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The Thunder’s best player is...Dennis Schroder?

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Net rating stats say the Thunder as a whole, in Schroder in particular, are better than you might expect. Why that may or may not be true. Plus: a look at the week ahead and the state of the tank

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Week Behind & the Week Ahead, where I’ll recap the most interesting things from the previous week of Thunder basketball and preview the most interesting things in the following week. This was written before the Thunder’s game against Orlando on Tuesday night, because your humble author has to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

The Week Behind

The Thunder are 2-4, but the numbers say they may be better than that. The team has a net rating of +3.4 (per Cleaning the Glass) heading into last night’s game against Orlando, meaning they have outscored their opponents by about 3.7 points per 100 possessions. There is a lot of noise in those numbers, and small sample sizes can wreak havoc on statistics like net rating, but there have been positives to take away: their 2 wins were by big margins (particularly their pansting of the Warriors), while 3 of their 4 losses were very close losses to good teams (the 4th loss, a blowout loss to the Wizards, is the biggest ). If the Thunder are as good as their net rating says, then they are significantly better than we would have guessed going into the season- teams with such a net rating would be expected to win 50 games over the course of a season. If that’s the case, some of their players must be significantly outperforming expectations. And per Net rating, there is indeed one player who has significantly outperformed expectations. Leading the Thunder with a monster +12.3 net rating, their undisputed best player is...Dennis Schroder?

There are certainly some signs of improvement to Schroder’s game.The Thunder’s third guard is averaging 15 points this year on almost the exact same effective field goal percentage and true shooting as last year. But the way he’s gotten to those percentages is a little different than in the past. Schroder is taking 37% of his shots at the rim this year per cleaning the glass, up from 30% a season ago, and converting at a career high 58% on attempts at the rim. That is still well below average for a guard, but an improvement for Schroder, whose struggles at the rim have limited him throughout his career. His extra shots at the rim have come at the expense of mid range jumpers, as he’s attempting about the same number of 3’s as last year despite only hitting a dreadful 25% on those long bombs. If Schroder’s 3 point shooting stabilizes at something closer to his career average of 33% but his finishing at the rim sticks, he becomes something closer to an average point guard. There’s value in a lead guard who can be counted on to produce at even an average level on relatively high volume as a scorer, particularly on a second unit.

Schroder’s biggest contribution to Oklahoma City this year has been pushing the pace. The Thunder are 13th in the league in Pace this season per NBA.com. When Schroder is off the court, they play at a pace that would translate to about 101.4 possessions per game, around the same as the 21st ranked Dallas Mavericks. With Schroder on the court, that number jumps to 107.3, in line with the 4th ranked Nets. Schroder’s minutes are the closest OKC will come to reliving the Westbrook era this year, and for a team who’s routinely had struggles running up against the shot clock this season, injecting a dose of pace is much needed.

Here’s why I worry Schroder’s sudden status as an analytics darling is a mirage, and it gets into the problem with net rating as a whole this early in the year; for all his improved finishing at the rim and pace setting prowess, the Thunder’s offensive rating with him on the court is 106.0, per cleaning the glass- better than the team’s overall rating of 102, but in line with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (107.1) and Chris Paul (106.8). Why Schroder’s net rating dwarfs his fellow guards is the Thunder having a defensive rating of just 93.7 with Schroder on the court, a mark that would easily lead the league and is almost certainly unsustainable. Schroder is a pest defensively who annoys opponents and occasionally generates steals, but he isn’t a game-changing force like Kawhi Leonard or Rudy Gobert on defense. Per NBA.com, opponents shoot just 22% on three pointers with Schroder on the court compared to 37.2% with him off. That is no more than luck, and with time the number with Schroder on the court will tick up and the number with him off will drop down. As those numbers stabilize with greater sample size and start to approach one another, Schroder’s defensive rating will erode and his ridiculous net rating will go with it. That doesn’t mean Schroder hasn’t been a better version of himself so far this year- if he can maintain his improved shot selection and keep finishing at the rim, he will be a legitimately improved player. But he probably won’t be leading the Thunder to 50 wins.

