How Much Do Westbrook and Perkins Affect the Thunder's Offense?

They had to have been posing for this one. - USA TODAY Sports

One's an All-Star, and one's overpaid. But both of them are vital to the Thunder's success.

When Russell Westbrook returned from his injury three games into this season, you could see that the Thunder played with a certain amount of excitement that you just didn't get with Reggie Jackson at the helm. It's hard to quantify, but from a fan's perspective, the result was good. The Thunder got more fast break opportunities, shots were taken earlier in the shot clock, and the team was better on the whole. Clearly, he's a huge part of the Thunder's identity, and there's a huge hole in the team when he's gone.

And if you watched Sunday night's game against the Jazz, you'd be hard-pressed to find a different opinion. The Thunder thoroughly dominated the vastly inferior Jazz and the entire second half was like a huge joke, but OKC's offense was a whole lot more joyless on the whole. Slower offensive sets, not as many fast breaks, and a few more miscues.

Most wouldn't say Kendrick Perkins delivers the same type of effect. It's easy to miss anything positive that he does on the offensive end, especially considering that he averages 3.1 points per game. However, due to a death in the family, Perk did have to miss a two-game California road trip. Not many people talk about his absence from those games, but the Thunder did end up losing both of their games. And, in both matchups, it was obvious that post presence was a problem for the Thunder.

Thus, we reach my dilemma. How much, exactly, do Kendrick Perkins and Russell Westbrook affect the Thunder's offense? How does it change in their absence? With the help of My Synergy Sports, I was able to find out.

Basically, I went through past games and looked at the three separate lineups that I mentioned above. I was able to get roughly 30 minutes of footage from each lineup. For reference, here's the lineups I watched and what games I was watching them at.

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Lineup 1: Perkins-Ibaka-Durant-Sefolosha-Westbrook

2 Games: Phoenix and Dallas, 30 Minutes

Lineup 2: Perkins-Ibaka-Durant-Sefolosha-Jackson

2 Games: Utah (at Utah) and Minnesota, 37 Minutes

Lineup 3: Adams-Ibaka-Durant-Sefolosha-Westbrook

5 Games: Dallas, Detroit, Washington, LA Clippers (at LA), Golden State, 38 Minutes

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How did I quantify each lineup? Well, for every offensive and defensive play that I watched, I answered a series of questions about it. A lot of the time, the answer to each question was a judgement call, and I had to answer it to the best of my ability.

I'm not going to bore you with how I answered each question in the main article. However, I've written a separate page that attempts to explain the logic behind what I did, acknowledge the limitations of my work, and help you more thoroughly understand what this data means.

TL;DR: Here's a list explaining the types of plays that I categorized, and here's a background explaining the logic and limitations behind my study. Look below for a thorough breakdown of the three different lineups.

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Fast Break

Russ-Perk RJ-Perk Russ-Adams
% of Plays In Transition 24% 13% 13%
% of Plays In Half-Court 76% 87% 87%

Here you can see that the traditional lineup of Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins generates the most fast break opportunities. The reasoning behind this is simple. Westbrook loves to steal the ball, and he loves to push the pace. Perk likes fast break plays as well. This might be hard to believe, as he's really slow moving up and down the floor. But he's good at getting fast breaks going, because he provides a lot of perimeter defensive pressure and throws a lot of outlet passes.

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Play Type (Half-Court)


Russ-Perk RJ-Perk Russ-Adams
Pick and Roll 37% 22% 53%
Pick and Pop 13% 6% 2%
Give and Go 12% 6% 2%
Post Up 17% 8% 2%
Isolation 12% 18% 23%
Post Pass 4% 6% 5%
Off-Ball Screen 4% 14% 10%
Off-Ball Post Screen 4% 4% 0%
3 or More Passes 0%* 16% 3%

There's a ton that you can infer from this data. Most striking to me is how simplistic the offense gets without Perk. I wouldn't take it so much of a reflection of Perk as it is of Adams. Steven Adams (as you'll see later) was very rarely involved in any play at all while the starters were on the floor. Mostly, he just stood on the block and didn't move. This limited the Thunder's options, especially when they're used to Perk acting as a conduit and setting high screens.

