(All stats per Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted)
Plus: Steven Adams, easing into a bigger role
Steven Adams, aka Khal Drogo aka the Big Kiwi aka Funaki aka the human offensive rebound aka the King of the Screen aka the Khal of the Great Glass Sea aka the Master of Maul aka “come on bro, you really don’t want to do this”, has been having the season of his career. Due to his near inhuman monstrosity and long tenure in OKC, it’s easy to forget how young he still is. He only turned 25 this summer, and has only just entered the age where basketball players tend to peak: the golden range of 25-29.
Peak, he has. The traditional stats back it up- he’s averaging over 10 rebounds for the first time in his career and scoring nearly 15 points a game, also a career high. He has also been at the center of OKC’s defensive dominance this year; the Thunder allow just 100.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays. That number slips to 104.7 when he sits, which would still be third in the NBA. But Adams allows OKC to jump from being top of the league to being in a league of their own defensively.
The Thunder are continuing to get Adams more involved as a playmaker. Per NBA.com tracking data, Adams is getting about 5 elbow touches per game- plays where he catches the ball at the “elbows,” or the corners of the free throw line. He’s thrown 12 assists from that area of the court, largely on plays that appear designed to give him a chance to pass. He also has gotten better at finding cutters from the post, and there’s always his ability to kick the ball back out to a shooter after an offensive rebound. All that has him averaging nearly 2 assist per game, double his career average.
Along with being occasionally asked to play-make, Adams has an expanded offensive role this season- though perhaps not as expanded as you might expect. Carmelo Anthony shots had to go somewhere, and the expectation was that Adams would have a bigger offensive role this season. That hasn’t really happened- he’s averaging only one more shot attempt per game than last season. His usage rate is the exact same as last year, down to the decimal point. Instead, Jerami Grant has taken on a larger offensive role, and Dennis Schroder is getting the exact same number of shot attempts as Carmelo did last season (15) despite coming off the bench, and a good chunk of those shots are coming while playing alongside the starters.
Grant has been shooting quite well, both from 3 and at the rim, but Schroder has been inefficient despite shooting much better from 3 this year than he did in Atlanta. There’s room on the offense for Adams to get a couple more shots, particularly out of the pick and roll. Adams generates 4 screen assists per game, a top 10 mark in the league. That’s par for the course for this guy- he sets some of the most bone crushing screens in the league and it leads to good looks for his point guards. They could stand to try and find Adams one or two more times per game.
Plus: Sharing the rock in Crunch Time
Look at this beauty of a play:
Russ gets a screen from Grant and goes straight into a handoff for Paul George. George, now with a head of steam, bursts around a screen from Steven Adams. If the opposing defenders all stuck to their marks, George would have daylight to get to the rim but he doesn’t, because Kemba Walker abandons Dennis Schroder to get in PG’s way. PG swings it to Schroder, who, frankly, should pull the trigger when he gets the ball. Schroder is hitting 41% on his catch and shoot 3’s this year, often on plays like this where teams leave him wide open. Him taking and making those shots is a necessity for OKC to reach it’s ceiling.
But fine, Schroder doesn’t take the 3 for whatever reason. He has Marvin Williams on him now- a mismatch Schroder could take advantage of in an ISO possession. But Schroder notices the Hornets defense is discombobulated, and Cody Zeller is nowhere near Jerami Grant- who is shooting an excellent 42% on corner 3’s this year. That’s a good shot. Marvin Williams realizes this too and rushes from Schroder to Grant. Without even thinking, Grant taps the ball back to Schroder, because now Williams and Zeller are both guarding Grant- meaning someone else is open. Two passes later, Westbrook gets the ball with a huge gap and bursts to the rim for an and-One.
This is the ideal vision of OKC’s offense. Sure, there’s still room for plenty of Russell Westbrook-Steven Adams pick and roll and pindown screens for George. But this play shows that Russ can be deadly off the ball even without making cuts. If someone else on the offense can create an advantage, draw attention and get Russ the ball back, they’ve created the most dangerous situation in basketball for a defense- Russell Westbrook with a head of steam and the rim in his sights. Poor, poor Cody Zeller.
Minus: The rest of Crunch Time
While the above play was good, OKC is underperforming in crunch time so far this year. Per NBA.com, OKC is 4-6 in games that are within 5 points with under 5 minutes to go, and they are shooting just 35% in those minutes, an atrocious mark. The play above was an outlier; for the most part, OKC is resorting to bad ISO tendencies and pull-up jump shots. Westbrook and Schroder especially settle for pull up jump shots a lot in these scenarios, and both Westbrook and PG like to post up their men rather than run a play for others. That is why Adams, who is dependent on others to create, has taken just 2 shots in crunch time all year. Westbrook, despite appearing in only 6 of the 10 games that have gone into crunch time, has taken 13 shots, while George and Schroder have taken 8 each.
Most staggering of all is usage rate: Westbrook has always and will always be a high usage player, but his usage rate skyrockets from 31% overall to 43% in crunch time; everyone else drops accordingly. Russ hasn’t been awful in crunch time; he’s shooting 37.5% in crunch time, while Schroder and George, the Thunder’s other two shot creators, are shooting 25%.
