With a core of Steven Adams, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have one of the highest ceilings in the NBA. But just as in the days of the Westbrook-Durant-Ibaka core, the Thunder have long-felt to be one 3-and-D wing short. Terrance Ferguson was the latest draftee in a long list of attempts to find that wing- but wonder of wonders, he has looked very much like the wing OKC has been dreaming of recently.
Over OKC’s last 10 games, T-Ferg (who will henceforth be known as 3-Ferg if he keeps shooting this way) has hit 50% of his 3 point attempts on nearly 4 attempts per game. Over that stretch, the Thunder have a net rating of +10.5 with Ferguson on the floor, per NBA.com — the best mark on the team. Ferg’s defense has been ahead of what all but the most optimistic fans expected all season, and his shooting is now catching up. The 50% mark will come down, but his mark for the season is up to a tidy 37% — well above NBA average. If Ferguson and Jerami Grant (35% from 3 this season) can keep up their shooting on a higher volume of attempts (not a guarantee), OKC will be a lot closer to solving it’s spacing issues.
The added spacing alone is a huge benefit. Next up for Ferg, as defenses start closing out more aggressively on him- improving his drive-and-finish game. Ferg’s shooting well at the rim this season, but a lot of those finishes come in transition, where he’s able to get down the court and get easy finishes courtesy of Westbrook or George drawing the defense. When he’s forced to actually try and finish over or around opponents, the results still leave much to be desired:
But Ferg is lightning quick and has crazy “he might actually hurt himself up there” hops, and with better ball handling and decision-making, it is not out of the question to see him become a functional playmaker off the dribble
That next level of growth might not happen this season- Ferguson is young and doesn’t get a ton of opportunities to do much besides shoot 3’s, spending most of his time on the court as the 5th option. But he has filled that role admirably, and raised OKC’s ceiling in the process.
If the Thunder are destroying teams with Ferguson on the court, why are they a measly 5-5 over these last 10 games? There’s a variety of reasons (Russell Westbrook’s shooting struggle looms large) but a big one has been the abysmal play of Dennis Schroder. Efficiency has never been the name of the game with Schroder’s shooting, but he’s fallen off a cliff as of late; shooting just 37% from the field over the last 10 games while still using up 14 attempts per game — the same volume he’s had all season. Despite an avalanche of misses, Schroder remains unabashed.
The problem is that if his shot isn’t falling, Schroder’s value quickly diminishes. He has, to his credit, busted his ass on defense this year, but lacks Ferguson’s size and athleticism; sliding Schroder into Ferg’s place will always be a downgrade defensively.
Schroder has the ball in his hands a lot, and even if the shot isn’t falling, he has the chops as a passer to make an impact. But Schroder has been in score-first mode most of the season. When running pick and roll, Schroder will often go the opposite way of the screen- a crafty counter if the opposing team overplays the screen, but a decision that leaves the screener without a clear place to go. If Schroder doesn’t simply blow by his man when doing this, he is left without a good passing option:
To get the ball back to Grant with any accuracy, he’d have to turn the opposite way his momentum is carrying him. He doesn’t, and instead settles for a very tough layup attempt.
Schroder also cannot resist the pull-up midrange jumper when defenses give him space for it, even though the reason defenses give him the space to do so is the want him taking it. Schroder is shooting just 39% on mid-range shots this season, per cleaning the glass. Defenses will let him take this shot every time:
Most maddening is when Schroder succeeds in getting the man guarding him onto his back but then settles for the midrange jumper anyways, as he does here:
Schroder has a slip pass to Patterson here, or, if he’s worried about the traffic, can take a couple more dribbles to force Jakob Poeltl to choose between stopping Schroeder’s drive or guarding the pass to Patterson. Something good is just a couple dribbles away, but Schroder isn’t patient enough to wait for it, and settles for the jumper instead. He settles a ton: Schroder is taking 41% of his attempts from the midrange this season. And he also passes on only 28% of his drives, compared to 33% for George and 47% for Westbrook. In sum: Schroder shoots too often, passes too little, and takes the wrong kind of shots to boot.
For most of the season, Billy Donovan has elected to close out tight games with Schroder inserted into Ferguson’s spot in the starting lineup. The theory: add a third ballhandler and shot creator alongside Westbrook and George to juice the offense at the moments when the team needs buckets badly — and count on the excellence of his teammates to counter the defensive drop off that comes with putting Schroder in Ferguson’s place. The results are mixed. The Quintet has a net rating of +6.4 across nearly 500 possessions this season — a decent mark overall. OKC’s team as a whole is +6.0 this season. But the true starting five, with Ferguson, is +15.4. That is a stunningly good mark. The offense is better with Schroder on the season as a whole, but the gain in offense is more than offset by the fall in defense that comes with the Schroder lineup.
So far this season, the Thunder have played 22 games that feature “crunch time”— the score was within 5 points with less than 5 minutes to go. They are a meager 8-14 in those games, and have posted a net rating of -2.8 across those 75 minutes. OKC’s failure to execute in crunch time is leaving wins on the table, as we witnessed twice this week. Their offense and defense have both been bad in the clutch. The offense being weak isn’t all that surprising- OKC has been mediocre on that end all season. The failure of their defense, which OKC has hung it’s that on all season, is more concerning.
It is time to give Ferguson more run at the end of close games. He has appeared in crunch time in only 8 games, while Schroder has appeared in 21. Ferg is a better 3 point shooter than Schroder and a better defender, though a weaker ball handler and distributor.
While Schroder can create his own shot better than Ferguson can, he can’t do it as well as George or Westbrook can. There’s f diminishing marginal returns to playing all 3 together, particularly when 2 of the 3 (Westbrook and Schroder) are poor 3 point shooters. Schroder’s added playmaking is nice, and in certain match-ups, especially come playoff time, Dennis might still be the better choice to close game. And the Thunder should continue to give the Schroder + starters unit minutes — with time, they may gel better (don’t forget Dennis has only been with the Thunder for half a season).
But the Thunder’s continued crunch time failures mean it’s time for a shakeup. Ferguson is playing winning basketball in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd quarters. He should get a chance to help the Thunder win in the 4th quarter too.
Should the Thunder be running with Ferguson or Schroder to close out games?
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