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The Thunder’s spacing concerns

Offense could be crowded and congested for the Thunder this season

NBA: Preseason-Charlotte Hornets at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Shooting has never really been a strength of any Thunder roster over the course of the last ten years. It is not to say that the Thunder have not tried. I remember distinctly that Presti went out and got the likes of Doug McDermott and Anthony Morrow. The only issue is that these shooters went very cold in Oklahoma City.

This issue carried over into the Westbrook Era. Russell Westbrook was the Thunder’s offensive engine but he rarely played meaningful defense and could not be relied upon consistently on that end of the floor.

Presti attempted to mask Westbrook’s weakness by building a roster of hyper-athletic lengthy wings who could defend hard but had rather limited skill-sets. Nobody would ever think of asking Terrance Ferguson or Josh Huestis to run a pick and roll or an isolation set.

The only time in the last five years when the Thunder had decent shooting was during ‘the Three Amigos’ season. Every player in the closing lineup with the exception of Steven Adams could knock it down from outside. When you consider that the Thunder could rely on Abdel Nader and Mike Muscala to chip in bombs from downtown, it is no surprise that OKC shot the ball well.

This upcoming season is a reversion to type for the Thunder unless we see drastic improvement out of Luguentz Dort, Theo Maledon, Darius Bazley and Aleksej Pokusevski. This improvement is completely possible but nobody jumps from being an average shooter to an elite shooter in just one offseason.

The Thunder’s lack of shooting will present serious concerns when it comes to floor spacing for Coach Daigneault. Good spacing is a crucial component of efficient, high-scoring offense. When the opposing defense is stretched out and help rotations are more difficult, the lanes to the hoop become much wider and inside looks are easier.

A lot of people like to treat offense and defense as two distinct entities but the reality is very different. Efficient offense forces the opposing team to keep taking the ball out of the hoop forcing them to create in half-court situations. The easy transition opportunities are reduced if the Thunder can score at will.

Coach Daigneault’s task will be to design effective spacing into an offense while not necessarily having the ideal pieces on his roster. The coaching staff are going to have to be very creative with the sort of plays that they design.

Isolation actions will be useful over the course of the season; Gilgeous-Alexander is lethal off the dribble and can create good looks from whatever range. However, overuse of isolation basketball can be detrimental to the team’s offensive flow, guys go cold when they do not touch the ball.

Dribble Hand-Off:

The dribble hand-off has become a favourite of NBA coaches over the last decade for how it uses the big. The typical role of a center on offense is to score efficiently around the rim and rebound the hell out of the ball. The problem with that sort of role is that the interior can become congested.

The Thunder were just about able to make a Russell Westbrook-Steve Adams pick and roll action work but it was never easy. The collapsed defense meant that Russell always had to zip difficult passes through small windows into Steven’s hands.

The dribble hand-off inverts the role of the big and turns them into being the playmaker rather than the finisher. Billy Donovan criminally under-utilised Steven Adams for years before eventually realising that the Kiwi had legitimate passing chops. He ran weave actions which got Adams the ball at the top of the arc and let Steven dictate the play.

For the Thunder, that dribble hand-off action worked a treat. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Dennis Schroder were able to catch the pass and then drive towards the hoop completely unchecked by the defense. On the occasions when the defense would be aware of the initial cut, Adams would find a sweet backdoor cut usually executed by Danilo Gallinari.

This sort of action makes the opposing team guard a non-shooter whenever they step out to the perimeter. The Thunder have passing centers on the roster this year. Isaiah Roby is more than capable of playing sharp, incisive teammates into the hands of his teammates.

Roby is decisive when he has the ball in his hands and does not overcomplicate his own offensive game. