A road trip in review: what did we learn about the Thunder?

Harry How

The Thunder wrapped up a 6 game road trip at 3-3. What have we learned?

The Thunder have concluded a tough six game road trip, the longest that they will have had when the season ends. The team finished it up at 3-3, a disappointing outcome. To be sure, the schedule featured 3 playoff teams (Clippers, Warriors, Nuggets), a back-to-back (Clippers/Warriors), and one team hell-bent on not wasting their high profile season (Lakers), but it was disappointing because the Thunder did not play great basketball most of the time and dropped winnable games.

Of course we're still in the month of January and we haven't even hit the All-Star break yet, but the end of this six-game stretch followed by a break before Thursday's showdown vs Memphis affords us some time for reflection and analysis. Let's take a look both at the numbers as well as the ideas behind the numbers.

What does the data tell us?

Let's start with some macro and reduce it down to some micro-level analysis. In the six games, the final scores were:

Thunder Opponent
117 114
118 121
109 97
99 104
105 95
96 105
107.3 106.0

The Thunder are first overall in scoring, averaging 106.7 points per game. Offensively, despite some shooting struggles in a number of games, they are still hitting their mark. Whatever offensive struggles the Thunder may have which include Russell Westbrook's struggles of Serge Ibaka's disappearance, they are still hitting their mark and producing sufficient offense to win games.

Defensively however, the Thunder have fluctuated from around 10th in the league to 16th, where they are currently, giving up 97.3 points per game, an average which includes the road trip. As you can see above, only one time did the Thunder hold their opponent to below their defensive average (vs the Kings). In every other case, the Thunder allowed the opposing team to break their defensive statistics (I'm including the 97 point producing Clippers here as well because they scored 97 points without Chris Paul). With the exception of the CP3-less Clippers and Kings, in every other case the Thunder allowed their opponents to score more than their regular season points average.

In other words, the Thunder offense was sufficient, but the defense was not.

Digging deeper, let's take a look at the six games' box scores:

1 2 3 4 OT T
OKC 30 23 28 24 12 117
DAL 22 24 26 33 9 114

1 2 3 4 OT T
OKC 25 25 29 30 9 118
DEN 25 26 30 28 12 121

1 2 3 4 T
OKC 22 27 33 27 109
LAC 22 23 23 29 97

1 2 3 4 T
OKC 26 31 22 20 99
GS 27 25 24 28 104

1 2 3 4 T
OKC 27 31 28 19 105
SAC 30 21 16 28 95

1 2 3 4 T
OKC 23 30 22 21 96
LAL 27 25 23 30 105

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I've bolded the 4th quarters because I think we're beginning to see something take shape. While the Thunder's overall offensive output is still top-notch, there has been some noticeable slippage in the 4th quarters of games. To be sure, when the Thunder rout another team they are likely to have a losing 4th, as we saw in the Clippers and Kings wins. However, in only one case (Nuggets) did the Thunder outscore their opponents in the 4th, which tells us that both the Thunder's 4th quarter offense and their 4th quarter defense are not what it has been in the past.

In past seasons, the 4th quarter was Thunder basketball time. It was the 12 minute stretch when the defense elevated itself to a strangling level of ball denial and paint protection and Kevin Durant used his myriad of talents to push his team to wins. In this stretch however, the opposite has been true. Durant struggled shooting the ball in 2 out of the 3 losses, and shot a combined 27-63, a 44.1% clip which is well below Durant's 52.4% season average. Meanwhile, his partner Russell Westbrook has shot 47-127 for a very poor 37% from the floor over the entire stretch, so Westbrook has not provided shooting respite while Durant has struggled. On top of that, we've seen some poor 4th quarter stretches where Durant has missed numerous scoring opportunities, including a costly turnover at the end of the Warriors loss.

The outstanding question is, why? The Thunder tend to make up a lot of ground defensively in quarters 2 and 3. Why are the Thunder suddenly struggling both in making 4th quarter shots while simultaneously struggling to get stops on the opposite end of the court? The Lakers loss was the perfect example. After the Thunder took a 1 point lead with just over 6 minutes to play, the Lakers outscored them 19-9. In that stretch, the Lakers produced points on 9 out of their 12 possessions. Meanwhile, the Thunder went 4-12 over that same 6 minutes.

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What do our eyes tell us?

