Throughout the course of this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder has remained below league average on the offensive end of the floor, despite having a fair number of offensively-oriented players. Head Coach Billy Donovan is bucking the league norm by running a low-post prevalent scheme in an attempt to maximize the abilities of his players.
I contend that this is not the optimal approach for an effective offense, and that the foundation of the scheme should be built upon other principles. This article is an attempt to address these options and demonstrate cases in which they have appeared.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have the unique roster talent to be a dominating team in the post. In the modern NBA, post offense is generally seen as a luxury, with few teams having multiple players capable of scoring in the post. Contrary to this trend, the Thunder has 5 players who can all be effective with their backs to the basket. Based on that fact, it appears logical for the Thunder to play to its strength.
When functioning correctly, low-post plays result in high percentage shots, either at the rim or via a pass to an open teammate. Often, the greatest success comes when the big man receives the entry pass with one foot near the paint; when the pass is received 15+ feet from the basket, the chance of success drops dramatically. This trend holds true for the Thunder bigs; entry passes received near the rim usually result in either a layup or a foul.
Early in the game against Dallas, Billy Donovan attempted to take advantage of the smaller Maverick’s lineup, posting up Dirk Nowitzki repeatedly. Dallas was reluctant to double, allowing Steven Adams several good looks in the paint. On this particular play, Adams receives the ball with one foot just outside the paint, and only requires one dribble to get a twelve-foot hook shot.
Because of this early success, Dallas committed to doubling. Adams was able to successfully read the double-team on consecutive occassions, with the end result being a wide open Westbrook three-pointer. When a post offenses makes the reads correctly, as in this example, it is capable of breaking the defense down based on more than just the big man’s skill.
When the entry pass ends up in the paint, post plays become much more effective. Dallas was late to contest Enes Kanter’s position on the floor, allowing the entry pass to arrive in prime position to score. Even when the double team arrived, it was incapable of affecting the shot due to the great position Kanter had claimed.
This out-of-bounds play drawn up by Billy Donovan took advantage of Westbrook’s attention gravity. Kanter has already carved out space right at the rim, but because the defense is focused primarily on Westbrook, Nerlens Noel has no help to deny Kanter the ball. Seth Curry cannot contest the pass due to Andre Roberson’s height advantage, resulting in one of Kanter’s easiest baskets of the night.
The correct motion off-ball during a post play can result in the defense being caught out of position. On this play, Enes Kanter is drawing the eyes of the defense, allowing Taj Gibson to set a back screen undetected. When Doug McDermott receives the pass, the defense is already behind the play. This is the key to successful post offense; the ability to command attention and then distribute the ball accordingly.
The very nature of the low-post puts the offensive player in a weak spot. One of the commonly taught defensive principles is that there are “kill zones” on the floor into which defenders should attempt to direct the ball. Two of these fall on the baselines, about 15-18 feet from the basket. This is commonly where low post plays begin.
This is a poor area for offenses because the sideline acts as a secondary defender, limiting the direction and choices of the offensive player. However, big men like this area because they are able to isolate the floor; defenders won’t be playing out of bounds, meaning no pesky guards can sneak up from behind and pop the dribble loose. This allows them to back down a defender, rather than having to face up and protect the ball.
The problem emerges when a double team arrives. Suddenly, the post player is completely surrounded with no safe side. This usually forces them to give up their dribble, and if the reaction is too late, a turnover frequently occurs. The counter to this is for the big to have good vision and passing ability.
In the case of the Thunder, that skill is not developed. Too frequently, tunnel vision and slow reactions result in the ball being swatted out or an unnecessarily tough shot being thrown up in desperation. For the post offense to be a viable backbone for this Thunder team, this has to be an area of progress.
Kanter quickly is shown a double team by San Antonio. No motion from his teammates means that the defenders know all of the potential passes he can make. Kanter fails to realize that Patty Mills is baiting him to pass to Oladipo, and launches an off-target pass. If he had instead passed to Dipo’s left hip, perhaps this play ends differently. However, he has not developed either the vision or the accuracy to make this play correctly with any consistently.
Another problem Oklahoma City has with operating out of the post is the incorrect personnel. Proper post offense usually has a combination of shooters and savvy cutters to keep the defense from locking in on the post player. While Billy Donovan has attempted to form those lineups, this Thunder roster is largely bereft of reliable shooters and experienced wings.
Russell Westbrook draws enough attention to somewhat offset the lack of consistent offensive threats when a big is posting up. However, when The Force goes to the post, all of that attention works against him, drawing the entire defense to prevent him from scoring. For that reason, one of the best post players at the Guard position has become mostly ineffective in that area.
When Russ posts up, all 5 defenders for Dallas flock to the paint. Domantas Sabonis attempts to draw the closest secondary defender away with a fake cut, but his cold shooting from outside makes Westbrook’s reprieve temporary. Abrines also is able to draw some attention, but because the entire defensive plan is to make Russ’ job harder, this post up really has no chance.
Alternative Offensive Approaches
Post offense can be effective, but it should be mingled in as a small piece of the overall offense. With the combination of players that Sam Presti has assembled, there are other offensive approaches that serve to engage the strengths of more of the players.
On-Ball Screen Plays
Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive players in NBA history, and is able to leave defenders in his dust on drives. However, isolation plays are generally inefficient as an offensive option. Instead, the Thunder should look to use screens to initiate separation for Westbrook.
Screen plays can occur in many different forms. The most simple iteration is the high pick-and-roll action. However, this isn’t the only way to take advantage of ball screens. Screens can be used to find mismatches, to set up midrange shots, or even to find a shooter for an open three.
