Parting the Blue Sea: why the Thunder defense has become a sieve

The parting of the Blue Sea


"Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude." - Thomas Jefferson

It doesn't take a basketball expert to see that the Thunder defense has not been acceptable of late. The turning point seemed to occur during the Brooklyn loss, but even before that point, flashes of inconsistency hinted at a lurking problem that was waiting to rear its ugly head. In an attempt to diagnose the root cause of this flaw in the defense, I will look at the most obvious potential causes: scheme, lineups, defensive fundamentals, and good old-fashioned effort.

*Readers, be warned: the following images depict graphic failings of basic defensive principles that may cause nausea and high blood pressure. Those who are not masochists may find the following article to be disturbing.


When Billy Donovan was announced as the new head coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder, fans and experts alike naturally wondered what the new basketball mind would bring to the franchise. His teams at Florida were known for pressing on defense, employing lots of double teams in a search for what his magic number: allowing fewer than 0.9 points per possession. Basically, he wanted to minimize easy shots and force the opposing offense into uncomfortable finishes. To read more about his defense at Florida, here is an article that provides some insight.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Billy Donovan from his time in the college coaching ranks was his fluidity in philosophy. From 2000 to 2013, he had multiple defensive scheme changes that improved the consistency of his defense. Rather than running the hard press that is common in college but unheard of in professional ball, he began to shift toward a 3/4 court or even 1/2 court defense. However, defense in the NBA is much more difficult and requires precision on another level.

In previous seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder was known for being a defensively minded team that succeeded on offense in spite of its self. Whether or not that assessment was fair is controversial, but no one doubted the defensive ability of the team. The Thunder was a constant in the top 5 list of defensive teams, until the 2014-2015 season, when injuries ripped everything apart. Even when starting Sebastian Telfair and Lance Thomas, the Thunder remained competitive by locking in on the defensive end. Perhaps the game most telling of how that patchwork team survived was against Houston on November 16, 2014, when the final score was 69-65. The Rockets had shooting splits of 28-20-53 and 14 turnovers to only 11 assists. If it weren't for poor rebounding and ever poorer offense, the Thunder would have won this game by an obscene margin.

How did a team that played Lance Thomas 26 minutes, Sebastian Telfair 21, and Anthony Morrow 28, lock in on a team that was quite good offensively last season? How did they hold the Rockets to 27 points in the second half and only 9 in the third quarter? Some of it was effort, but I believe that scheme played a role as well. Under Scott Brooks, the Thunder defense was very aggressive. The bigs hedged hard on screen and rolls, players fought through screens to recover, and the help defense collapsed hard and recovered even harder. Sometimes the aggression led to easy looks, but overall it was effective in forcing tough shots.

Enter Billy Donovan. The Thunder had just signed Enes Kanter to a near-max deal and wanted to find a way to play him as much as they could. However, on the defensive end of the court, Kanter prescribes to what could be called the quicksand philosophy of defense. In quicksand, you are told not to move as that results in you getting sucked down faster. Let's just say this: Kanter would survive for a long time. However, his offense led to him getting paid, and it only made sense that, if the Thunder could cover for his noted defensive deficiencies, his offense would make it worth it. So Donovan changed the scheme.

Listening to the players, it was obvious who was hurt most by the change. Steven Adams said, "The guards hate it, and it's awesome for us." According to Roberson, the perimeter players "gotta press up on the ball and get around the screens" while "the big guy sits back a little more." According to Mitch McGary, "The guards are more involved in trying to get over the screens and helping the bigs get back to their man." And to get one last perspective, per Royce Young, "In the past, the Thunder have relied on more defensive-minded big men, which had them hedging harder on ball handlers coming off a screen. Now, with younger players ... set to see big minutes, the Thunder are having their bigs lay back a bit more and relying on the guards to pressure the ball and fight harder through on-ball screens."

Basically, the perimeter defenders became responsible to cover for the bigs behind them, rather than the normal case in which the bigs cover for the wings. At first, this change makes sense. Russ, Roberson, and Durant are better defenders than the likes of Kanter and McGary. By making a philosophy change, you can minimize the impact of bigs who can't defend and still get their offensive benefit. So what does this defense look like in actions?


