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Sounds of Thunder: The Thunder’s Long Road back to Contention, Part 1

The Thunder need to grow, but lack funds to make that happen.

While Russell Westbrook was providing one of the most exciting seasons in NBA history, it was impossible to ignore a plethora of team weaknesses that accompanied his historic accomplishment.

Sporadic defense and scoring droughts crept in throughout the season and the Thunder have to discover solutions to those inconsistencies to move forward. For the most part, considering the Thunder have no cap space to work with come July 1, those solutions must come from within.

1. Little things that Add Up: Scoring Margin

All NBA champions generally share a common characteristic: they were all one of the league leaders in scoring margin the year they won a championship. After enjoying a place among the elite in scoring margin the past 6 seasons, the Thunder dropped to #12 this past season. That will have to change before the Thunder will be considered a real threat again.

The bright spot about this season that all Thunder fans need to remember is how young this team was. Youth is both a curse and a blessing. On one hand it offers the promise of significant improvement, but on the other hand, it makes a team susceptible to silly mistakes, often at crucial junctures. This team, as a collective group, is not as good today as it will become. That’s a fact. Third year players are generally better than rookies, and 6 year players are generally better than 3 year players. Teams improve as they gain experience, and this team is no exception to the rule. That is what Sam Presti was referencing when he spoke of making small improvements in many areas in his post-season interview. For example:

a) Free Throws

Let’s begin this part of the discussion by referencing some season averages. According to teamrankings.com, the Thunder finished the season with a +0.2 scoring margin, good enough to finish 12th, but finished 26th in the league at the free throw line, hitting only 74.2% of their charity shots. That’s a 4.1% drop from the previous season and about a 6% drop from previous seasons. Free throws are easy money and getting back to being an 80% free throw team equates to a 0.4 increase in scoring margin.

b) Three-Point Shooting

At 32.6%, the Thunder was the worst team from distance in the league. Two big reasons for the Thunder’s long-distance woes stemmed from a disappointing few months from Anthony Morrow (29.4% from a career 42% shooter), and Andre Roberson’s abysmal 24.5% effort this season. What jumps out is that Morrow was 6th on the team for most attempts from beyond the arc and Roberson was 4th. The Morrow issue is resolved while the Roberson problem is up in the air, but one thing is very clear; no matter what the Thunder decide on re-signing Roberson this summer, his 3-point shot attempts must drop next season.

The same goes for Enes Kanter’s (if the Thunder get stuck with him) 13.2%, Semaj Christon’s 19%, Kyle Singler’s 18.9%, and Norris Cole’s 23.21%. Combined, these 7 players took a total of 454 3-pointers, sunk only 107 of them, averaging just 23.5% shooting from range, more than 12 percentage points below league average. Basically it comes down to this: 21.4% of the Thunders total 3-point attempts were for all intent and purposes, wasted possessions.

Clearly a redistribution is needed in which shooters such as Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott are taking those shots, but in order for that to happen, both Abrines and McDermott must improve defensively. More on that later.

The Thunder don’t have to become the league’s best 3-point shooting team (though it would be nice). They just need to be a league average 35% team to raise their scoring margin 1.8 pts/gm.

c) Bench

(or more accurately, the team on the floor when Russell Westbrook rests)

What happened to this team when Westbrook attempted to catch his breath this year was nothing short of pathetic. According to basketballreference.com , during the regular season, the team’s offensive rating dropped 12.5 points when Russ sat. That number mushroomed to 62.8 pts in the playoffs. If that doesn’t make every single Thunder fan reach for the Pepto Bismol, nothing will.

2) The Road to Success

Obviously the Thunder have some hard work to do, and the first step moving forward must come from the players themselves, especially in the free throw shooting arena. Free throws are a repetitive athletic motion with the same ball, from the same spot, to the same target, whether it be on the practice court or a makeshift court in the middle of the desert. There is no reason a professional athlete should not be able to hit a minimum of 75% of their free throws. I’m sorry, but there just isn’t. All it takes are decent mechanics, a repetitive routine, and practice.... and practice... and practice... and practice.

The next step is a smart hire to replace Thunder assistant Anthony Grant. In order for the Thunder to make the strides in scoring margin necessary to once again be considered contenders, they need a defensive minded assistant that can help players like Abrines and McDermott hold onto their offensive gain. It does the Thunder no good to give these two the extra minutes to produce 1.8 pts of offense shooting additional 3 pointers if they are giving away 2.0 pts. on the other end.

Finally, a strong defensive coach can most quickly start closing the offensive rating gap when Westbrook rests. Defense is about playing smart and playing hard. Playing hard is the player’s responsibility, playing smart needs help and that is where a good defensive coach makes his mark. It’s time to stop just paying lip service to playing defense and start doing something about it. Presti needs to find the next Ron Adams and put him to work...and the best part? A coach’s salary doesn’t count against the cap.