The Thunder opened the season with a conference leading 6-1 record on the back of the third best defense in the league, boasting a remarkable 94.6 defensive rating. Head Coach Billy Donovan, however, was not impressed. When explaining his trepidation, he mentioned the volume of corner three-point shots his team was allowing. Despite holding opponents to only 23.9% on these shots, they were a allowing 7.7 attempts per game, among the worst in the league.
Donovan’s concern? “...if the percentages play themselves out over 82 games, that’s not gonna be good.” Shooting averages tend toward the mean, and Donovan knew that if the attempts remained that high, eventually teams would start making shots in greater volume.
As feared, the defense fell apart in the following games. Since that 6-1 start, the defense has become very average, with a DRtg of 102.7 —a mark that rests at 13th in the league. In that span, opponents are hitting 41.2% of corner threes on 6.8 attempts.
If you’ve ever listened to Michael Cage’s commentary, you understand why teams love the corner three-point shot. In general, it’s about two-feet shorter than the rest of the arc, depending on the shooter’s location along the corner line. Because of this fact, it tends to be the second most valuable shot behind layups. Teams actively look for this shot, which means it is imperative that the defense takes this option away.
So why does the Thunder give up such a large volume of these? The tape tells the tale, so lets get into a breakdown of some of the main causes. It is important to note that the ball going in the basket doesn’t mean the defense was poor, or vice-versa. Sometimes open shots miss, but evaluating the cause for the defensive breakdown is still important.
One of the most obvious culprits for open corner threes is transition. In these situations, not only can the offense outnumber the defense, but the defenders are scrambling and usually not communicating effectively. Decisions are accelerated, and this plays into the hands of the offense.
With the Thunder being the 8th most turnover-prone team, transition defense has a heightened effect. Because the first rule of transition defense is to protect the basket, these turnovers will inevitably result in a greater amount of open corner threes. Minimizing these looks is imperative.
In this first example, we see the problem of communicating in transition. Domantas Sabonis is attempting to stop the ball and protect the rim, believing he has no help. Andre Roberson doesn’t have an angle to help on Young in the corner, choosing to instead seal the inside angle in the lane. Joffrey Lauvergne is the first man back and should be directing the others. However, all four of the defenders who are back sit in the paint.
One of the rules of transition defense is that every player needs to match up with an offensive player as soon as they get down the floor. The mix-up in this case came between Joffrey and Domas picking up the same man, leaving the shooter open in the corner.
This is a much better example of how transition defense should work. Nick Collison and Enes Kanter drop into the paint to protect the rim from the attacking Rockets. Because they have a two on two matchup in the lane, Harden chooses to kick to the corner. However, because of the positioning, Kanter is perfectly placed to close out on Ryan Anderson, contesting the shot well. On the backside, Roberson guards against the swing pass to Dekker, and Russ matches up against Harden. Essentially, the defense rotates and ends up preventing the option of passing. Instead, Anderson shoots a contested shot and misses.
So let’s go through the transition defense checklist.
- Protect the Rim - Check
- Close out on Shooters - Check
- Get Numbers Back - Check
- Every Defender Guards a Man - Check
The nature of transition defense is that the offense has the advantage. Therefore, the defensive approach should be to force the worst shot possible, or to get the offense to settle into the halfcourt. If either of those two outcomes occurs, it is a successful transition possession.
The Thunder has had some significant defensive rotation issues this season. Defensive rotations are especially important because they factor into protecting at the rim as well as the corner three, which happen to be the two most valuable shots.
Part of the cause of this problem is the number of new faces in the rotation. Defensive is often instinctive and reactionary, and knowing how your teammates will respond goes a long way in making the correct decisions yourself. Additionally, communication is typically better among those who have some familiarity.
Joffrey does well on this play to rotate into the paint and prevent the roll-man from getting an easy layup. However, once he hands off the responsibility back to Kanter, he is slow in finding his own man who has rotated into the corner. He closes out, but is too late to effectively contest and allows an open shot that goes in. The initial rotation was executed perfectly, but the recovery was simply too late to be effective. A momentary lapse in defense is all that is required to compromise the entire effort.
Again, we see Joffrey being the offender on a slow rotation. Through watching film, I saw this quite often. Perhaps he is still learning something schematic, but he tends to get sucked into the paint to the point of no return. However, this isn’t entirely his fault. Oladipo jogs behind the play, forcing Joffrey to overcommit. Once Oladipo got around the screen, he should have gotten back into the play and allowed Joffrey to recover.
This could have been one of the best defensive sequences of the season, with sharper timing. Roberson and Sabonis trap off of the side Pick and Roll, allowing the roll-man to pop out. Westbrook sees this and rotates to cover that first pass. The ball gets swung to Russ’ man, but Abrines closes hard to force another pass. If Joffrey saw this unfolding sooner, he could have rotated to Abrines’ man and this entire play would be stifled. Sabonis had already recovered into the paint, as had Roberson, meaning that every player was defended on the back side. Unfortunately, Joffrey was a step slow, and the play resulted in an open shot from the corner.