This is a textbook example of the new scheme. Westbrook is defending Norris Cole here, and Adams is on Anthony Davis. As Davis screens for Cole, Westbrook presses up on Cole and Adams sits back. Russ chases hard over the screen, and Adams is there to deter both the roll from Davis and the drive from Cole. Serge, KD, and Roberson all are in good help position if either guy gets away from Russ or Adams. The next two examples are also good depictions of the scheme working smoothly.



In all 3 cases, the big is lurking behind to pick up both the roll man and the ball-handler. Essentially, the only option for a shot is a midrange jumper. But that's the kicker: in two out of these three plays that were run to perfection, the result was a basket for New Orleans. And this was with our two best big men defending. So while the defense achieved its goal of giving up a midrange jumper, the shot was open and the player drained it. If this was the result of the defense every time, you could live with that. A midrange jumper, even when open, isn't a particularly efficient shot. But this is the BEST CASE scenario. What does it look like when things go wrong? The image at the beginning of the article is a great example. The Red Sea put up more resistance to the Israelites than the Thunder defense did in that play. The following plays are other examples.


Singler is in a unique role here. He has to be able to play both as a wing and as a big. Here, he attempts to hedge on a screen rather than hanging back. Russ, expecting the normal defense from a big who is behind him, doesn't put any effort into containing Cole. However, because Singler didn't hang back, there is no last line of defense to slow down the drive. Serge is late rotating, and it's an easy layup.


Here, Serge is supposed to be hanging back to cover for Russ. But here is a fundamental error in the scheme. Serge also had to worry about Davis, as Davis is a more than capable shooter. If Serge stops the drive, Davis pops out for an open 3. Adams steps over to help, and Roberson and KD cover his man for him, but the 10 foot floater is wide open. The new scheme simply doesn't account for pick and pop bigs, and our defenders don't know how to respond.

The one advantage I see with the new scheme is that it lends itself well to running ICE against sideline pick and rolls. If you don't understand the concept of ICE, it's what Tom Thibodeau ran in Chicago, and is explained better here. It results in a double team of the ball handler on the baseline, and generally results in risky passes or bad decisions. Adams and Roberson ran it very smoothly last night as shown below, and the pass out should have been picked off.


To sum the concerns about the scheme up, I'll quote Herb Brown, a 40 year coaching veteran described by Scottie Pippen as "a defensive innovator" on pick and roll defensive strategy. "Pick-and-roll defense requires your players to force the dribbler away from the goal. Your team's mindset must be to stop penetration. The screener's defender has a tremendous responsibility in these situations... The defender on the ball must be physical, and the defender guarding the screener must contact show and step out to stop the ball from being reversed to the other side of the floor." Many of the basic concepts mentioned within his book Let's Talk Defense require aggressiveness, not the passiveness displayed by our new scheme. It is much better to attack the offense and take something away from them rather than sit back and let them dictate your actions.


One of the largest sources of consternation among Thunder fans regarding Billy Donovan this season has been his lineups and minute distribution. Everyone has their favorite player who deserves more time. The dreaded bench lineups that hemorrhaged massive runs every time it was on the floor was particularly egregious. I want to briefly look at what player combinations work defensively, and see if the combinations that don't are being overplayed.


Two man combinations should be taken with a grain of salt. The other guys on the floor matter as well. But when a certain number of minutes have been played, you can expect there to have been ample lineup variety to provide some insight. I worked with greater than 200 minute samples, and removed KD and Russ (as well as players no longer on team) to see what role players perform best on defense with Kanter. And the results are quite shocking. Before the season began, many believe that Serge could cover for Kanter when the two were on the floor together. But Serge is Kanter's worst pairing. Likewise, it was believed Roberson could help cover as well, but he too is among the worst companions for Enes (though this is contrary to last season's results, when he was one of the best with Kanter). I find it interesting that Kanter and Collison work so well together. They actually result in a quite healthy DRtg when paired. Perhaps Collison understanding positioning so well matters more than elite shot blocking on the help side.

Even more interestingly, when Kanter is combined with Singler and Collison, the DRtg is 91.1, on par with our starting lineup. Granted, this is generally against back ups, and there are only 123 minutes of data, but it seems as if players who understand positioning are essential to helping Kanter survive.