This isn’t too big of a deal. The mark of a great team isn’t crunch time dominance; it’s avoiding crunch time altogether by putting opponents away well before the final 5 minutes. OKC has been effective at that. And there is a certain logic to going ISO heavy at the end of a tense game- lots of ball movement leads to more open shots but also to more turnovers. A turnover in a tie game with time running out is a lot more costly than a turnover in the second quarter. Still, there’s a happy medium between risky passes and the pure isolations Westbrook and Schroder are fond of.
Plus: Real depth
Last year, Andre Roberson’s injury ended up spelling the end of OKC’s dreams of elite play. The Thunder had no replacement for Robes on the roster; Alex Abrines didn’t have the coaching staff’s trust, and Terrance Ferguson was clearly not ready when thrust into the starting role. The team ended up signing Corey Brewer to start at the 2, and even then the Thunder were never anything more than average to finish the season. Roberson has real flaws on offense, but he always made the most of his limited abilities on that end of the floor and never tried to do too much. More importantly, he was game changing as a defender, and no one on OKC’s roster could step up to fill his role.
Roberson has yet to play a minute this season, and just suffered another setback that will keep him out until at least the new year. Terrance Ferguson looked much improved as a starter, and was able to fill Roberson’s role admirably. Almost all of his shots come either right at the rim or from 3 point land; he has a shot profile that would make Mike D’Antoni swoon. He is shooting 68% at the rim on about 2 attempts per game, a great mark. The 3 point shot hasn’t been there; he is shooting only 26% from behind the arc on 3 attempts per game. It’s too early to give up hope; his form looks good and he’s still going up with confidence. But even if the shot never comes around, Ferguson can still become, in essence, Roberson Lite. Ferg isn’t there yet, but his defense has been excellent for the most part this year. He has been a key cog on the starting unit, which has outscored opponents by a blistering 26 points per 100 possession. That is a Hulk vs Loki level of ass kickery.
Meanwhile, Hamidou Diallo looked like the steal of the draft on the second unit, making at least one play per game to which there was could be no reaction but “DAMN.” Between those two, the Thunder looked more than capable of surviving their extended time without Roberson. And then Ferguson and Diallo went down with injuries within a week of each other. Even worse, Alex Abrines came down with one hell of a cold and missed numerous games over that stretch.
That left OKC with Deonte Burton and Timothe Luawawu-Cabbarot as their only true wing players besides George. Down to their 5th string shooting guard, the Thunder have kept right on winning. They wen 4-2 without Ferguson (5-2 if you include the Golden State game where he played only 6 minutes) before his return against Detroit Monday night, and 3-1 in the games without both Ferguson and Diallo. TLC has been up and down, and struggled enough that he was mostly out of the lineup by the time of Friday’s blowout win over Atlanta. Burton, however, has been a revelation. He’s been very good on defense, hit a few 3’s, and thrown down one very rude dunk. Him and Diallo both becoming real rotation players would be a hell of a success story for Sam Presti.
Those guys deserve a ton of credit, but part of the reason Burton, Diallo and Ferguson have looked so good is they’ve been asked to play limited roles. Last year, Andre (along with PG and Adams) was in the position of often having to cover for defensive miscues by Carmelo Anthony. That they were able to sustain an elite defense with Melo on the court is a huge testament to Roberson’s greatness on that end of the floor. When Roberson went down, his replacements were asked not just to defend their marks, but to take over a huge role covering for others in an aggressive defensive scheme.
This year, Melo is gone and replaced by Grant, a player who can not only hold his own but also cover for the mistakes of others- he’s an excellent help defender who has saved a number of plays with last second blocks at the rim. If Roberson’s replacements last year made a mistake and Melo was the last line of defense, you could pretty much put the 2 points on the board. This year, Grant is erasing some of those points. Grant can also be trusted to jam passing lanes if Adams or PG leave their mark to seal up a weak point, meaning those two are also more often in position to correct mistakes and erase plays that would have become points last year. That has made life much easier on everyone else.
Credit goes to Billy Donovan too, who has dialed back the aggression of his scheme a few notches while keeping the fundamental aspects- trap the ball and switch a lot to force tough passes, rely on length, speed and smarts to create deflections and turnovers off those tough passes. The result has been a defense that leads the league in turnovers AND is holding opponents to a low shooting percentages at the rim and from 3. It is very tough to do all of those things at once, but OKC is. Donovan deserves credit for the adjustments he’s made.
Still, the best scheme in the world is only as good as it’s players. And while having Grant, George and Adams as teammates makes life a lot easier, players like Ferguson, Diallo and Burton have executed what’s been asked of them, which is more than could be said of a lot of the team’s second stringers in years past. They’ll need to keep it up in Roberson’s continued absence- at this point, there’s no guarantee OKC ever gets a 100% edition of Andre this year. Last year, that was a death sentence. This year, it doesn’t have to be.