This is an example of a proper rotation. Oladipo helps inside to prevent the reverse layup, but because Roberson is still in the play, Dipo is able to quickly shift his focus back to his own man in the corner. He gets a great contest on the shot.
Grant executes a similar rotation to Dipo. He slides into the paint to protect against the layup by the roll-man, or the reverse by the ball handler. However, he sees that the play has been cut off and recovers quickly. Because of this quick rotation, he actually blocks the shot from the corner.
Roberson gives a third great example. Abrines is a step behind on the drive, so Roberson slides in and encourages the pass. As soon as the ball is kicked out, he recovers under control and with his hand up. The shooter goes ahead with the attempt, but it is no longer an easy look.
The difficulty in these rotations is that rotating early or not committing to protecting the rim can result in open layups or dunks. It is important that the defense commits to acting decisively and quickly on their rotations to prevent these two types of shots from being taken easily.
Before anyone thinks that I am “hating” on Russ, know that I am not. What he is doing this season is remarkable. However, he makes compromises on defense in order to drive the offense. Often, this comes via rebound hunting. Grabbing these boards allows him to kickstart the offense in transition. However, it also can result in open shots. It’s important for him to be smart about his compromises, and for his teammates to react when he does leave a man open.
I included these 3 clips together because of their similarity. In all 3 cases, Russ has abandoned his man to stay close to the rim. Whether he thought he had a responsibility to help or if he was rebound hunting, his man ends up wide open in the corner.
However, in all 3 clips, Roberson sees what Russ is doing and makes the recovery for him. If you’ve ever wondered why Russ speaks so highly of Dre’s defensive ability, perhaps this is it. He knows that, if he chooses to take a play off, Dre will be there to bail him out. Sometimes, when a guy is forced to give so much effort on the offensive end, it’s going to fall on his teammates to help him on defense. These are great examples of what that entails.
Pick and Roll Errors
Sometimes, the rotation isn’t the problem. At times, the coverage on the pick and roll plays is so bad that the help defense has no choice but to concede an open shot, either at the rim or from the corner. In these cases, the ultimate rule of protecting the rim dictates that they abandon their own man in the corner to help a teammate.
Detroit smartly attacks Semaj Christon and Enes Kanter in the pick and roll on this play. Semaj gets pushed behind the play and Kanter isn’t aggressive enough on the ballhandler to stop the play. Roberson is forced to rotate onto the roll to prevent the drop off pass. He attempts to recover when the ball is swung to the corner, but it’s too late. The breakdown in the initial defense had a ripple effect on the rest of the play.
An off-ball screen completely breaks down the defense here. It appears that Westbrook and Adams anticipated a play that didn’t occur, and Roberson had to rotate to the rim to prevent an open dunk. It’s never a good sign when all 5 defenders end up on the same side of the court. The closest defender is 22 feet from the shooter when the pass is made. Grant should probably rotate to the corner as soon as he sees the breakdown on this play, but stopping that initial error is the key to eliminating these plays.
Sabonis makes a major, rookie mistake on this play. His man runs up and sets a flat screen on Dipo. The brilliance of a flat screen is that it allows the ball-handler to attack either side without discrimination. Sabonis should probably hang back until the guard commits to a direction, but instead tries to hedge hard. The screener shifts his feet just enough to force Dipo toward Sabonis, effectively screening both defenders. Joffrey slides in to protect the rim, giving up the corner 3. Again, Morrow could slide to the corner (and probably should), but eliminating those initial errors is the first priority.
This is a well defended sequence, despite Russ completely giving up on the play. Joffrey plays the passing angle as well as the drive, with Sabonis helping on the roll. Because of his position, Sabonis is able to recover as soon as the ball is swung to the corner. He gets a good contest on the shot, which bricks off the rim.
Again, Russ allows himself to get behind the play on a screen, and Roberson is forced to commit to stop the roll. Once that has been taken away, the ball is swung to the corner. Roberson closes out under control, gets a hand up, and forces a tough shot. It drops, but these plays are how you help yourself recover from an initial mistake.
Offensive rebounds often compromise the defense in a way similar to fast break attempts, except on offensive rebounds, all 5 offensive players are generally available to cash in on the jumbled defense.
This is honestly a little bit painful to watch. Not only has the initial mistake of giving up an offensive rebound been made, none of the defenders attempt to reset the defense. Joffrey and Russ both stand and watch, neither making an effort to recover to an offensive player. This shot from the corner is as wide open as you can get. And because defenders didn’t recover, they also weren’t prepared to box-out off the miss. Making quick decisions in these cases is imperative to not giving up any easy points.
Hopefully, this article better explained why Donovan was concerned about the defense, even during the hot start, and the root causes for the problem. As the season unfolds and the players get to know each other better, some of these issues will hopefully be remedied. However, without a commitment to focusing and giving total effort on that end of the floor, these breakdowns will continue to occur, and the team will be worse for it.