WTLC writer Craig Brenner believes that Westbrook has possibly swung too far over to the 'pass first' group of point guards, and it is hurting both himself and the team. Not only that, the Thunder have in backup PG Reggie Jackson who can play a similar role, which means the team's overall flow can stay consistent:

A couple things I learned are that Russell Westbrook needs to be a scoring PG for the Thunder to win. In two of the three losses Weatbrook did not have his usual impact scoring and it effect what the Thunder could do. So as much as everyone wants to say Westbrook needs to pass more and be more of the "prototypical" PG, that his biggest and best attribute to the Thunder is what he does scoring the basketball.

Also Reggie Jackson is showing signs of becoming a good back point for the Thunder. I like that when he is in with the second unit it isn't just let's get K-Mart the ball and stand around and watch him work. He has a good grasp of the offense and can help ease the scoring pressure on Martin. Gives the Thunder added depth and is helping to make up for the loss of Harden.

Our WTLC artist Bennett Berry agrees with his typical aplomb:

People are going to continue to go off on Westbrook and how he's taking too many shots and it's still going to be stupid. Reggie Jackson is really good at basketball and we've likely seen the last of Eric Maynor, but that should have been apparent when Jackson's contract was extended in October. I'm a big Perk fan, but despite some solid offense within context I'm beginning to open up to trade talks. I stress beginning, as I still think it's a terrible idea but cracks are forming. Finally, I think the Lakers winning 2 in a row and Lady Sybil's death on Downton Abbey are not coincidence.

To my eyes, the problem superficially seems like it is more on the defensive end than with the offense. What is baffling to me though is that somehow the Thunder defense has become inverted from a year ago. Last season, the OKC defense was quite mediocre through 3 quarters and then morphed into a shutdown force in the end to close out games. I remember Grantland/former SI writer Zach Lowe writing about this in the past; unfortunately his Sports Illustrated columns have disappeared, but he confirmed the analysis via Twitter. This season however, the Thunder are using great defense in the middle of games to crush most teams, but if the opposition is able to hang around, it is as if OKC doesn't have enough left in the tank to close them out.

Numbers aside, are we hitting on something far more basic? Though it is practically blasphemy to suggest it, are the Thunder starters playing too many minutes early on, shouldering too much of the burden, and not giving the backups a chance to carry the work load? In fact, Daily Thunder's Royce Young addresses that very point today:

But not only is Durant headed for his third 3,000-minute season, he's headed for the most minutes he's ever played in any single season of his career. This season, Durant (and Russell Westbrook) have only had three games each where they logged fewer than 30 minutes. Durant especially doesn't just play a bunch of minutes; the minutes he logs basically count double. With the work he puts in defending, rebounding and then shouldering so much of the offensive load in the fourth quarter, he's playing 40 supercharged minutes.

[...]

But as [Henry] Abbott wrote about last season, there appears to be a minute sweet spot for title teams, something like 33 minutes a game for the top three players. The Heat broke a streak of 17 straight seasons where the NBA champions top three players in minutes combined for an average of fewer than 35 minutes a game. LeBron, Wade and Bosh averaged 35.3 together, the most for a title team's top three since the 1994 Rockets (35.6).

The Thunder's top three players in minutes this season - Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka - combine to average 36.1. If they maintain that pace, that would be the highest average since the 1993 Bulls (36.3).

Earlier this season, we wrote that perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Kevin Durant's career was to lose James Harden, because it forced Durant (and by extension, Westbrook) to get better in all aspects. However, one aspect to Harden's game that was often missed is that until the playoffs, Harden rarely contributed much at the ends of games, but instead carried the offense for lengthy stretches, which allowed Durant and Westbrook to finish the games strong. This year, the Thunder have yet to find the guy who can carry the burden of the entire offense so that Durant and Westbrook do not feel the need to come back quickly and exert themselves. Kevin Martin is a welcome addition, but he is not equipped to play this role.

***

Where does this leave the Thunder? I trust that the staff will observe and understand what is happening late in games, but if one of the root issues is fatigue, the coaches are going to have to consider making changes to how they allocate minutes over the course of games. To be sure, there is sufficient talent on the Thunder bench to survive for 7 minute stretches while the stars get a breather. Who, though, will lead them? Perry Jones III seems like he has the natural skillset to play a multifaceted role, but he has yet to step out of the shadows. Jeremy Lamb is a scorer but has not distinguished himself yet. Who is left?