What also strikes me is how any offense involving Russell Westbrook often relies on the ballhandler to make a play, and make it quick. Plays like pick and rolls, isolations, and post ups are entirely reliant on an individual player's ability to score, and that's what Russ works best at. By contrast, the Reggie Jackson run offense relies on more team-oriented plays designed to get a specific player open for a specific shot.

Of course, if you're unfamiliar with the Thunder, the sheer prevalence of the pick and roll is pretty astonishing. But also not worth forgetting is how often the Thunder will simply isolate a player and let him go to work. The bottom line is that individual talent rules all in the guidance of the Thunder offense.

*There may have been a couple of plays with three or more passes for the Russ-Perk offense, but I didn't start recording them until I got to the RJ-Perk offense. Nevertheless, I don't recall seeing any play out of that offense that I couldn't almost immediately identify.

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Players Moving on Initial Play (Half-Court)

Russ-Perk RJ-Perk Russ-Adams
1 19% 8% 19%
2 48% 50% 56%
3 17% 20% 19%
4 2% 6% 2%
5 13% 16% 3%

The numbers here basically just confirm what you saw above. When Steven Adams is in, the offense gets considerably more simplistic, with less players involved in the play. When Reggie Jackson is in, the offense gets more complicated and slower. When Westbrook AND Perkins are in, it's more of a healthy mix.

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Ballhandler (Half-Court)

Russ-Perk RJ-Perk Russ-Adams
Westbrook 56% N/A 68%
Jackson N/A 57% N/A
Sefolosha 13% 12% 8%
Durant 31% 25% 24%
Ibaka 0% 0% 0%
Perkins 0% 4% N/A
Adams N/A N/A 0%

This data table is remarkably consistent across the board. It's interesting, because the tables above indicate that the offense was significantly different in terms of what plays were run and how plays were run. But when you look at it from this perspective, you see that the same players are still relied upon to make plays in similar roles, regardless of who's in. Put simply, Reggie Jackson steps into the role of Russell Westbrook in terms of his importance in the offense, but he runs it in a completely different way.

The one notable difference is that Westbrook tends to dominate the ball more while Adams is on the floor. I'd suspect this is because Durant works with Perkins more often, while Westbrook works with Ibaka more often. I don't have any data to back up that claim, but based on what I've seen that sentiment seems correct.

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Play Originally Intended For (Half-Court)

Russ-Perk RJ-Perk Russ-Adams
Westbrook 27% N/A 40%
Jackson N/A 16% N/A
Sefolosha 8% 10% 3%
Durant 31% 53% 37%
Ibaka 15% 12% 13%
Perkins 19% 8% N/A
Adams N/A N/A 6%

This data table indicates who was originally intended to score on each play ran, but not necessarily the player who ended up taking the shot/turning the ball over/whatever. I know what you're thinking, and yes, Perk is actually targeted fairly often in the half-court offense. What skews the numbers is his willingness to pass, his total non-participation in fast breaks, and his general lack of offensive skill.

It also might be shocking to see Thabo's numbers as low as they are. But remember, he's actually used as more of a decision-maker and distributor. That's a situation which can lead to points on its' own. He's also always available on the wing for an emergency shot, and bails out plays fairly often.

It should come as no surprise that Reggie Jackson's offense primarily targeted Durant. He's the teams' only legitimate shot creator in that lineup, and you've gotta give him the ball. But these results become more interesting when you consider how many players were moving on Reggie's offense (see above chart). The team hardly ever called isolation sets, and almost always had someone moving off the ball. Thus, it's apparent that the Thunder have to work a lot harder to get him the ball, and that's usually why the offense takes so long. However, when you've got two threats (Durant AND Westbrook), on the floor, it's a lot easier to make a simple play call.

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Actual Shot Taker (Half-Court)

Russ-Perk RJ-Perk Russ-Adams
Westbrook 27% N/A 37%
Jackson N/A 18% N/A
Sefolosha 8% 12% 16%
Durant 31% 24% 31%
Ibaka 15% 21% 10%
Perkins 19% 12% N/A
Adams N/A N/A 5%

Continuing from the paragraph above, it's even more intriguing to consider how Durant took shots on less than half of the plays that were designed for him. Having actually seen the plays, I wouldn't consider this a lack of aggression. It's just a star making legitimate efforts to draw the defense and get the rest of his team in the game. His court vision has significantly improved over the years, as evidenced by some of the long passes he's made in the half-court this year. I hadn't seen that level of vision since James Harden left the team.

