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The Thunder’s spacing was not the Achilles heel of the Russ Era

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The lack of spacing was definitely an issue but not as bad as some make it out to be

Los Angeles Lakers v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Since the start of the year, there has been a hot take about Russell Westbrook that has grown in popularity. The take is that Russell Westbrook had horrendous spacing during his time in Oklahoma City and his performances with the Rockets this year shows his brilliance when surrounded with shooters.

The Rockets have surrounded Westbrook with shooting and floor spacing. The take and Westbrook’s jump in efficiency leads many to conclude that the Thunder organization were incompetent. Presti did not get shooters who would maximize Russell’s ability to get inside. Oklahoma City are viewed to be an organisation with a prehistoric view of roster construction.

However, the revisionist history is simply not true. The Thunder were a mediocre shooting team during the last half of the decade; it was not a team that was completely awful from deep. The Thunder’s lack of shooters was frustrating and it was one of the reasons for the downfall of the Westbrook era in OKC.

However, the Thunder were aware of the issue and did not settle to be one of the worst shooting teams in the league. The harsh reality is that the Thunder were an average shooting team in a league that prioritized shooting. The Warriors won the title in 2015 and the league changed forever. That team emphasized the importance of the deep ball.

The Thunder have lacked outside shooting this decade when it comes to quantity but it should not be forgotten that Westbrook was flanked by two premier scorers in Kevin Durant and Paul George. George and Durant made it easier for the Thunder to hide the team’s lack of shooting by having two top ten players on the court.

The star power meant that offense was never really an issue for the Thunder. The team has been in the Top 12 of the league in terms of OffRTG for eight seasons this past decade.

The Thunder were a decent three point shooting team during this time period. The Thunder have been middle of pack every single season in terms of team three pointers made per game since their Finals appearance in 2012.

2012-13: 11th

2013-14: 15th

2014-15: 16th

2015-16: 17th

2016-17: 26th

2017-18: 15th

2018-19: 15th

The data proves the Thunder have been an average team in terms of makes from 3-point land. The 2016-17 team is an anomaly in this data set, it was the outlier. There is the question, could the Thunder have been better from deep? Oklahoma City could have made more looks or been more efficient but the team was not as bad as some people make them out to be.

The Thunder organisation attempted to fix the dearth of shooting on the team. OKC went and got players who are effective from deep multiple times. However, these role players who were supposed to help did not address the problem.

The data makes for interesting reading. There are a few notable examples of efficient shooting role players suddenly struggling to shoot the ball when they put on a Thunder uniform.

3P% in the season prior to joining the Thunder compared to 3P% in the player’s first season in Oklahoma City:

Patrick Patterson: 37.2% on 3.9 attempts/ 36.4% on 2.1 attempts

Kyle Singler: 40.6% on 3.5 attempts/ 30.3% on 1.4 attempts

Doug McDermott: 37.3% on 3.4 attempts/ 36.2% on 2.6 attempts

Anthony Morrow: 45.1% on 2.6 attempts/ 39.4% on 3.6 attempts

It’s important to note that in the cases of Singler and McDermott, both players were traded to OKC during the season. The numbers above show what they were shooting with their previous teams in the same season; Singler in 54 games with the Pistons and McDermott in 44 games with the Bulls. All of these examples show good shooters becoming worse in OKC in terms of volume and efficiency.

Alex Abrines was a draft and stash for the Thunder. Abrines was drafted by the Thunder in the second round of the 2013 NBA Draft but spent the next three years with FC Barcelona. The time spent in the ACB contributed to Alex’s development as a shooter.

Abrines made the switch to the NBA and signed with the Thunder during the summer of 2016. When Abrines was available during his three seasons in Oklahoma; he played his role as a sharp shooter to perfection. Alex shot 36.8% on 3.4 attempts.

However, the issue with Abrines was his lack of availability. A combination of injuries and personal reasons cut Abrines’ time in the NBA short. Abrines only played 174 games in the league before heading back to Spain.

The Thunder have also tried to add marksman through the Free Agency route with guys like Mike Miller and Rudy Gay. Miller and Gay were two shooters who Presti pursued. However, Oklahoma City will never be a top Free Agency destination, the city does not have the reputation that a place like New York or Los Angeles has. Miller signed with the Grizzlies and Gay with the Spurs.

Another reason for the Thunder’s poor spacing is Westbrook’s style of play. One of Westbrook’s biggest criticisms during his time with the Thunder was that Russell took a lot of bad threes. These threes should have been distributed to other guys.

From the 2012-13 season to last year, Westbrook averaged 4.8 threes a game on 31.2% shooting. To Russell’s credit, he has stopped the wild threes in Houston. Westbrook is only taking 2.3 threes per game since the start of calendar year. Westbrook is shooting less as a whole and is focused on getting downhill for finishes at the rim.

Good shooters forgetting how to shoot in OKC could have been seen as a side effect of Westbrook’s volume shooting. It is difficult to find a rhythm for a player when they receive limited touches.

The idea that Russ had absolutely no spacing in OKC and the painted area was always clogged is hyperbole. The Thunder had very real space issues and a decent amount of mediocre marksman. This fact is undeniable but it is wrong to say that the Thunder had the worst spacing in the league. Westbrook did not have to shoot the ball every single time with defenders draped over him; that was a product of Westbrook’s stubbornness.

The statistics below are Westbrook’s FGAs per game where the closest defender was within four feet or less of Russell when the shot was released. The NBA defines this distance as “tight defense.”

Last Six Seasons:

2014-15: 12.8 of 22.0 FGAs (58.1%)

2015-16: 9.4 of 18.1 FGAs (51.9%)

2016-17: 12.3 of 24.0 FGAs (51.3%)

2017-18: 10 of 21.1 FGAs (47.4%)

2018-19: 10.2 of 20.2 FGAs (50.5%)

2019-20: 12.3 of 22.6 FGAs (54.4%)

Westbrook benefited from more open looks in in four of his last five seasons in Oklahoma City than he has in Houston this season. I am not saying that the Thunder provided better spacing for Russ than the Rockets have because that is not true. Houston has arguably been the best three point shooting team this season. However, it is interesting to note that he got off more open shots in OKC.

Russell Westbrook is a fantastic player and a first ballot Hall of Famer who will forever be immortalized in the state of Oklahoma. However, this revisionist history, the idea Westbrook had no spacing in Oklahoma City and that the Front Office wasted his prime because of negligent roster building is just not true.

This team was a mediocre three point shooting team that could have been better but because of uncontrollable variables, the Thunder underachieved. The Thunder tried getting more shooting; the Thunder organisation recognized that additional floor spacing would help his game tremendously.

However, the results never reflected the work done by Sam Presti. The Thunder were not able to solve the shooting conundrum. When it comes to discussing why the Thunder never achieved postseason success after Kevin Durant left; the lack of spacing and shooting is not nearly as important as some fans make it out to be.