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Thunder climb to 19 in power rankings, and a brief discussion on ball movement

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The Thunder are starting to trend upward in the weekly SB Nation power rankings, and we discuss ball movement and the Thunder's need for improvement.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

This week's SB Nation Power Rankings feature a bit of re-shuffling at the top. I'd love to hear your comments about the rankings, but stay tuned because I go on a bit of a rant below.

1. Golden State Warriors (17-2, Last week: 1a)

2. Houston Rockets (16-4, Last week: 6)

3. Portland Trail Blazers (16-4, Last week: 4)

4. San Antonio Spurs (15-5, Last week: 3)

5. Memphis Grizzlies (16-4, Last week: 1b)

Where do the Thunder sit? Right now they're at #19. Even though Mr. Garrison chooses the questionable "Let Russ be Russ!" video clip instead of the hellacious throw-down he had against the Pistons, we know that they are the yin and the yang.

Are you happy with the Thunder's climb?


On a more serious note, this is a great point made about everybody's favorite offensive machine, the Spurs:

San Antonio moves the ball with purpose. They're the only team in the top five of passes per game with a top-10 offensive rating, mostly because their passes lead to shot opportunities. Amazingly, three of the teams represented here have bottom-10 offensive ratings.

The Thunder have notoriously made many statements over the years about their desire to adopt a more Spurs-like way of playing offense involving more ball movement. We have seen some evidence of this in the early part of the season, and in the first half of the 76ers game there was clear emphasis on trying out new passing sets.

However, this quote above really underscores the idea that ball movement in an offense isn't just about passing; it is really about passing into spaces on the court in order to generate good shots. You can work the ball around the perimeter to your heart's content, but if there is no purpose behind it, the defense will just wait you out until you have under 5 seconds left on the shot clock and accomplished nothing of value.

For any offense, getting baskets comes down to 2 ideas: a) where is a shot going to be generated? and b) how is the ball going to get there? Under this premise, these two questions for the Thunder might (and often do) have easy answers; i.e. "the shot is going to come at the right elbow, and we'll get it there by running Kevin Durant off a pin-down screen."  In order to make that set happen, you need a guy to down-screen and Durant to pop out of the baseline, get to the free throw line, and take the shot. It's so simple.

The problem historically is that the other team knows this too, and smart defensive teams like the Spurs and Grizzlies will always be ready for it. Unless the pindown is precise and Durant times his cut perfectly (and these are seldom givens), Durant will have zero space to catch and shoot. Check this out from the 2013 playoffs. Yes, it's 2 years old, but I have yet to see OKC make any material modifications:

Tony Allen blows up the play because he knows it's coming and there is no ball movement deviation to throw him off the trail.

Meanwhile, the Spurs offense skewered the Heat in these past Finals for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones was that they better understood their spacing and purposeful ball movement on the court. The Heat's bread-and-butter defense had been the high hedge and aggressive trapping, which forced the Spurs into uncertain ball movement and they didn't always know where and how they were going to get the shots they wanted. Here is one of the rare situations when the Spurs fell victim to the type of pointless ball movement, fraught with high risk, low reward, and zero payoff, that we often see from the Thunder:

By contrast, the Spurs had essentially solved all of the Heat's defensive tendencies in Game 3 and Miami never had a realistic shot at winning another game. The hard trapping became their Achilles Heel as the Spurs learned and adapted by shifting their passing angles away from the traps, which often led to open 3's and dunks.

Look specifically for two plays to illustrate the purpose in passing:

1) At 4:00 minutes in, a dribble hand-off from Tim Duncan to Manu Ginobili leads the Spurs right into what the Heat think will be a successful trap. In the past it might have led to a forced entry pass to a rolling Duncan (or Westbrook to Serge Ibaka), which would have had to go through 3 sets of arms and probably led to a turnover. Instead, the pass goes to the wing into the capable hands of Boris Diaw, who has a much easier passing angle into the post. Duncan also has much easier post position by virtue of the additional space created by the pass to the wing. In this play set, where was the ball supposed to go? To Duncan. However, how was it supposed to get there? By using the wing pass as a release valve to disrupt the trapping pressure, thereby creating more than enough additional space to both make the entry pass and then shoot off the right block.

2) At 5:20, once again the Spurs want to go to Duncan on the right block, where he has a potential mis-match being guarded by Udonis Haslem. However, as is noted, Haslem fronts Duncan, taking away the easy passing lane. To counter, the Spurs once again use Diaw to shift the entry passing lane to Duncan, flashing Diaw across the top of the lane in order to draw the Heat's baseline help. Once Haslem takes a step toward Diaw, the entry pass is wide open for Diaw to capitalize on.

Whenever Thunder fans hear the word 'mis-match' they should immediately recall their series against the Clippers. One of the worst crimes that OKC's offense can do is to make Durant, who is truly one of a kind, too easy to guard. He should never be easy to guard, by anybody.  Yet when the 4th quarter rolled around, the Clippers surprisingly put the tiniest guy on the court in Chris Paul on Durant. Why?

Because the Thunder did not know how to apply better ball movement and spacing. What we often saw, especially during their game 4 collapse, was Durant setting up on the block and trying to hold his position against the shorter and stouter Paul while waiting for an entry pass, inevitably getting pushed farther and farther away from the rim where the only available shot became a step-back 20 footer. What we should have seen were baseline cross-screens and wing action passes like above in order to allow Durant to catch the ball in open space where he could simply catch and shoot over the smaller Paul. Instead, Durant became easy to guard, and it wasn't until game 6 that he solved the Clippers enough to have his normal type of game.

There is much to learn and not much time to do it, but we should hope that if the Thunder are serious about their ball movement that it will start by making it easier for their MVP to do his work.