However, also consider how the actual shot distribution goes down without Kendrick Perkins in the lineup. The shots that Perk and Ibaka took are distributed among the guards, which means more opportunities for Durant and Westbrook. Some might argue that this is a good thing, but it contributes to the offense being a lot more stale on the whole. There's nothing wrong with getting opportunities for Perk, especially considering that he's shooting 44% on the year. Not to mention the more important factor, which is the lack of frequent opportunities for Ibaka, a key offensive cog.

Obviously, these numbers don't match up with the amount of points that Ibaka scores, because a ton of his points are via offensive rebounds. I didn't count those as "shots taken" because there was usually no play run after the ball touched the rim, and it wouldn't accurately represent how the actual offense was working. Sefolosha's numbers are low for the amount of points he scores, but a ton of his points come on the break, and fast break points weren't counted.

*These numbers might not correlate with actual shooting numbers, because they also take into account when a player was fouled or turned the ball over.

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Shot Taken (Half-Court)

Russ-Perk RJ-Perk Russ-Adams
2 53% 57% 63%
3 6% 20% 11%
Foul 10% 8% 6%
And 1 2% 0% 0%
Turnover 21% 6% 18%
Lost Ball* 8% 8% 0%

There's not a ton to point out here, especially since most of these stats were taken from earlier in the season, when the Thunder were significantly less successful from three. But I suppose it is worth it to note that Reggie Jackson's lineup is a lot less turnover prone. You might think that since the ball moves around a lot more, it's more open to get stolen. But really, the majority of turnovers come when an individual player tries to do to much or loses it on a drive. And those are more prone to happen when you rely on individual players to be creative with the ball.

I wouldn't argue that this makes' Jackson offense better, since it has a much lower success rate overall, and mostly just results in getting more threes for the team to clank.

*A lost ball indicates that the player lost the ball out of bounds, but the team retained possession.

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Defense


Russ-Perk RJ-Perk Russ-Adams
Trap Attempted? 30% 33% 33%
Trap Successful? 6% 7% 5%
Did the other team score as a result of the trap? 7% 7% 5%

It's hard to read how a defense is set up in the NBA. It's very rare for any team to go to an outright zone, and most of what you can infer about them comes from how they react to certain offenses. And, a lot of the time, defense comes down to the talent of the individual player.

Thus, all the data I could really gather on a team basis from the individual plays was concerned with trapping. The results are pretty boring, but not surprising. The Thunder will trap an equal amount regardless of who's on the floor. That trap is successful about 1/5th of the time, and another 1/5th of the time the trap will result in the other team getting an easy score. The other 3/5ths of the time, nothing happens.

The main point I'd like to make here is that trapping isn't the main reason for the Thunder's poor three point defense. In fact, it's actually extremely rare for a team to get a free shot on the perimeter because of a trap. More often, the basket comes because a big man is rolling to a wide-open basket.

Rather, the Thunder's bad three point defense comes from an excessive amount of pressure and help defense. They love to load the strong side, and have players on the weak side stray off their defensive assignments in order to provide help defense in the paint or look for a stray pass. This results in them not being ready when the ball swings to the other side. Less prominently, the Thunder also love to switch on screens, which can give opposing teams mismatches and easy shots on the perimeter.

Specifically though, the Thunder's starters are really bad at defending the three. The aforementioned three "starting" lineups (when you take all of their minutes into consideration) are letting opposing teams shoot 49.3% from three. That's absolutely redonkulas, and it was worse earlier in the season. Why? It's quite simple. From a team standpoint, the players love to switch on screens (Perk, I'm looking at you). From an individual standpoint, the two most prominent perimeter defenders, Sefolosha and Westbrook, love to gamble for steals and stray off their man. It generates points, but it also gives up a good amount of points on the perimeter. Oh yeah, and Durant, Perkins, and Sefolosha aren't exactly the quickest players at their respective positions, either. And you've gotta be quick to defend the three. So this is a definite area of weakness, but we've been dealing with it for years, so I'm not too worried about it.

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Conclusions

Here's everything that I've been able to infer so far, in bullet point form.

