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In search of a Thunder death lineup

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Does this team have the potential to rearrange its lineup to wreck opposing defenses?

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, the NBA has fallen in love with the idea of the ‘death lineup.’ A death lineup is a rotation you can strategically turn to during the game, designed to be used for short bursts that either allow rapid catch-up or dropping the hammer to put games away. It’s not a sustainable lineup for the full game, but a strategic shift designed to alter the game’s trajectory.

For example, the Golden State Warriors, who came up with and then perfected the term “Death Lineup” is the best example. The Warriors death lineup features Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. When you look at this list, the key is that it is a small-ball lineup. This small ball lineup has been destroying teams for three years now, preying on slower bigs and weak wings. The team features historically great shooters, but the key is Green. Without Dray, there would be no death lineup because his presence compromises entire opposing defenses. when he moves to the center position. As a result, this rotation can RUN, RUN, RUN, and RUN. The Warriors death lineup had the league's third best pace of 107.25. That pace, combined with the shooting, is the reason why teams cannot keep up offensively. Surprisingly, the team’s defensive rating is 98.4, and that is mainly because Green directs the defense while guarding bigger players, and his skill was recognized with a Defensive Player of the Year award.

However, there’s a risk when the death lineup is sometimes not so deadly. For example, in the 2016 Western Conference finals, the Golden State Warriors death lineup didn’t flourish well against the Thunder because of Steve Adams was able to guard Draymond Green in open space and then he and the Thunder bigs dominated the offensive glass, averaging nearly 3 more ORBs per game in each of OKC’s 3 wins in the series.

Other big men who could potentially fill this type of role: Clippers power forward Blake Griffin could present problems when shifting to the 5. His strength and athleticism, combined with his shooting, could present similar problems. However, his defense may not be up to the challenge. Another great example is the 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. Antetokounmpo’s size and length can cause defensive problems, but his offensive skill would overwhelm opposing big men.

The Thunder couldn’t even dream of a death lineup last year because they lacked that dynamic big man who could stretch the floor out while not getting burned defensively. Also, the Thunder didn’t have great off-ball players last year who could punish cheating defenses. Many feared that OKC last year wouldn’t have a successful season without Kevin Durant. Fortunately, Russell Westbrook turned in an MVP season unparalleled in NBA history. He led his team to the playoffs while surprising everyone that he is a fantastic closer. However, OKC still lacked a great offensive go-to rotation that could help stretch their leads quickly. But that is about to change.

Surprising strengths

One of the most surprising strengths that OKC possessed in close games last season - and should remain this upcoming season - is the prominent presence of Westbrook. Westbrook led the league in fourth quarter scoring average (10) and clutch points per game (6.2).

For example, on March 27th, Oklahoma City trailed the Dallas Mavericks 91-78 with 3:30 left in the game. At this point, spectators switched off the contest, but they underestimated the MVP. The Thunder closed on a 14-0 run to end the game. Westbrook finished the game scoring 12 out of those 14 points, including this dagger:

On March 29th, the Thunder found themselves trailing the Orlando Magic by 21 points in the third quarter. Because of Westbrook’s 57 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assist effort, Oklahoma City fought their way back in the game and forced an OT, where Westbrook led the Thunder to complete their largest comeback in team history.

Unsurprising weaknesses

The top three issues the Thunder encountered all last season were: 1) the lack of three point shooting; 2) a punchless bench; and 3) absence of another dynamic scorer. Every team in the NBA struggles with some kind of weakness, be it the lack of defensive anchors, offensive threats, etc. The Thunder possessed multiple weaknesses so severe it is amazing they reached 47 wins.

OKC was painfully dreadful from deep. Oklahoma shot 32.6 percent from the three-point perimeter, which was ranked dead last. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors (38.3%) ranked third and San Antonio Spurs (39.1%) ranked first. The Thunder’s best bench player was Enes Kanter, who averaged 14.3 points shooting 54.5 percent and 6.7 rebounds per game. Kanter was the go-to guy off the bench when Westbrook took a breather. Lastly, Victor Oladipo was their best secondary scorer for the first unit. Oladipo put up only 15.9 points per game even while shooting his career-high 44.2 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from downtown.

Each of these weaknesses manifested during the Thunder’s 5 game loss to the Rockets in the 2017 playoffs. In the four out of five games played in the first round, they were decided in the final 5 minutes of regulation. Westbrook did all he could to help his team close out the games, but he simply didn’t have enough help. For example, during a winnable game 2, Westbrook returned to the game with OKC up 94-90 with 9 minutes remaining.

Per Kristian Winfield:

Russell Westbrook shot 4 of 18 in the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 115-111 Game 2 loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. He took seven more shots than the rest of his team but shot a markedly worse percentage.

In this series, as in the regular season, the three point shooting wasn’t there for the Thunder. Doug McDermott and Jerami Grant were the only other Thunder players to shoot over 40 percent from the three as both combined to take only 19 attempts, while the rest shot 30 percent and below, taking collectively 135 threes.

There was no help off the bench, as no bench player averaged over 10 points per game. The Thunder’s best bench player, Kanter, only averaged 4.8 points in that series.

Per the Chicago Tribune:

In Game 4, Westbrook was plus-14 in his 40 minutes. In the eight he didn't play, the Thunder was a minus-18 and got run off the court. It was a similar story in Game 2, when Westbrook was a plus-11 in 41 minutes while everyone else was a minus-15 when he sat.

The final nail in the coffin for the series was that Westbrook had no help down the stretch. Oladipo failed to help keep the defense honest, averaging only 10.7 points off of 12.1 attempts per game.

Luckily for the Thunder, better players make for better rosters and better rotations. What was a weakness last year could become a strength heading into this season.

The potential death lineup

The Thunder welcome two significant additions this season: Paul George and Patrick Patterson. It is not only that they are better players, but also the skill sets they bring that will radically change the Thunder. George shot 46.1 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from downtown per game. Patterson shot 37 percent from the three point line and averaged 6.8 points. 6.8 points seems low, but he only averaged 24 minutes per game as the fourth scoring option on the team. The Raptors only used him (Usage Rate). According to Scott Rafferty of Fansided, Patterson knocked down 36.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.

Even though George is the all-star, Patterson is actually the key to this lineup. By shifting Patterson to the 5 (Patterson posted a 1.26 DRPM (25th out of 81 active power forwards), a small-ball lineup is immediately possible.

As important as his floor spacing is, Patterson’s defense might end up being greatest asset for the Thunder. When he was on the court with the Raptors last season, they gave up 102.5 points per 100 possessions on defense.

Patterson is the perfect addition to this lineup, as he adds an ability to not only stretch the floor but yet another fantastic transition body as Westbrook loves to dish it to the big man trailing the break. While Adams and Kanter can run the pick-and-roll, Patterson’s playing style, coupled with his instincts, will give the Thunder yet another potent scorer on the offensive end.

With Patterson as the anchor at the 5, here is how the rest of the lineup shakes out:

  1. Russell Westbrook (PG) - no explanation needed.
  2. Paul George (PF) - The eye popping addition of George will help Westbrook in many ways. George 6’10 body can cover 1 to 4 positions, blanketing the court with his range and smarts, while being a huge upgrade offensively.
  3. Andre Roberson (SF) - Yes, Roberson is not the ideal shooting threat, but his outstanding defense and ability to guard the opposing team’s star is what keeps Roberson in this death lineup.
  4. And finally, the death lineup surprise - Alex Abrines (SG) - Abrines led the team in three-point percentage last season (38.1%) but was limited to his minutes. As his minutes grew, Abrines so did his ability to score. After a slow start of shooting 33.9 percent until November, he increased his total shooting percentage to 50 percent in April. To compete with the elite, OKC needs a great shooter. Donovan never truly let Abrines loose, but when he gave him more playing time, Abrines showed glimpses of being exactly what the Thunder need: a true shooter and deep threat with the confidence to play next to Westbrook.

By adding Abrines to the lineup while shifting Patterson to the five position over Steven Adams, OKC gains two major strengths: deep-scoring threats and versatility which are two things this team lacked last season.

This death lineup obviously has one glaring absence: Steven Adams.

The Thunder can flourish even without Adams on the court for stretches because: 1) Patterson can guard the 3 through 5 positions; 2) Patterson can stretch the floor; and 3) George and Roberson can cover the open spaces with their length and agility. While Adams probably needs to close out games, sitting for a stretch while the death lineup attacks may be what OKC needs to reach elite offensive status.


Would you run with this OKC death lineup?

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