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Oklahoma City Thunder Filmroom: Small ball lineup of meh

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Examining why OKC’s small-ball lineup has struggled thus far

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Of late, much of the discussion in the WTLC comment section has revolved around Billy Donovan’s game-closing lineup sans Steven Adams. While this stealth grouping has presented some success —allowing the Thunder to close the gap against Houston— it has also seen its troubling moments, like against Atlanta when it allowed the Hawks to creep within a single possession to end the game.

The highlighted lineup features a quintet of individuals who are each 6’9” or shorter. The construction of the unit is as follows: Jerami Grant moves to the center position, Andre Roberson the power forward, Anthony Morrow the small forward, Victor Oladipo the shooting guard, and Russell Westbrook runs point.

Despite the disconcerting signs exhibited by this collective, Donovan continues to utilize it throughout closing situations. This article attempts to look at why he uses it and the success and failures it has experienced thus far.

Donovan’s Strategy

Billy Donovan has often expressed his concern with the volume of three-point shots his “normal” defense allows, particularly from the corners. We examined the reasons for these shortcomings in a previous film study, and one of the culprits was defenders getting behind the play in pick-and-roll situations.

With the game on the line, and the opposition running out shooter-filled lineups, Donovan has attempted to mitigate this issue by countering with a lineup that can switch at the point of attack. This logic, theoretically, should prevent the defense from getting behind the play. When you switch on every screen, you essentially tell the opponent that you will accept any one-on-one matchup they throw at you.

Believe it or not, this is very similar to how San Antonio has defended the Golden State Warriors with great success. When the Warriors set screens, the Spurs switch aggressively, not giving the ball-handler any space. As a result, the three-point shots upon which the Warriors thrive disappear —or at least become contested, difficult shots.

However, there are two significant differences in how Coach Popovich runs this defense compared to Billy Donovan. Popovich uses this strategy within the natural flow, choosing to use the lineups he prefers rather than attempting to react to the offensive personnel. This means that, on occasion, Lamarcus Aldridge ends up defending Steph Curry 30-feet from the basket. However, Pop trusts his bigs to challenge guards on the perimeter; even if they are not capable of stopping them. Because San Antonio is fundamentally sound, rotations typically allow this to be effective. Conversely, Billy Donovan does not trust his bigs in the same way, choosing to instead modify his lineup to accommodate this defensive strategy.

The second, and perhaps more significant, difference is that Pop has a zero-tolerance policy toward players who will not give effort on the defensive end. Popovich’s creed has delivered results —as his players have no option but to respect his all-time resume.

One important factor to consider when switching everything is that players are left on a defensive island, often with little help on the back end. This is especially true against lineups primarily consisting of shooters. An unmotivated player simply doesn’t work in this scheme.

So, while Donovan’s strategy makes sense on paper, it has some flaws in the implementation phase. These flaws emerge in actual game play. The following sections of this article will look at both the successes and failures of this lineup.

Switching

The entire purpose of using the small lineup we are examining is to be able to switch on every screen. This generally allows you to pick your on-ball defenders —as it operates as a pseudo-zone defense— while never getting behind the play. To an extent, it has been successful in this operation.

Figure 1: Bradley Beal Miss

In this play, Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson run the switch to perfection. Robes stays in perfect position to cut off Beal’s drive while preventing the pass to a cutting Wizard player. Oladipo recovers, turning back into a one-on-one scenario that Beal counters with a misfired step-back three. By switching, the Thunder ensured that the defensive success was going to come down to only two players. When you reduce the number of people involved, the chance of mistakes decreases dramatically.

Figure 2: Wall Miss

Again, OKC runs a switch at the top of the key. Wall drives against Grant, forcing a tough layup attempt that overshoots the rim badly. This is the objective of switching; it reduces offenses to isolation attempts. If you can trust your defenders, it is going to be a very successful scheme.

I’d also like you to notice where Anthony Morrow is standing in both of these plays. Morrow has been given responsibility of guarding the corner. Because the Thunder is switching everything, it is unlikely his responsibility will deviate much from guarding his area. Because of this, he is no longer a defensive liability. As long as the initial defense is solid, he can remain glued to the shooter throughout the entire possession.

Help Defense

Now to address the negative aspect of this strategy. Because you are trusting your initial defenders and are playing predominately perimeter guys, the help defense is bound to suffer. Jeremy Grant is a very good shot blocker and Roberson a good help defender, but if you have those guys as primary defenders, playing above the break, they are out of position to help. This means that, if the initial defender is beaten, the help responsibility falls on a guard who likely is either incapable or not accustomed to protecting the rim.

Figure 3: Millsap Make

OKC runs a switch prior to the beginning of this clip, with Russ defending Paul Millsap and Grant defending Dennis Schroder. Roberson cannot leave Kyle Korver, one of the best shooters in the NBA, and Jerami Grant is guarding the top of the key. Westbrook gets beaten easily (the effort is pretty embarrassing), which means that help defense has to come from Victor Oladipo. The help never comes, and Atlanta is able to easily pull within two possessions.

Figure 4: Schroder Make

Oladipo is isolated at the top of the key. Grant and Roberson are both defending above the break, taking them out of help position. Both are also defending shooters, meaning they cannot leave their assignment. The responsibility to help falls on Russ, who is defending a mediocre shooter in Thabo Sefolosha. Russ has no intention of helping, and this results in an open layup.

In each example, the switch situated players in a position that was not conducive to optimal help defense. When the initial defense broke down, the result was already clear.

Rebounding

Another problem the small lineup presents is on the defensive boards. The lineup lacks height, at an average of about 6’6”. This could be okay, as it usually matches up against corresponding small lineups, and the players are almost all exceptional athletes. However, a lack of fundamentals tends to doom OKC’s group. Grant and Oladipo are mediocre rebounders. Morrow is outright bad at rebounding. Roberson is decent for his size, but is rarely in position due to his defensive duties. Russ is an exceptionally skilled rebounder, but doesn’t box out. The result is a lot of tipped rebounds and put backs.

Figure 5: Anderson Rebound

This play illustrates the mental aspect of rebounding which is woefully lacking with this group. Russ gets caught watching Roberson defend Harden and allows Beverly a free run to the rim. Grant attempts to box out Beverly, failing to realize that Anderson is crashing down the baseline. Oladipo doesn’t even attempt to get in on the rebound. Worst of all, no one attempts to find the path of the ball. This shot should have been clearly short, and yet none of the players moved toward the rim. If you don’t see the ball in flight, you are trusting the rebound to chance rather than aggressively pursuing it.

Figure 6: Gortat Rebound

This play demonstrates the size issues confronted by this lineup. Coach Brooks had reinserted Gortat while Donovan stuck with Grant at the 5 spot. Grant attempts to box out, but Gortat uses his greater size to slap the rebound out. This lineup is going to struggle against traditional bigs, and in reality, when Washington inserted Gortat, the justification for this lineup diminished. Adams most certainly should have been on the court for this play.

Offensive Screening

Not only does this undersized lineup have a negative impact upon the defense’s success, it also changes the ability of the offense to function. One of the staples to OKC’s offense has been the Westbrook-Adams high pick-and-roll. With no traditional bigs to set that screen, the initial action of the offense isn’t as effective, meaning the drive-and-kick opportunities diminish. Donovan has, on occasion, attempted to remedy this by having Roberson come out to set a flat screen, but he doesn’t pose the same threat rolling to the basket that Adams does, simply because he is a smaller target. Grant is an ineffective screener. Perhaps Morrow can run a pick-and-pop action, but that still limits the opportunities in the paint.

Figure 7: Oladipo Miss

This play actually results in a very good shot, but it is inches away from being an open dunk on the other end. Grant completely whiffs on the screen, allowing Beverly and Anderson to trap Russ. Because the sideline is coming up, Russ is forced to get rid of the ball. He actually misses a great action to provide Morrow with an open corner-3, instead opting for a risky pass to Grant. The entire timing of this play was disrupted by the failure to make contact with Beverly on the initial screen.

