On January 6th, the Thunder got crushed by the Wizards at home, 116-98, in their most embarrassing loss of the season. Since that game, OKC has not had a single game of below average offensive efficiency, and they in fact have the 4th best offensive rating in the NBA during that stretch per NBA.com, averaging 116.9 points per 100 possessions. Three point shooting has powered this hot streak: the Thunder are taking 3 additional 3 pointers per game as opposed to the first two months of the season, and the percentage they’re hitting has jumped from 32% to 42%.
Some of that shooting bounce is unsustainable. But there have been structural changes to OKC ‘s offense that has powered the boom, a reworking of who shoots, how often, and from where. Those changes can be the basis for a successful offense even if OKC’s preposterous shooting number return to earth.
Collective shot distribution
The first change: Paul George is taking about 1 shot more per game & Westbrook is taking 1 shot less. Their usage rates are nearly even at 29%, a reflection of the offense now being centered around George’s scoring even as Westbrook holds the ball more.
The change has been good for the team and good for Westbrook personally. Westbrook is averaging 2 more free throws per game since January, and hitting a slightly more respectable 69% of them, as opposed to 62% before. His field goal percentage from the floor has actually decreased, but the uptick in attempts and percentage from the free throw line has pushed his true shooting up from 45% to 48%. That is still a very bad mark, but progress is progress, and there’s more to Russ than his scoring, as he will happily remind you. The best thing Russ has done for the offense in this stretch is shoot a little less and lean fully into playmaker mode- he’s averaging 13.2 assists per game since January 6th, which would be the 8th highest mark ever if he sustained it for an entire season (the only players ahead of him: John Stockton, who did it 5 times, Isiah Thomas once and Kevin Porter once).
George meanwhile has gone from shooting about nine three pointers per game and hitting 38% of them to taking 11 three-pointers per game and hitting 46% of them. George is a great 3-point shooter, but even he might not be that great. Still, even if he regresses to his season average of around 41%, that would be a career best- and the fact that he’s doing it on such a high volume of attempts is doubly impressive. He’s taking 2 less mid-rangers per game over the last month to make room for all those 3’s, while taking the same volume of shots at the rim. He’s gone from 6 free throws per game to 9, and unlike Russ, has had no problem hitting them. Add it all up, and George is averaging nearly 33 points per game over this stretch, on very efficient shooting. That’s an MVP case by itself, before you factor in the impact of his elite defense.
Another change: Dennis Schroder, like Russ has decreased his shot total from 14.4 to 12.8 per game, and has seen his efficiency skyrocket. A lot of his improvement seems like fools gold though: Schroeder is hitting 47% of his 3’s during that stretch, which is insane for anyone, but especially for Schroder (a career 33% 3 point shooter), and he is taking the same number of 3’s and mid rangers before. The decrease in attempts has come almost entirely at the expense of his shots at the rim. Schroder is just hitting a higher percentage of his beloved pull-up jumpers during this stretch (he’s hitting 54% on mid-rangers in this time, which is Michael Jordan-esque mark). Found money is still money and the Thunder should be happy to bank the wins Schroder’s hot shooting has helped provide, but they shouldn’t expect it to last forever.
One thing that could be sustainable — Schroder is shooting more catch and shoot 3 point attempts, going from 2.8 to 3.1 per game, and less off the dribble 3 pointers. That correlates with Schroder spending a greater percentage of his time sharing the court with Russell Westbrook recently; In the first half of the season, Schroder was playing about 16 minutes with Russ and 16 minutes without him per game. During the last month, he’s played about 14.5 minutes with Russ, and only 11.5 without him. Playing with Westbrook is a boon for Schroder’s shooting; he’s making 39% on 2.7 three point attempts per game when he shares the court with Russ, and 33% on 1.9 attempts when Russ sits. I don’t think that’s entirely noise. Russ creates more open shots for his teammates, and even shaky shooters can shoot at a good clip when their attempts are off the catch and relatively open. Schroder averages 2.6 3 point attempts per game that NBA.com classifies as “wide open” — there is no defender within 6 feet. He’s hitting 38% of those. Schroder may not be Klay Thompson, and his 3 point percentage will come down, but OKC are generating the right kind of 3 point attempts for him- off the catch, with plenty of space. If he keeps getting those kinds of looks, he should be able to hit enough attempts to keep defenses honest even if he cools off.
