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Plus/Minus: Make the Thunder Great Again!

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Don't you want to Make the Thunder Great Again? Also, why Steven Adams is a max player, the Spurs are a max team, and why OKC should consider saying "no" to Iso Joe.

© Isaiah J. Downing

Welcome to "Plus/Minus," a series focusing 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 completely neutral.

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I want to Make the Thunder Great Again. Don’t you want to Make the Thunder Great Again? As I turned off my television last night, I assumed that today’s focus would be on why the Thunder’s defense is holding them back from being Great Again.

I couldn’t wait to write about failures to get back on defense, Russell’s harmful insistence on playing free safety, and how the "Ibakaness" of Serge that once referred to breathtaking, mistake-erasing athleticism is now insider code for, "can’t stay with smaller guys and gets outmuscled by pretty much everyone." Make no mistake – all of that stuff is very real. But the truth is that when the 2015-16 Thunder lose, it’s usually because of their offense.

Again, let’s stress very plainly that a championship team ranking in the bottom half of the league in points allowed is a bit of an oxymoron. In fact, the Eye Test might lead responsible members of the Thunder community to check that math, as it’s almost impossible to imagine worse defensive performances than those put together by OKC in 3 of 4 games since the All Star Break. If someone with no prior knowledge of the Thunder watched them last night for the first time, how could you possibly convince them that this team only allows an average of 102.5 points per game?

In Thunder losses this season, they are giving up 108.6 points per game – a 6.0% increase over their season average. In these same losses, however, they are scoring only 101.1 points per game – 7.9% less than their season average. So while the defense has been consistently and unmistakenly poor this year, losses in general have been more a result of a failing offense than a failing defense.

I wanted to see how this stacks up against other top teams. The chart below includes data for the Thunder, along with the five other most winning teams this season.

Analysis of Points For and Against in Losses for Top NBA Teams
Points For in Losses Season Average % Below Avg Points Against in Losses Season Average % Above Avg
Thunder 101.1 109.8 7.9% 108.6 102.5 6.0%
Warriors 99.2 115.3 14.0% 116.8 103.9 12.4%
Spurs 93.4 105.1 11.1% 104.1 92.4 12.7%
Cavaliers 93.2 103.1 9.6% 103.3 96.9 6.6%
Raptors 95.6 102.4 6.6% 108.0 97.6 10.7%
Clippers 100.3 104.8 4.3% 108.5 100.2 8.3%

A few notes:
  • I do understand that you could easily flip the narrative here, explaining away these numbers as the result of a poor Thunder defense unable to cover for the offense on down nights. You can pretty easily make a case that 101 points should be enough on most nights. But this is Russell Westbrook- and Kevin Durant-era OKC. This team wins with offense, and always will win with offense, and when they lose it’s because they perform more poorly against their season average on offense than they do against their season average on defense.
  • The Thunder average more offensive points in losses than any other top team, but the percentage decrease from their season average is lower than that of the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavaliers. What does this mean? Well, for one, the Warriors and Spurs are falling so far below their season scoring averages in their limited losses that you could easily dismiss the performances as the inevitable duds that come for every NBA team in every NBA season. The Thunder’s losses, though, are not so drastic. These are workingman’s offensive struggles – the kind that are less a complete meltdown and more just an offense that isn’t as good as it needs to be some nights. There are going to be games where nothing is falling. We can live with those losses. But when you consider that a team that wins because of its offense is a Dion Waiters airball or two away from regressing to a losing performance level, you can kind of see why some of these losses keep happening.
  • The Thunder have the lowest point differential in losses of all five teams, losing by an average of 7.5 points – or 3 possessions. An optimist (and I am one) might point out that the Thunder are, on average, only a single possession or two away from changing late-game situations entirely and possibly turning losses into wins. Last night against New Orleans was a perfect example, as Westbrook’s (very makeable) missed layup late changed everything. Instead of just needing a stop, the Thunder had to start fouling.

If you take one thing from this chart, make it this:

The Spurs are a very real threat to take down the Warriors. The Spurs and Clippers are the only teams studied that score more points in losses than they give up on average for the full season. Simply put, even when their offense is flailing, the Spurs and Clippers can turn losses into wins by playing merely team-average defense. Conversely, the Thunder and Spurs are the only teams that can win by playing season-average offense on nights when they are playing their losing-average defense. To see San Antonio included in both of those scenarios is absolutely insane. The Warriors and the Thunder beat you by scoring. The Raptors generally win with good defense. The Spurs, though, can consistently survive below-average nights on either end of the floor, provided they merely play to their average level of performance on the other.

For some historical perspective, I also looked at these same statistics for the past five Thunder seasons. Remember when the Thunder were great? Do you want the Thunder to be Great Again? If you want the Thunder To Be Great Again, check out the highlighted boxes for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons – the only two seasons that the Thunder depended more on their defense to avoided losses than their offense.

Analysis of Points For and Against in Thunder Losses, 2010-11-Present
Points For in Losses Season Average % Below Avg Points Against in Losses Season Average % Above Avg
2015-16 101.1 109.8 7.9% 108.6 102.5 6.0%
2014-15 96.4 104.0 7.3% 106.1 101.8 4.2%
2013-14 99.7 106.2 6.1% 108.4 99.8 8.6%
2012-13 99.3 105.7 6.1% 106.3 96.5 10.2%
2011-12 95.4 103.1 7.5% 102.3 96.9 5.6%
2010-11 96.3 104.8 8.1% 104.8 101.0 3.8%

Plus/Minus

+3 This

+2 Steven Adams, max player

It seems almost criminal to develop such a jaded attitude towards what Russell Westbrook has done since the All Star break, but Thunder fans aren’t the only ones who see these 8-foot one-handed jumpers that Steven Adams is converting at a high rate. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Adams is hitting 52.2% of shots from 3-10 feet, up from 40.8% a year ago. From 10-16 feet, Adams is hitting at a 50% clip, compared to last year’s 33.3%.

