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Dom vs Bobby: Why are the Thunder suddenly good on offense but bad on defense?

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Early on this season, the Thunder’s defense carried them. Now they’re getting shredded defensively, but awoken offensively. What happened?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

During the portion of this NBA season that fell within the calendar year of 2018, the Thunder’s route to winning games employed by the Thunder was clear — stifling defense to compensate for a poor offense. This showed in the ratings relative to the rest of the league. OKC ended the year ranked first in defense by a significant margin, and 20th in offense.

Since the turn of the New Year, those numbers have flipped in a potentially unprecedented way. In 2019, the Thunder has ranked 8th in offensive rating while falling all the way to 19th in defensive rating.

Today, we debate the cause for this remarkable and unusual shift.

Bobby: A change in the game plan

Offensively, the cause for the large improvement on offense is pretty simple to diagnose. Going into the new year, the Thunder was the worst three-point shooting team in the league. Since then, OKC is second only to the San Antonio Spurs while shooting at a higher volume.

2018 Shooting Map
2019 Shooting Map

Clearly, some of that is in-season variance. Teams will tend to have good months and bad months. Some of this, though, is due to adjustments in game plan. Some of the shots that were going to players like Abrines and Westbrook have been redistributed. Paul George and Terrance Ferguson are taking a combined 5 more threes per game and are shooting 44% from deep. While some of the percentages are probably unsustainable (Schroeder isn’t a 45% shooter), the shot distribution is improved.

Additionally, based on the shot maps above, the volume of shots taken from midrange have decreased. These are shots that OKC had fallen in love with, but simply isn’t good at making. Continuing to reduce these shots will help make the offense remain at a high level. Additionally, more outside shots are coming from the corner instead of at the top of the key, which will help improve three point efficiency.

Defensively, the cause is less clear. The stats show that it’s likely a few things contributing to the collapse. Teams are shooting a few percentage points better, and are getting a few more offensive rebounds. But the real change is in OKC’s ability to cause turnovers by their opponent.

It seems that OKC shifted away from a gambling, aggressive approach to being more safe. Some of this could be fatigue. As has been discussed before, the hard trap that OKC used to force turnovers out of the pick and roll relies on the big man coming out to the perimeter. Everyone involved has a lot of responsibility and have to play faster than normal. To combat that fatigue, players may be more cautious, which reduces turnovers forced.

Unfortunately, OKC doesn’t have the right personnel to play a conservative base defense. Westbrook and Schroder are too undisciplined, and the help defenders aren’t elite at cleaning up behind them. The simplest solution for this would be adding players who can reduce the workload on the starters like Steven Adams. However, with the trade deadline past and few options on the buyout market, this is difficult in the current season.

There is, however, a player out there who would be perfect for solving this issue... and he’s on the Thunder roster. Andre Roberson would solve many of the defensive issues. However, total radio silence by the Thunder management leaves little reason for hope in his return. Because of this, it would best to work on finding combinations of bench players who can allow you to give more rest to the starting group, and allow them to play aggressively again.

Dom: It’s just statistical variance

When looking at the Thunder’s season from the start, it seemed like it was a very backloaded schedule. Personally it’s the opposite of what I’d like as a fan (I’d prefer to be rolling come playoff time), but it was what was handed to them. When they were struck with some early season injuries, it felt more like that was a benefit to the team and their defense held up very well while the offense was just good enough to get them by through December.

When January came though, that schedule got much harder and they no longer played the likes of Chicago, New York, Phoenix, Cleveland, or Atlanta. Those five teams are five of the bottom six in offensive rating per NBA.com. Notably OKC played those five teams a combined 10 times before 1/1/19. They’ve since played them twice. Those games against some really terrible offensive teams skewed perception of the defense quite a bit to a point where it really wasn’t ever sustainable.

In addition, Thunder’s defended field goal metrics seem to indicate a bit of randomness as well. Prior to 1/1, Thunder opponents were shooting 0.1% worse than normal on defended field goals. Since that date, they’ve been about 1.5% better than normal. Some of this is variance, but a lot can possibly be attributed to schedule as well.

This whole time, the Thunder have actually had the best turnover percentage in the league, which would indicate they’re probably not losing their defense due to opponent fast breaks, which is backed by them ranking 5th in opponent fast break points in that time. Their opponent 3-point percentage has been around the middle of the league (35.5%), and was only mildly better before (33.8%). They also haven’t given up many more 3s per game (about two more attempts).

The only really notable drop has been in both opponent points in the paint and second chance points where OKC went from 15th at 48.1 opponent PITP per game prior to 1/1 to 25th at 51.8 per game since and from 7th at 12.1 second chance points to 24th at 14.4 per game. Again, a lot of this seems as if it’s a bunch of smaller things that just add up in the end and could well be variance in both the team and their schedule.

The early season dominance on the defensive end can be somewhat attributed to the schedule and possibly some variance and the same might be very plausible to the last month or so’s skid on that side of the court.

Poll

Why has the Thunder’s excellence & struggle with offense/defense flip-flopped?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Bobby is right - Donovan changed their game plan
    (80 votes)
  • 47%
    Dom is right - it’s statistical variance based on strength of schedule
    (95 votes)
  • 11%
    You are both wrong, and I’m right; here’s why (write in below)
    (23 votes)
198 votes total Vote Now