The Week Ahead

The Thunder’s impressive net rating rests on the back of their defense; they have the 4th highest defensive rating in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. As noted in this column last week, part of OKC’s success on the defensive end has come by luck, thanks to opponents bricking away from 3 point range. Already, their opponents shooting percentage on “Wide Open” 3 pointers has jumped from 23% to 32%, and that number will only continue to go up, especially if they keep allowing the 6th most wide open attempts in the league. And yet, some of what OKC is doing on defense may just be sustainable. Billy Donovan has taken a lot of criticism over the years for his rotations, strategies, and haircuts, but he correctly assessed that OKC is no longer capable of running the aggressive blitzing scheme they ran in years past and has abandoned it in favor of a more conservative scheme featuring a lot of switching and “drop” coverage where bigs drop low in the paint when defending the pick and roll as guard defenders try to chase opposing ballhandlers over the top of the screen. As a result, OKC is allowing their opponents to take just 33% of their attempts at the rim (that’s 9th lowest in the league), while goading opponents into taking 31% of their attempts from the dreaded midrange (10th highest in the league). In addition to allowing fewer attempts at the rim, they’re also defending the shots opponents get at the rim quite well, holding opponents to just 59% shooting at the rim, the 7th best mark in the league.

Ceding a lot of 3’s, especially if they’re to so-so shooters, in order to barricade the rim can be a successful defensive strategy- the Milwaukee Bucks rode such a strategy to the second best defensive rating in the league last year. The Thunder have good shot blockers and rim protectors and enough capable wing defenders to stick on the best opposing shooters and force shakier guys into taking the bulk of the 3’s.

That strategy will be put to the test in the upcoming week, as the Thunder play an opponent who will play right into their strategy; the Bucks, who are second in the league in the percentage of shots taken from 3 but only 23rd at shots at the rim, as the Bucks leverage opponents fear of Giannis Antetokounmpo to generate open looks for the rest of their team. The Indiana Pacers, meanwhile, are the exact opposite, taking 40% of their attempts at the rim, 3rd most in the league, while ranking dead last in percentage of attempts from behind the arc. The Thunder also get a crack at the spurs, who are once again thumbing their noses in the face of conventional wisdom by taking 43% of their attempts from midrange (first in the league by a mile; in second place is the Clippers). Those shooting profiles are of course driven by the personnel and coaching profiles of the respective teams. The Bucks have surrounded the most gifted player in the league at getting to the rim with shooters. The Pacers have (when healthy) Domantas Sabonis, who is 10th in the league in post-up possessions per game, and a coach whose teams have traditionally shied away from the 3 point line. The Spurs, of course, have Demar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, who are both in the top 10 in attempts per game from the midrange area. Which of these opponents the Thunder perform best (and worst) against will tell us a lot more about their defense.

Whether the Thunder will be able to score well enough to beat any of those teams remains to be seen, as all three rank in the top half of the league in defensive rating, while OKC has the league’s 26th ranked offense. All three games could realistically devolve into rock fights, and while OKC so far has managed to keep it close with quality opponents like the Rockets and Jazz, they haven;t been able to pull any of those games out. OKC is 1-4 in”clutch” games this season (games where the score was within 5 in either direction with under 5 minutes to play), and have a hideous net rating of -27.6 in those minutes, per NBA.com. Curiously, OKC’s offense has been good in those minutes- they have an offensive rating of 115.4 in those minutes, 15th in the league, and are shooting 50% from the field in clutch situations. That’s good enough offense to win- it’s just that their luck on defense has abandoned them when it matters most. Opponents have shot 50% from 3 point land in crunch time, and while some of that is the chickens coming home to roost in the form of wide open 3’s that should never be given up cashing for the other side, that number will still come down with time. Expect OKC to pull out more close victories- if they can score enough points over the first 3 and a half quarters to get to that point.

If they can’t, at least the Warriors are on the schedule again this week...but watch out for Eric Paschall, who somehow led the Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Russell-less Warriors past the Blazers last week. These guys just never die do they?

State of the Tank

The net rating may say otherwise, but OKC is still likely to finish in the lottery this year. it’s looking like a crowded race to the bottom; New Orleans and Golden State have firmly planted themselves in the conversation for worst team in the league despite preseason buzz, while the Phoenix Suns (the Suns!!) seem to be for real after an impressive win over the 76ers pushed them to 5-2 on the year. A litany of teams with 2-4 records mean OKC was tied for the 7th best lottery odds with 3 other teams (the Wizards, the Cavaliers and the Magic) prior to the game against Orlando on Tuesday. My Jonathon Simulation this week had the Thunder coming up with the 10th pick- the pick Paul George was taken with in 2010. Can you imagine SGA and PG as teammates? I know Clippers fans wish they could be.