoma City paces the field in deflections per game by a significant margin. According to NBA.com, the Thunder are getting their hands on 17.7 passes per game. That’s 2.1 more per game than the next-closest team (Raptors), which is the same as the differential between the Raptors and the 20th-placed Celtics. Of course, deflections often turn into turnovers, and the Thunder lead the league in opponent’s turnover rate. George and Westbrook lead the way here; both players rank inside the top-seven in deflections per game, George leads the NBA in steals, and Westbrook leads in loose balls recovered per game.
The Thunder have long been excellent at using their athleticism to force teams into uncomfortable passes that need to go through a whole lot of limbs in order to get to their intended target, so it’s no surprise that the trait has carried over to this season. Oklahoma City also leverages its turnover-forcing ability to fuel a transition offense attack. The Thunder generate 17.2 percent of their offensive possessions on the break, per Cleaning the Glass, the fourth-highest rate in the NBA. They’re fourth in the league in points off turnovers, with Westbrook’s ability to go end-to-end faster than anyone in the world playing a key role in creating chances before the defense can get set. (Unfortunately, the Thunder are not great at turning those chances into actual points, but we’ll get to that later.)
Another trait this Thunder team has that is a holdover from previous years is that they relentlessly work the offensive glass. OKC leads the NBA in offensive rebound rate and ranks second in second-chance points. (This is on track to be their third consecutive season leading the NBA in offensive rebound rate, and fourth straight season ranking in the top-two.) Because they so frequently grab their own rebound on missed shots, they’re also good at preventing their opponents from getting out in transition, as only 13.0 percent of their opponents’ possessions have come via the break. Opponents have scored well on those possessions, but they happen so infrequently that the effect of their scoring prowess is neutralized.
The Thunder are even quickly climbing back toward the top-10 in scoring. They rank 12th in the NBA in offensive efficiency on Monday afternoon, but that ranking is a bit misleading. With the exception of their disastrous November, the Thunder have generally scored at or near a top-10 rate.
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A great defense and a mostly good offense has helped the Thunder create and avoid blowouts as well as some of the NBA’s best teams. Only five teams have more double-digit wins and only five teams have fewer double-digit losses. Being able to blow out bad teams is often more indicative of a team’s quality than its ability to win close games against good teams (a team’s record in close games tends to regress toward .500 over time, so being able to avoid playing close games altogether is what helps a team separate itself from the pack), so the fact that OKC has a whole bunch of blowout wins could lead us to the conclusion that they’re slightly underrated by their current 26-20 record. Considering they have the point differential of a 29-17 team, per Basketball-Reference, that conclusion looks like it might be correct.
What they don’t do well
The Thunder flat-out cannot score when Russell Westbrook isn’t in the game. They have a 97.5 offensive rating without Westbrook in the game this season; that’s 11.5 points worse than when he’s on the floor. The number was even worse in December (94.3 points per 100 possessions; 16.7 fewer than with Westbrook in the game), but has trended up slightly along with the entire OKC offense in January. (104.0; minus-11.1)
With Westbrook out and both George and Anthony in, the team has scored just 89.0 points per 100 possessions. (Though that’s only in 39 minutes.) The Anthony-only lineups (104.2) have fared far better than the George-only lineups (90.2), but Donovan has trended more toward playing George with the bench unit of late.
This is a somewhat surprising development. One of the main benefits of acquiring George and Anthony (and, to a lesser extent, Felton and Patterson) was supposed to be that they’d prop up the offense in the minutes where Westbrook was on the bench. OKC collapsed into a shell of itself every time Westbrook hit the bench last season, and it was a major problem. But their offense actually dropped off less overall with Westbrook out than it has so far this season.
One contributing factor in their troubles scoring without Russ: they’re not a good 3-point shooting team. The Thunder take 33.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. That’s 18th in the NBA. They make 35.6 percent of those shots. That’s 21st in the league. They’ve also made just 33.3 percent of their 3s without Westbrook on the floor.
On the other side of the floor, the Thunder have not done a very good job of preventing 3-point shots. 37.0 percent of their opponents’ shot attempts this season have been 3s. That’s the second-highest rate in the league. Opponents rank just 23rd in conversion rate on 3s, but some of that is due to unforced noise.
Oklahoma City has benefited from poor shooting by opponents on “open” and “wide-open” looks, described by NBA.com as those where the closest defender is four or more feet away from the shooter. Players shooting against the Thunder have made just 36.4 percent of those attempts, tied for the sixth-worst mark in the league. It’s an extreme example, but if they had as bad of luck on those attempts as, say, the Bucks, whose opponents have 40.1 percent of “open” and “wide-open” 3s, the Thunder would plummet all the way from fourth in defensive efficiency to 18th.
It’s somewhat surprising that a team with as much length and activity as this Thunder squad gives up so many attempts from deep, but it’s also largely a byproduct of their defensive system that prioritizes protecting the paint and walling off drivers from reaching the rim. It’s simply a sacrifice they’re willing to make.
Giving up so many 3s also generates a lot of long rebounds, which is part of why the Thunder are able to get out in transition so often, as mentioned earlier. As also mentioned earlier, however, they have not been very good at converting their transition chances, ranking 22nd in points per play in transition situations, per Cleaning the Glass. They’ve been significantly better at scoring off steals than live rebounds, implying that there are times when they press the action in transition when they’d be better off setting up the offense.
Overall, OKC probably has a slightly worse record than expected to this point in the season. It was likely that they’d take a while to jell, however, and that’s exactly how things played out. If the team hadn’t underperformed its point differential by three wins so far this season, they’d be just a game behind the Wolves and Spurs, and there would be a lot less talk about what’s wrong with them. They’re two games below .500 in “clutch” games this season, and that’s basically the difference between them being one game back of a home playoff spot and being where they are right now.