Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder scored 15.3 points per game on the fast break - good for seventh in the league - while playing at the ninth-fastest pace in the NBA. It's not quite the top, but their pace still defined their play: the young legs would outrun you and force points down your throat.
This season, the Thunder rank dead last in fast break points at just 6.1 per game - a startlingly low number that goes quite a long way in explaining how they also play at the fifth-slowest pace, en route to the second-worst offense in the NBA. The reasons why are obvious, but it's a necessary observation for the simple fact that this team - as currently constructed - may not have any real remedies for this problem.
When the Thunder are at full strength, they have the most explosive point guard in the league in Russell Westbrook, who ranked second in the NBA last season at 6.2 points per game via fastbreak. That's right, Russell Westbrook scored more points per game via the fast break last season than the entire Thunder team is scoring on the fastbreak this season. Even better? Two spots below him is Kevin Durant at 5.5 points per game.
Having those two out of the lineup changes the team in just about every aspect, but none more-so than in the Thunder's ability to just get the ball up the court. Take for example these two fast breaks from last season. Bear in mind this was just the first link I clicked and there are countless other examples you could point out.
The Thunder grabs a rebound and immediately starts to run out, knowing Westbrook can outrun anybody that may try to guard him. Then, as the second clip shows, even if the defense gets back in front of him, he can hit them with his patented pull-up jumper that he has perfected so nicely over the years.
That's just Westbrook being crazy talented, which is overwhelming in itself, but then see how much more deadly the Thunder can be when you add Durant's ability to handle the ball in transition into the mix:
Again, I just stuck to the same game for continuity's sake, but you can find any number of examples that point out these same things. This just gives you the full arsenal, from Durant's terrific vision in the open court to pass to the open man in the first clip, to his legendary ability to score in traffic (scrawny as he may appear), to his deadly jumper. He does it all, and when he can improvise on the fly in transition without the defense matched up on him, it's pretty much unfair.
You take away those two, and you're left with a lineup that basically includes Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb as the only two guys even capable of attempting to make plays in transition. Of course, neither of those two possesses even close to the same skill as a Durant or Westbrook, and their inability to push the pace is what is accounting for such low scoring totals in transition.
The Thunder is a team that thrives on pushing the pace. Whether it be through outlet passes off rebounds, or quick transition off turnovers, it is when they push the pace that they can exploit weaknesses in the defense and go on extended scoring runs to extend leads.
Not having their two biggest facilitators has slowed down the offense considerably and forced them to become a half-court team, something they have never been all that good at to begin with. Perhaps the most frustrating part of all of this, too, is the fact that there doesn't appear to be any sort of remedy beyond "wait until Westbrook and/or Durant comes back."
You can see in last night's game just how much different the Thunder approach to offense in when Lance Thomas is the guy getting rebounds instead of Kevin Durant. Thomas comes in for the rebound - which, quick tangent, his rebounding has been excellent - but has absolutely no interest in trying to push the ball himself. Instead, he almost immediately looks to Jackson, who is the only real ball handler on the court for the Thunder.
The time it takes to get Jackson the ball, however brief, is enough to allow the Jazz to close any holes Thomas may have been able to exploit. It's not a perfect example, and it's entirely possible Durant would have made the same play to Westbrook. Still, you can see a small hole form right as Thomas gathers the board (at the 7 second mark) that an astute, gifted ball handler like Durant could have exploited to at least create a chance at the rim in transition without the entire Jazz team back in position (they have one down in the corner and one at the hoop when Thomas corrals it). Instead, it's a set defense and Reggie Jackson running 1-on-5 while the rest of the guys jog to catch up.
What that leaves the Thunder with is essentially two not-so-frequent opportunities to get opportunities in transition: when Reggie Jackson gets a a long rebound, or off a steal. That's it really, and since the Thunder rank 3rd-last in steals per game, those chances aren't exactly bursting at the seams. The time it takes the rest of the guys to find Jackson off a rebound, and the inability for those same guys to provide any help on run-outs, really leaves Jackson all alone in trying to create points off the fast break.
That leaves the Thunder in a tough spot as they wait for Durant and Westbrook to heal. Do they acknowledge that they don't have the personnel to play the way they have in the past, and hope they can defend well enough to win low-scoring affairs? That seems to have been the blueprint so far, and the results aren't exactly encouraging.
Jeremy Lamb and Anthony Morrow are the two guys you would hope to see somewhat provide help for the simple fact that they can handle the ball at least better than the rest. Even their handling is a farcry from the lethal duo of Westbrook and Durant, though. That leaves the Thunder with only a small, small amount of opportunities each game, and unless they are making it a point to score in transition, they will most likely not even risk it and take the reset and halfcourt possession each time. That, again, is what we've seen so far this season.
That leaves them with option two: trying to push the pace and going down fighting. Maybe Lamb turns the ball over too much in transition, same for Morrow, or maybe Jackson goes all Russ and gets too excited by his transition jumpers and misses too many shots. It may not be the solution, but with the way things are going now, the Thunder may as well try as push the pace at least a little bit more than they have been.
Right now, with no Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder are stuck playing slow, half-court basketball... and they're getting run out of the gym doing it.