Perhaps the best part about screen plays is that they engage the entire defense. Enacted correctly, a crushing screen can move every defender and put the defense a step behind in every area of the floor. Unlike post plays that generally only involve a single defender, or in the case of a double team, two defenders, screen plays force all of the defenders to rotate into help position, shifting the floor to give advantage to the offense.
With one of the league’s most dynamic guards and a bevy of skilled bigs, Oklahoma City should be running on ball screens on 50% or more of the offensive plays. Instead, the offensive frequently devolves into less active plays that allow the defense to focus on a single player.
The threat of a Russell Westbrook - Steven Adams pick and roll play draws the attention of four defenders. The defender guarding Roberson in the corner steps up to help on the Westbrook drive, and the defender guarding Norris Cole slides in to prevent the pass to the rolling Adams. Dre is able to take advantage of his temporarily invisibility to cut for an open dunk. Should this option have been unavailable, the secondary chance for Cole to shoot an open three is still valid.
By adding a backside action to distract a defender, the pick and roll can be even more effective. Doug McDermott commands a defender, as does the cutting Jerami Grant, leaving Seth Curry as the only help defender in the area when Kanter receives a pass travelling downhill toward the rim. The result is a finish plus a free throw. Should a more capable defender have been in help position, the swing pass to Roberson in the corner would be available.
One of the keys to a great pick play is for a screen to be set for the screener. If the defense is a step behind before the primary action even begins, the chance of success is elevated. Kawhi Leonard is brushed off of Abrines by Kanter, so when Abrines appears to be screening for Westbrook, Kawhi hesitates to help contain Russ. When Abrines slips the screen, Kawhi is unable to respond quickly enough to prevent an open 3 from the most reliable shooter on this Thunder team. Again, the screen play allows OKC to take advantage of Westbrook’s gravity to generate an open shot.
One of the common threads found in many of the league’s most effective offenses is the use of motion off of the ball to generate open looks and break down the defense. This hasn’t been a strong point for the Thunder in years past, being replaced by simple sets designed to isolate the star players in favorable spots.
However, with less developed players, the use of the correct combination of motions off the ball could improve the shot percentage of players across the board. Being more selective about how and where the shots are coming would help the young players make smarter choices with the ball.
A simple down screen set by Semaj for McDermott gets the defense behind the play and punishes the defender for playing too far off of Doug. Taj Gibson uses a dribble handoff to get McDermott space for a midrange shot that he drops. The beauty of this play is that it gets McDermott a shot in a comfortable zone; midrange from straight on. Should the defense take this away, Christon is in the corner for an open three.
In some cases, the defender won’t sag off so far. When this occurs, a simple fake cut to freeze the defender as the screen comes can accomplish the same result. Should the defender not bite on that fake, a modification with the screen shifting to the baseline allows a baseline cut for an alley-oop dunk.
San Antonio has seen the same motion set run repeatedly to get the ball in either a pick and roll or a post play that they slipped in their defensive effort. This momentary lapse of attention and a perfectly placed and timed pass result in an open dunk. One of the most effective attributes of motion sets is the ability to easily modulate them when the defense begins anticipating actions. This forces defenders to be engaged and give effort, and more frequently leads to breakdowns.
Motion sets allow less spectacular players be more effective than they could be in isolation sets. Although, the players involved in this play are lower in the offensive hierarchy for OKC, the play is still effective due to the motion occurring on the back end of the play. While the dribble handoff occurs, Victor Oladipo is taking a defender along the baseline away from the play. Because the help responsibilities are shifting with this defender, when Domas receives the ball, the help defense arrives too late to stop the posterizing dunk.
This play is a modification of the previous play. Instead of rolling under the basket, Doug McDermott pops out to the corner. The dribble handoff from Sabonis to Westbrook draws the attention of the defense, which is expecting for a similar downhill play as before. Instead, Russ swings the ball to the corner for an open three point basket.
This is a great example of why screening for the pick man can be so effective. Kawhi sees that Aldridge isn’t going to be able to contain Russ quickly enough, so he hesitates to provide help defense. Oladipo slips away from the action before Aldridge can take back over from Kawhi, leaving Kawhi a step behind the play. Dipo cashes in on the open shot from the corner.
As analytics take over, the prevailing opinion in the NBA has largely swung against the midrange shot. The numbers are clear; midrange shots are not as efficient as either shooting threes or scoring at the rim. As these midrange shots have fallen out of favor, teams have been shooting more and more shots from behind the arc.
Unfortunately, this Thunder roster is full of players incapable of making treys with any consistency. However, there are players, particularly bigs, who are able to make midrange shots with some reliability. While the offense should not be based on seeking these shots, when they are available, they should be taken.
Spreading the floor doesn’t have to happen from behind the arc. If a defender does not respect the 15-foot shot, then the offensive player must take advantage of that.
Gibson is presented with space upon receiving the pass from Victor Oladipo. While he could attempt to back down LaMarcus Aldridge, or perhaps look to reset the play and look for a layup or three, he chooses to take what the defense gives him. Every made basket from this range will continue to draw the defender further from the basket, meaning that on a future iteration of this play, Oladipo might suddenly find the driving lane to the rim wide open.
I firmly believe that the Thunder has been losing games of late due to poor defense. With that said, the biggest room for OKC’s improvement this season has demonstrated itself on the offensive end of the floor. I believe that part of this issue is an over-reliance on post offense and under-utilization of motion and screen sets.
While the Thunder should continue to take advantage of the skills of its players, relying solely on post offense to score efficiently is not a healthy approach, particularly when Russell Westbrook is on the floor. By instead using a combination approach of the above methods, the offense will be less stagnant and hopefully more efficient.