There is one 2nd year guard on the team, and his nickname is "Better Basketball." Before you lose your minds at the suggestion, allow me to hearken back to two seasons ago, in the days before the Jeff Green trade. During those months, 2nd year guard James Harden was supposed to be a glue guy who did everything well. However, for a number of games we often had to hunt to figure out what he was actually doing to help his team win. Far too often he was just kind of 'there' on the court. Things changed immediately when Green was traded and Scott Brooks told Harden, "The 2nd unit is yours. Go run it." Sometimes the greatest boost a team can give a player is by removing the obstacles in front of him.

In a similar vein, the Thunder have got to figure out a better way to run their 2nd unit in order to relieve the stress placed on their stars. Oklahoman writer Darnell Mayberry has noticed that they have begun to take on a stronger defensive identity, and that is a big step in the right direction. Pay attention though to his singling out Reggie Jackson after the Thunder's loss to the Warriors:

The Thunder began the second quarter [vs the Warriors] with Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, DeAndre Liggins, PJ3 and Nick Collison. It could have passed for a preseason lineup, or a sort of souped up summer league squad. But that group was all business. They turned a one-point deficit at the end of the first quarter into a three-point lead a minute and a half into the second period. Durant replaced PJ3 and that group then upped the lead to five before the regulars began returning.

Jackson might be ready to turn the corner with his offense. He still can't hit a jump shot at the moment, but he was in attack mode at the start of that second quarter and when I spoke with him briefly after the game he hinted that he'd look to do that more frequently. You saw tonight how easy it is for Jackson to get to the rim. He isn't always a consistent finisher once there. But he's young enough and unselfish enough to make you think that once he gets more experience he'll finish better and/or create something easy for others more consistently once there.

Of course, as soon as Jackson showed his aggressiveness Durant came back in. And, of course, that's when Jackson had to take his foot off the gas. I mentioned this in my chat on Tuesday, but it might be that the Thunder is improperly using Jackson. I say set him free. Let him go score. Let him be aggressive. Let him make plays. That's when he's at his best offensively, when he's using his God-given athleticism to blow past defenders and apply pressure on the defense...

I've mentioned this before about Jackson, but he stuffed the stat sheet again tonight so I'll give it up to him in this regard again. He had five points, six rebounds and three assists in just 12 minutes. That's insane! His six boards tied Perk for the team lead tonight, and Jackson didn't turn it over a single time.

What is remarkable to me is that two years ago, you could have described Harden in almost the same way. Harden was unsure of his role and therefore never knew when he was allowed to exert himself.

We're past the midway point in this season, but it is not too late for the Thunder to transform themselves and trust their bench in a new way. Remember, the Kendrick Perkins-Jeff Green trade happened AFTER the All-Star break, which gave Harden about 30 games to learn how to run the 2nd unit. He figured it out.

We have 37 games remaining in this season and the Thunder's main weakness and challenge is becoming clear. It is not the shot selection of Westbrook, it is not the turnovers, and it is not the loss of James Harden. Just as before, it is in the team's ability to trust that a young teammate has the gravitas to step up and step into the moment.

Oddly enough, our man Zorgon addressed the poor bench play earlier this season, focusing on what he called the 'line-up of death:'

Every single five-man unit, except one, that's played more than 8 total minutes of action in the first 11 games has been a net positive for the Thunder. So, which unit has been the Thunder's Achilles heel?

It's the bench plus Sefolosha unit. The one with Maynor, Martin, Sefolosha, Collison, and Thabeet. They've combined for a -14 +/- ratio so far, and had thus had a largely negative impact on the Thunder's games.

That line-up is still being used with one exception. Jackson has replaced Maynor. The result, per 82games.com, is that this line-up is now a +19 with a win% of 50.0%. As Mayberry noted above, Jackson is spelling the difference between a bench unit that lags and one that thrives.

It is not just about Reggie of course, but about everyone's ability to trust one another to share the burden so that when the chips are down, the stars have enough left to rise above it and finish. As Isiah Thomas once noted, "The secret to basketball is that it's not about basketball." The case can be made here as well - the key is not for the Thunder to just play better or harder, but for the right guys to be trusted in the right situations so that everyone can do their job in a complimentary way. That's how a team thrives.

That's what better basketball is anyway, right?

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