To avoid delving too deeply into the data, I will keep this portion short. I do want to make several points that I gathered from the data:

  • Morrow has less of a negative effect on the defense than does Kanter. He is part of several very capable defensive lineups, and when paired with Roberson, the DRtg is a stingy 90.6. However, we have not seen that pairing much, despite it intuitively being a great combination.
  • Roberson and Adams are by far our best two team defenders. Those two are in almost every top lineup in DRtg.
  • Collison still has a significant impact on the defensive end. His intelligence when it comes to movement and positioning have not decreased at all.
When prepping for writing this, I reread parts of Herb Brown's book on defense to recenter my knowledge in the fundamentals of good defense. I will mention some of these that I think are plaguing the Thunder most of all.

Rebound defensively with all 5 players

OKC is the best offensive rebounding team in the league, but is in the middle of the pack in defensive rebounding. This is a scheme thing, in addition to a fundamentals thing. This season, guards not named Westbrook leak out on the fastbreak as soon as shots go up, especially if they were defending on the ball side of the floor. Roberson in particular is where this can be seen. He was an elite rebounder coming into the league, and he was elite for a guard last season. The starting lineup was one of the best rebounding lineups in the NBA. But because we push so fast in transition, he is now average on rebounding, and the team as a whole is much worse at defensive rebounding.

Only switch with the objective to take something away from your opponent

You should never let the opponent dictate switches on defense. *Trigger warning* Everyone remembers the days of Derek Fisher guarding Tim Duncan in the post. Allowing the opponent to force mismatches gives up an advantage. You should only switch if it lets you dictate position, run the shot clock down, or gives you a situational advantage. We switch way too easily and lazily, and it gives our opponent the advantage.

Be an active defender on and off ball

This is perhaps the most glaring of our defensive failings. We have 2 guys who are consistent in this regard: Roberson and Adams (our best defensive pairing, not-so-coincidentally). Our guys tend to be good at one (Waiters, Serge, Payne) or none (Kanter, Morrow), or the effort simply isn't there (Russ, KD). This is the biggest key, to me, for beginning to fix the defense.

I could write an entire article based purely off of the defensive fundamentals, but I will restrain myself. The three above speak the loudest to my concerns this season.

"Try to improve on every possession. Effort and execution ARE NOT selective." - Herb Brown

The most disheartening thing about the defense of late has been the lack of effort and energy on that end of the floor. Guys who are leaving everything out there on offense don't seem to care about defense. Look at Russ in the following 3 pictures. QNBjHGj.0.png

Cole in the corner is Russ' man. Roberson tries to close out for him, but Russ decided not to follow Cole to the corner, and the result is a 3 point shot in which Russ is 24 feet away.

Russ is guarding Cunningham (44) here. I believe this was off of a switch. The ball swings to Cunningham at the top of the arc, with Russ again 20 feet away. A 3 second call on Ibaka prevents this from biting us, but the effort to stay with his man was not there.

Another wide open corner 3 with Russ 24 feet away. Nothing more to say here.


This is on both Russ and KD. Russ was slow up court, leaving Cole a lane. KD is sort of sitting in that lane, but really isn't defending anyone. Kudos to Singler for at least attempting to defend the ball, but this effort is sickening.


This, too is on Russ. He is nowhere to be seen, and New Orleans has a 4 on 3. Roberson attempts to close out from 20 feet away, but this play was doomed when Russ didn't get back in transition.

The most terrifying part of this section is that I only pulled examples from the first half of the game. The effort arguably got worse in the second half. Even more concerning is that the leaders of the team are the most frequent culprits of lazy defense. One of Herb Brown's qualities of a good teammate is this: "Always think first about what is best for the team's success." If our leaders on the floor aren't showing this in their defensive effort, then how can they expect any better from their teammates?
The old adage that defense wins championships has been proven time and again. In a season in which not one, but two teams are putting up historic margins of victory, this is more true than ever. Because of scheme changes, personnel mismanagement, poor fundamentals, and a general lack of effort, the Thunder does not have a championship defense. For this to change (and it must change), the entire organization needs to reevaluate their attitudes, and commit to giving 100% every moment of each game, and learning from their mistakes. If they are unwilling to make that commitment, they will be going fishing while the elites battle it out on the big stage.

This post does not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of Welcome to Loud City or SB Nation. However, it was made by one of the members of the Welcome to Loud City community, so there is a large chance the above post is extremely ballin'!

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