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Early Thunder Surprise: passing, defense now a part of the Thunder experience

The Thunder have evolved as a team, with both increased team passing and a strong focus on defense becoming their calling cards.


In the first two weeks of this very young season, there have been a number of surprises. First off, here are a few things that are NOT a surprise:

  • The Thunder still sink or swim with Kevin Durant's offense
  • Russell Westbrook remains the emotional honey badger roller coaster
  • Scott Brooks' rotation coaching is being called into question
  • The bench has suffered from the loss of James Harden
  • Kendrick Perkins is still ornery
As a counter-measure, here are some of the more interesting surprises:
  • Durant continues to grow as a LeBron-esque playmaker
  • Kevin Martin can equate much of Harden's offensive production
  • Serge Ibaka's growth chart continues apace
Above all else though, the two biggest Thunder surprises during this uneven yet still early season has been their passing and their defense.

    1. OKC passes the rock

    It is no secret that in the past two seasons, the Thunder developed a reputation for being a team that was long on offensive talent but short on offensive scheme that utilized good passing. During OKC's 3 year playoff run, they have never been out of the bottom third in team assists, which culminated in last year's abysmal team assist ranking of, what was it? Oh yes, dead last. It seems contradictory that a team that made the NBA Finals would be so inadequate in this one area that should be a good representation of offensive fluency.

    The answer of course lay in the fact that OKC fielded 3 of the absolute best offensive talents that the came currently offers in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. The trio simply took turns deciding who was hot at the moment, and as a result always had at least one guy who could carry the load. The downside was that the team never really had to rely on an offensive system or even role players to produce a lot of points, a trait that can easily be seen on teams like the aging Celtics, who need good passing simply to produce quality shots.

    So given that backdrop, it is quite stunning to see the Thunder sitting at 6th overall in team assists this season at 22.4 per game and 62 combined assists in the last two games alone (both wins). To be sure those wins came against the Hornets and the Warriors, but the increased passing totals are becoming more the norm than the exception. The question is, why?

    If you saw the win over the Warriors you know that Durant notched his first career triple-double and has been consistently looking to be a better playmaker. His partner Westbrook has reversed last season's low assist total by putting much more emphasis on his own passing, and as a result he too has increased assist numbers.

    I believe the difference goes deeper. As stated above, the Thunder have long been a ball-handling dominant team, where Durant, Westbrook, and Harden took turns. Their offense was mostly either/or rather than synergistic. This season, Harden is gone and OKC does not have him as a security blanket any more. In order to depart from this style, the Thunder have had to learn how to be a more traditional offense where easy shots are much harder to come by. The team can no longer simply throw it to the wing and wait for someone to produce; they must now work within a system that creates open shots for the likes of Ibaka, Collison, and Kevin Martin.

    The early results have been promising. These assist totals have accompanied a high shooting percentage and much better shot discretion, especially from the perimeter. To be sure there have been growing pains, but by building a better offensive system now, the Thunder will be much harder to contend with in May and June.

    2. OKC plays the D

    The Thunder like to talk about being a defensive team, having a defensive mindset, and relying upon their defense to dictate their offense. These are fine words, but unfortunately the mantra is shared by arguably 30 out of 30 teams in the league. It doesn't matter if you talk about it, it only matters if you do it.

    The Thunder were actually a solid defensive team in last season's playoffs, and it was really only until the Finals in their loss to the Heat that their defensive weaknesses were exposed. Defense though was not a distinct liability then.

    Early on in the season however, we saw plenty of what I like to call "defense optional" kinds of games where the Thunder relied on their elite offensive talent to overwhelm other teams. However, against some lesser teams, the lack of defense proved to be their undoing, as OKC lost to some of the worst in the league last year, like the Cavaliers and Wizards. Offense comes and goes, but defense, especially defense against teams like that, should never betray a principled contender.

    In this season however, the Thunder have gotten off to a much better start in trusting in and relying on their defense as their offense has been sporadic. While they are only ranked 14th overall in points allowed at 95.2 per game, other numbers are more revealing. The Thunder are 4th in point differential at a +6.5 per game, a number that could be even greater had OKC cared about it in wins over the Warriors, Hornets, or Pistons. They are holding teams under 43% shooting from the floor (5th), and under 33% from 3-point range (7th). Their defensive efficiency is almost a full point lower than it was a year ago, now sitting at 99.1%.

    While comparison of these early numbers to all of last year's numbers are misleading, what we need to remember is that up until about April of last season, the Thunder were a mediocre-to-poor defensive team, and relied on their March-April surge to morph into a championship-contending team. The early season defensive stats are encouraging, but let us hope that the trend continues so that in this season's March and April, OKC will be considered one of the very best on the defensive end of the court.

    What are your biggest surprises so far?