As Schroder’s volume of shots and minutes have decreased, Terrance Ferguson has risen to fill the void. T-Ferg, as I wrote last month, is having a breakout season. He was shooting just 29% from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game for the first two months of the season, and is shooting 47% on 5.3 attempts since. His role in the offense has doubled, going from 4.3 attempts to 8.4 attempts. By the way, aside from his 3 point bombing, he is shooting a preposterous 84% in the restricted area on 1.6 attempts per game- a lot of those are transition finishes, but he’s also gotten a little sneaky as a cutter and lob target. Again, that 84% is unsustainably high, but it’s a good sign that a guy who takes almost all his shots from 3-point land or at the rim is getting more shots. And there’s more reason to believe in Ferguson 3 point shooting staying good (though not this good) than Schroder- Ferg is young and still at an age where sustainable improvements are more likely, while Schroder is a more established player with little history of successful 3 point shooting. Schroder also still takes some tough off the dribble 3’s, even as he’s shifted towards more catch and shoot opportunities, while Ferg almost exclusively shoots off the catch. Those are much easier shots, particularly when they’re as open as the looks Ferg gets; a full 37% of Ferg’s attempts this season, more than 2 per game, are classified as wide open by NBA.com- no defender within 6 feet. He shoots 45% on such looks. Playing with Westbrook and PG has its perks.
OKC’s big bad front court
There’s been a shift in the front court too, where Jerami Grant and Steven Adams have flipped in the offensive hierarchy. For the first two months of the season, Adams averaged 10.8 attempts per game, and Grant averaged 9.1; Since January 6th Grant has averaged 10.6 attempts and Adams 9.6. Grant is taking the same number of 3’s as before, so the change his shots has been a near 1-for-1 less shots at the rim for Adams, more for Grant. Adams true shooting percentage has jumped from 59.6% to 65.5%, while Grant’s has dropped a hair, from 60.8% to 59.7%.
As an aside, since we’re speaking of bigs, Nerlens Noel’s efficiency has cratered during this stretch, going from a team high 62% down to 53.7%. He’s taken more shots both at the rim and from further in the paint and been worse at both. Noel has been a big help to OKC and will probably earn a decent contract somewhere else this summer, but he still looks more like a good backup than a heavy minutes starter.
Grant is shooting a little worse at the rim but is getting more free throws than before (and he’s hitting a career high 69% from the line) while Adams is getting 1 less shot there per game and has seen his percentage jump from 66% to 70%. This change feels the least important; both guys are right at the point where they are shooting well on the attempts they get, but any substantial increase in attempts leads to a drop in efficiency. That means they’re both taking just about the right amount of shots.
Even with Grant’s uptick in attempts, Adams still takes way more shots inside and remains the King of the Paint for OKC- Grant takes 3 of his shots per game from beyond the arc, a place Adams never shoots from (and has little reason too, with how valuable he is as a scorer and rebounder near the rim). Grant’s 3-point shooting is a little higher over this hot streak, but not substantially so- 39% now vs 36% before, on the same amount of attempts. His backup Patrick Patterson however has gone from shooting 30% on his 3’s to 49% over the last month. That 49% is too high, but that 30% also seemed too low for a historically good shooter like Patterson. It’s an open question how much Patterson is going to play come playoff time; what his 3 point percentage settles in at could be a determining factor for Billy Donovan.
Just about everyone on the team has shot the lights out during this stretch — even Ray Felton, who got his first major minutes in months replacing Schroder against Portland and proceeded to score 15 points on 10 shots because sure, why not.
Random stuff like that won’t go the Thunder’s way forever, and shots that are falling now might not fall as regularity in two months. But the tweaks that OKC has made to its shot distribution can be the basis of sustainable success even when regression to the mean sets in.