  • Westbrook and Perkins make the offense much faster. Westbrook provides the steals and speed, Perk provides the outlet passes.
  • As a result, their offense is also much more turnover-prone.
  • Westbrook and Perkins run the most balanced offense in terms of diverse play types. Perkins is especially essential in this area.
  • Reggie Jackson runs the most complicated offense, and will take the team deep into the shot clock. His offense is also good at avoiding turnovers.
  • Across the board, the vast majority of plays are designed for Westbrook and/or Durant. But, half the time, they don't end up taking the originally planned shot.
  • Serge Ibaka has very few plays designed for him, and he has few alternate options other than taking a shot.
  • Steven Adams is almost a complete offensive non-factor when he plays with the starters.
  • Across the board, Thabo Sefolosha is getting more offensive responsibility.
  • Westbrook and Perkins have very little effect on the team's defensive scheme as a whole, though their talents (or lack thereof) make a huge difference on an individual level.
  • The Thunder trap a fair amount, but never to an overwhelmingly negative effect.
  • Regardless of who's in, the starting lineup still can't defend the three point line.
In closing, I'd just like to say that the goal of this article wasn't to prove that Westbrook and Perkins are important to the team. That much should be obvious to anybody, even the casual fan. My purpose here was to give an accurate picture of how, exactly, they affect the game. There's no one broad brush stroke that I can paint explaining everything in a few sentences, but the important thing to remember is that each player has a very distinctive identity. Looking at their stats, vitals, and skillsets, you might infer that Westbrook and Jackson are extremely similar players, with Westbrook simply clocking in as more athletic and skilled. But when you take into consideration how vastly different their offenses are in terms of scheme, you begin to understand them more as players, and perhaps as men.

When the Thunder lost Westbrook to a meniscus injury in last year's playoffs, most national analysts painted the situation in those aforementioned broad brush strokes. The Thunder were a team entirely reliant on two players, knock one of them out and they simply didn't have the talent to win. In the most general sense, their sentiment was correct. The Thunder would have performed better with Westbrook on the floor. But in a specific sense, they were very wrong. The loss of Westbrook wasn't so much a loss of talent as it was a loss of moxie. It forced the Thunder's starting 5 to become something that they weren't and adjust to an entirely new offensive scheme. They simply could not run a Westbrook-style offense and succeed, because Reggie Jackson isn't Russell Westbrook lite.

And really, that's the unique thing about the Thunder this year. The starting lineup and the players off the bench live in entirely different worlds. In years past, we had a lineup where bench players, more or less, could replace the starters with little effort. Harden was the primary scorer and distributor, like Durant and Westbrook. Collison was Ibaka. Mohammed was Perkins. Cook was Sefolosha. Maynor and Fisher were kind of off on their own, but their distribution/veteran plays helped make up for the benches' inferior talent. Point is, it took little effort to mix and match, and the scheme worked well.

But when you fast forward to last year, it's apparent that the scheme was falling apart. There was no center to replace the departure of Mohammed, and neither Brewer nor Liggins appeared ripe to replace Cook. Most importantly, Kevin Martin didn't possess the ballhandling or distribution skills to replace James Harden.

Now, things are much different. The lineup of Adams/Collison/Jones III/Lamb/Jackson plus sometimes Fisher functions entirely on its' own. Their plays are different, their way of attacking is different, everything is different. Since it's almost an entirely new team, there's been some growing pains, and the bench has had a noticeably negative effect on some games. But they're learning to provide an entirely different dynamic, which would be essential against some teams that the starting lineup might struggle with.

Of course, two issues loom over them all: What if there's an injury? How are the lineups so different if Perkins and Sefolosha never play at the end of games? My answer to both questions is simple. It's entirely possible to slot in different players in different lineups and still be successful. The Thunder tend to experiment at the end of games, using the lineup that might prove to be the most advantageous against their opponent. (Fourth quarter comebacks, anyone?)

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is that the Thunder might not look as scary as the 2012 Thunder on paper. But, as the impact of Westbrook and Perkins above shows, they are much more dynamic. And when a date with the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals is a distinct possibility, that's something that simply can't be underestimated.

What do you think about Westbrook and Perkins' impact on the offense? Am I totally wrong? Let us know in the comments!

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