Figure 8: Westbrook Miss

The Thunder initially attempted to have Roberson set a flat screen for Russ on this play. However, Korver and Thabo are both above-average defenders, meaning it was ineffective. Because the offense never fully initiates, Russ is forced to iso Thabo, which ends in a very difficult shot. Having a big to set the screen and roll would be much more effective in getting a better look.

Offensive Positioning

Another impact of playing small is that the “bigs” on the court are actually wings who are playing out of position. Because of this, their entire offensive role is changed. In this particular lineup, Roberson and Grant are suddenly interior players rather than perimeter players. Roberson seems to have adjusted —but he played as a power forward throughout his pre-NBA career. Jerami Grant may have played a similar role, but seems to be more understanding of perimeter responsibilities. As a result, he often misreads the play and ends up in the wrong spot at the wrong time, bogging down the offense.

Figure 9: Westbrook Miss

In this play, Roberson is on the baseline opposite of the ball, moving toward the paint. This is the perfect location for a drop-off pass, should his defender help over on Russ. You’ll often see Enes Kanter in this exact location. It minimizes the effects of the help defense clogging the paint. However, on this play, Grant slides down into the same area, allowing his defender to cover both Roberson and Grant while Roberson’s defender contests the layup. If Grant had moved into the paint at about the 10 foot mark, Russ would have had two dump off options, one of which would have been open for a good look at the rim.

Figure 10: Westbrook Miss

The flat screen by Roberson gets the desired switch, isolating James Harden on defense against Westbrook. However, Jerami Grant is again standing on the ball-side baseline. Westbrook is stuck seeing a crowd as he drives and throws up an errant shot. Had Grant slid to the opposite side, Russ could have posted up Harden as Oladipo rotated around the perimeter, or even had a chance to get to the rim.

Figure 11: Russ Miss

Deja Vu? In this instance, the flat screen results with Harden defending Russ. Russ drives to the rim, but Grant is on the wrong side of the court, meaning his defender can help with no consequences. I don’t know if Grant is being coached to stand there, but it is a mistake that completely destroys OKC’s ability to effectively attack the rim.

Figure 12: Grant Miss

This is why Grant should not be on the ball-side of the court. Russ drives and Grant’s defender slides to the rim. Russ kicks out to Grant, giving him an open 15-foot shot. However, Grant is not good from this range. Atlanta considers this a defensive win. If Grant is on the other side of the basket, either his man will commit, leaving Grant an open layup, or Roberson’s man is forced to commit entirely to help, giving up an open corner 3. Instead, the defense can choose where they want to be.

Figure 13: Correct Spacing

I picked an arbitrary basket to demonstrate how the actual big men on this team position themselves on drives. Perhaps it isn’t the best example, as it comes in transition, but it still shows the principles. Both Adams and Kanter move away from the ball side, and both are moving in such a way that they occupy a defender. Even if they aren’t involved in the initial play, they’ve ensured they have position for the rebound. This forces the help defense at the rim to momentarily hesitate, and Russ gets a very good look at the rim.

Figure 14: Westbrook Miss

On this play, Grant misses the timing of the crash to the basket. Russ beats the defense and draws the help, leaving Grant a lane to the rim for a dunk. We’ve seen Russ make that little pocket pass to Kanter or Adams hundreds of times. Grant fails to make himself available in time, and Russ has no choice but to try and finish a tough layup. Notice that Roberson is not on the ball side, and Anderson is forced to stay on him rather than help against Russ.

Conclusion

It’s clear that, while the strategy may be sound on paper, this small lineup presents flaws that make it suspect in the long run. Perhaps giving the lineup minutes during the regular season is a good idea, as it allows the players a chance to learn new roles. However, using it in crunch time is probably not the best choice. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that this team cannot throw away wins. Perhaps mixing in this lineup earlier in games would be a better option, and in crunch time, adding Adams to the mix would be more successful.