Let’s look at the full picture here: you have a 22 year old center with 18 playoff games under his belt. He has started for a contender for nearly two full seasons, and is posting 10 rebounds per 36 minutes for his career, while providing a statistically-positive impact on defense overall. Add all of this to his clearly burgeoning offensive game and tremendous catching ability and awareness in traffic, and you have an unmistakable max-salary center.

Am I biased? Yeah – really, really biased. But how many centers are you taking over Adams going forward? Everyone on earth is taking these guys over Steven Adams for the foreseeable future:

  • DeMarcus Cousins
  • Karl-Anthony Towns
  • Brook Lopez
  • Andre Drummond
  • DeAndre Jordan
  • Al Horford
  • Rudy Gobert
  • Jahlil Okafor
  • Hassan Whiteside

But other than that, when it’s time to renew his contract, will Steven Adams be that much worse of a long-term center prospect than Dwight Howard or even the Greg Monroe’s and Jonas Valanciunas’s of the world?

I’m not saying Steven Adams is a Top 5 center or an All Star. I’m just saying that there are 30 NBA teams, and there are fewer than 30 starting-caliber NBA centers. Even in a league that is going small, expect the next Steven Adams contact to present an unexpected, but pleasant surprising dilemma for Sam Presti.

+1 Russell Westbrook, on offense, post-All Star Break (it’s happening again)

His defense has been part of the overall problem for the Thunder, but it’s almost kind of nitpicking. In four games since the All Star Break, Russell Westbrook is averaging 27.8 points and 12.8 assists on 54% shooting. His Assist/Turnover ratio since the All Star Break is 7.3/1.

Is it all happening again? What is it about February (and hopefully once again March) that sends Westbrook to a new level while other stars limp through the dog days of the season? Does Russ even know that they probably aren’t catching San Antonio?

To survive an NBA season, even superstars have to pick their spots. Westbrook is no different, except for the fact that he chooses 82 of them.

0 Joe Johnson

Whatever. I am not sure if Joe Johnson will Make The Thunder Great Again. I do know that his signing would be the final nail in the Dion Waiters coffin. Who else could Johnson possibly replace? He does, statistically speaking, provide a more positive impact on both ends of the floor than Waiters does.

I am a Washington Redskins fan, and for me this signing would reek of Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith. "Great!" you might say – "those guys are Hall of Famers." Unfortinately, I am referring to the 2000-vintages of Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith – two of the worst starters of a bad generation of Redskins.

Signing Joe Johnson might not be sinking that low (and anyone is an improvement, considering how Waiters has played this week), but he would sure be an awkward fit on the Thunder, and I am already cringing at the thought of ESPN.com front page features that tout the Holy Trinity of Curry/Thompson/Draymond against Westbrook, Durant, and…34-year old Joe Johnson.

EDIT: After this was filed, it was reported that Joe Johnson will likely sign with the Miami Heat.

-1 The Relegation of Cameron Payne

What was that about the Randy Foye deal being about money? Why is this guy playing instead of Cameron Payne? I understand that, a) Donovan rightfully wants Foye to get properly-oriented, and b) the Thunder are in the midst of a crucial stretch where rookie mistakes could easily smack them down to the fourth seed, but it will be interesting to watch this play out. Payne played just 10 minutes against Cleveland and 5 minutes against Dallas, with Foye getting 22 minutes and 17 minutes, respectively.

If this trend continues, it will signal a confused approach by Billy Donovan and Sam Presti. I’m not sure Randy Foye was the missing piece to the Thunder’s puzzle to help them push past Golden State, so why was he added and currently taking Payne's minutes? Was Presti’s lack of dealing a concession that the Warriors are virtually unbeatable? If so, why not develop Payne as much as possible this year? Or maybe Presti’s lack of dealing a sign that he is comfortable with the Thunder roster as currently constructed. Cameron Payne has been part of that roster, with his increased role helping spur the team’s most successful stretch of the season. And if Foye really was just a cost-saving acquisition, why is he disrupting the lineup at all?

Either way, pumping the brakes on Payne doesn’t make sense at this point.

-2 The bench

The Thunder bench is clearly a disaster, at best incapable of facilitating extra rest for Westbrook or Durant, and at worst blowing games completely. Despite watching just about every Thunder game this season, each time Kyle Singler checks in, my immediate impulse is to wonder who is injured. Surely, I assume for a split second, there is some other guy serving as a buffer between Kevin Durant and Kyle Singler.

Enes Kanter is playing hard and playing well, but apart from him there is just a disturbing drop-off in talent. I truly expected a bench unit of Payne/Waiters/Morrow/McGary/Kanter to be a legitimate strength for the Thunder this year. I’m not sure where things went wrong, or if this was just an asinine prediction to begin with, but this is not going well.

-3 Dion Waiters

Speaking of workingman’s struggles, after lighting up the Pelicans on 2-6 shooting before the All Star Break, Dion Waiters went an entire working-class pay period without making a single field goal. His lowlight reel has been distributed ad nauseam by now, but that shouldn’t underscore its impact. It’s fine to hate popular things, and it’s never too mainstream to hate on something capable of and hellbent on maiming Russell Westbrook’s historic season.