Positional fluidity is all the rage right now and, at the surface, the Thunder wouldn’t seem to be ardent practitioners. No one is going to confuse Steven Adams for anything but a center. Russell Westbrook has, loudly and clearly, asserted his right to be classified as a point guard. Paul George let it be known in Indiana that he was not interested in playing power forward and, since arriving in Oklahoma City, spent every single minute as either a small forward or shooting guard, according to Basketball-Reference’s estimates.
However, there are two halves to each position — offense and defense. And while their stars have been fairly rigidly adhering to traditional positional roles, the Thunder have gotten creative with some of the role players and splitting their responsibilities at each end of the court.
For example, Jerami Grant’s quickness and length allowed him to be switched onto wings (shooting guards or small forwards) for about 30 percent of his defensive possessions, according to estimates built by Krishna Narsu off of the NBA’s defensive matchup data. However, on offense, his tendency to be active around the basket as a cutter and offensive rebounder made it difficult for opponents to match up with him in the same way. Narsu estimated that Grant was defended by a wing player on just over 20 percent of his offensive possessions.
Grant was one of three key Thunder contributors who were among the 10 players with the biggest difference between their defensive position estimates (what position they guarded) and their offensive position estimates (what position guarded them).
Alex Abrines (primarily a wing) and Patrick Patterson (primarily a forward) were both had a small tendency to defend players who were bigger than the players who defended them. Grant was the opposite, usually defending smaller players than those who defended him. Terrance Ferguson didn’t make the shortlist here but he was ranked 31st, another wing who was comfortable defending bigger players than those who defended him.
Admittedly, these estimates are not perfect and we’re talking about relatively small differences (about a quarter of a position). Still, the most important aspect of positional fluidity is the ability to force or exploit mismatches. The Thunder don’t necessarily stand out for a roster of positionless basketball players but they have clearly found a way to play around with roles at each end of the floor.
For the Thunder to have a chance at unseating the Rockets or Warriors, their stars will need to be exceptional in a playoff series. But if their role players can turn things back on the opponents and exploit or counteract mismatches it could go a long way toward leveling the playing field.