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Week 6 Plus/Minus: The Anatomy of a Win for the Thunder

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This week, we look at just how the Thunder are winning, and highlight an incredible turnaround from Serge.

© Mark D. Smith

Welcome to "Plus/Minus," a weekly series that focuses on trends among players, topics, and ideas related to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The scores are similar to those found in the box score of an NBA game, with a higher number representing a better performance. For example, "+3" represents a better performance than "+2," and "-3" is worse than "-2." A score of "0" is considered neutral.

Previous Weeks:

That could not have been a more Thunder-like turnaround. Following their worst week of the season, OKC suddenly flipped a switch and transformed into an efficient, selfless basketball machine that looks capable of challenging anyone. As expected, the narratives changed as well.

When the Thunder lose, the story has always cycled between sloppy ball-handling, too much offensive isolation, and poor defense. After victories, it is because they "made the extra pass," and "it started with the defense." Every NBA player and coach says the same things after every NBA game, but just how real are these issues when it comes to the Thunder?

I thought it important to examine the correlation between these narratives and actual Thunder victories, so I exported individual game stats and ran them against each game’s final result using a 1/0 coding for Wins and Losses, respectively.  I then ranked the correlation coefficients by absolute value:

Factor 1 Factor 2 Correlation
FG%/Opponent FG% Victory 0.556
Field Goal % Victory 0.478
Assists Victory 0.454
Assist/Turnover Ratio Field Goal % 0.439
Assist/Turnover Ratio FG%/Opponent FG% 0.416
Opponent Field Goal % Victory -0.335
Assist/Turnover Ratio Victory 0.262
Field Goal % Opponent Field Goal % -0.061

I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that the most efficient way to win a basketball game is to shoot a higher percentage than your opponent, but look at the factors that correlate with the FG%/Opponent FG% number. Assist/Turnover ratio clearly has a high impact on how efficiently the Thunder shoot compared to their opponent. When the Thunder aren't giving up transition baskets off of turnovers, and when they move the ball to get better shots, it forces opponents to play the kind of half court basketball that leads to tougher shots.

What is interesting is that the statistics say it's more important for the Thunder to simply share the ball than it is for them to share it responsibly, as the sheer number of assists correlates with wins to a higher degree than the Assist/Turnover ratio. OKC has been winning for years despite too many turnovers and isolation-based offensive sets, but these numbers indicate that "making the extra pass" really can take them to a higher level, even if that extra pass is sometimes stolen or mishandled (more on that later).

Also note the low correlation between the Thunder’s field goal percentage and their opponents’. Have we busted the "defense leads to offense" myth once and for all? Well, not exactly. The table below shows that in victories, the Thunder outshoot their opponents by a higher percentage than they do in losses. Again, this won’t exactly make your jaw drop, but it also lends more credence to the fact that, when at their best, the Thunder help themselves on offense by clamping down on D.

Wins: Assists Turnovers Assist/TO FG% Opp FG% FG%/OppFG%
14 21.636 16.000 1.450 0.471 0.435 1.097
Losses: Assists Turnovers Assist/TO FG% Opp FG% FG%/OppFG%
8 20.875 15.750 1.400 0.465 0.438 1.077

If you’re not a numbers person, or if you’re like me and only pretend to be a numbers person, the shot charts tell a similar story. In the November 2nd loss to the Rockets, the Thunder posted their lowest Assist/Turnover ratio of the season at 0.71.  Take a look at the shot chart:

rockets shot chart

Now let’s look at the shot chart from Tuesday’s win against Memphis,  when the Thunder posted their highest Assist/Turnover ratio of the season at 2.58. The result? Not only a victory, but also their best shooting night of the year.

grizz shot chart

Let me highlight two things: 1) There was a whole lot of Serge against the Grizzlies, and 2) a lot more shots in the paint . Layups and dunks are part of basketball, but what I like most about this chart is the high volume of shots all over the paint - truly the result of players passing up good shots for great ones.

None of this is groundbreaking stuff. Instead, it’s the work of an average statistics student who had to Google several basic Excel functions. If you want to play around with these numbers and share some of your results in the Comments section, you can download the Excel file 2015-16 Thunder Stats .

Plus/Minus

+3 Serge Ibaka

Serge has been highly-criticized in recent weeks, so it’s only fair that he gets the +3 spot after he plays his two best games of the season. He was everywhere against the Hawks especially, basically showing off the kind of freakish skillset that leads to such high expectations in the first place. This was an incredible bounce-back week for Serge, who must keep the momentum going if the Thunder are to have success in the coming matchups against the Jazz and the Stifle Tower himself.

+2 Small Ball

The Westbrook/Waiters/Morrow/Durant/Ibaka lineup absolutely eviscerated Memphis in the 2nd quarter on Tuesday. The pick-and-pop game turned into a terrifying rim-running clinic, as it seemed like every possession was resulting in a Thunder dunk. This lineup also brought great energy on defense, as Durant more than held his own against the toughest interior in the league.

+1 Westbrook’s relentless unselfishness

You usually know which Westbrook you are getting by about the second Thunder possession of each game, and it was evident against Memphis and Atlanta that Russell was in distributor mode from the tip. He continues to find impossible passing lanes and is being rewarded with high-percentage finishes. This Russell Westbrook will lead the league in assists, and is probably the best Russell Westbrook if the Thunder want any chance at eventually taking on Golden State.

Honorable Mention: Flipping the script

I couldn’t rank this above the others, but it certainly was a very positive development: against the Kings, the Thunder were down 95-89 with under two and a half minutes to play – in other words, they were in the exact same spot that has led to so many losses this year already.

Much like the victory over Dallas a couple Sundays earlier, this win felt a bit like a changing of the tide. It felt like a turning point where Kevin Durant said "enough" and the 2015-16 Thunder stopped losing close games. If OKC are able to start racking up some wins, this might end up being a game that is looked back on as the night the Thunder drew a season-saving line in the sand.

0 Last week there was nothing positive to say

This week? Glad it averaged out.

-1 Is it just me?

Is anyone else starting to get that Mario Chalmers-ishfeeling about Jeff Teague?

-2 Nothing

-3 No one