Right now, the Oklahoma City Thunder defense is sitting near the top of the league (2nd in Defensive Rating), in large part because of opponents shooting just 32.2% from three. After the game against the Phoenix Suns, Billy Donovan pinned that improvement on better effort, saying that the team was running around more. See the quote below, per Royce Young:
So it's an absurdly long quote, but Billy Donovan gave what I thought was a very insightful answer when asked about the difference in this OKC team playing better against less-than-good teams as opposed to last season, which was a major issue. pic.twitter.com/YH3JV4KB1L— Royce Young (@royceyoung) November 15, 2018
Today, Dom and Bobby discuss the merits to this argument: Have the improvements been a result of better effort and defensive methods, or have they been due to poor opponents and random variance?
Dom: your mileage may vary
Some of the improvement we’ve seen so far may indeed be due to effort, but in large part variance seems to be playing a role. First off, they’ve played as of 11/18 three games against Phoenix, one against the Knicks, another against Houston, and another against Washington, all of who are in the bottom 10 in team 3 point percentage. To add to that, in the Houston game the opponent shot 11-42, and in the Charlotte game 11-41, which are heavily weighting the opponent percentage.
Also going against the idea of effort being the main cause of better defense is NBA.com’s tracking of contested shots. You all probably know I’m not really a believer in the contested shots metric, but in this case just to use it as a rough guide, OKC still isn’t in the top 10 in team contested 3-point attempts per game, or total threes contested.
Per PBPstats.com, OKC is also giving up the 5th best opponent shot quality (meaning worse for the defense) but still ranks 8th in opponent effective field goal percentage (which takes into account that 2s and 3s are worth different amounts). Some of the Thunder’s 3-point defense may be due to effort, as they are giving up fewer wide open looks, but a lot of this seems as if it could be statistical noise right now.
Bobby: ‘A’ for effort!
The effort being exerted at recovering to defend the 3-point line has been excellent this season. Per NBA.com, opponents are only getting five uncontested threes per game, meaning that OKC is contesting over 82% of opponent shots. A lot of this can be attributed to improved effort.
The overall age for wings on this team is pretty young, with Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo, both 20 year olds, playing key parts in that rotation. They still have the energy to run continuously, which sometimes leaves them in bad position, but also results in more contests. Between them, they are contesting 3.5 per game in relatively low minutes. It also helps that the team length and athleticism is high, allowing effective contesting from further away.
As can be seen in the play above, even though the corner was open and the recovery late, the effort was made and the timing of the shot was constrained. Last season, it wasn’t uncommon on busted coverages like this to see the defender stand and watch in defeat, giving the opponent plenty of time to set and take the shot. While the effect may be minimal, it is better to the alternative of a completely open shot.
We will see if the results are maintained for now, but the effort at contesting threes has improved this season, and so far, the results have as well. It is something to keep an eye on as the opponents improve.
Who is right? Are the Thunder contesting shots better, or are we simply experiencing statistical noise that will regress to the mean over time?
This poll is closed
Dom is right — this is statistical variance and OKC’s giving up open shots will hurt them over time.
Bobby is right — improved defensive effort contesting shots will tip the percentages in OKC’s favor.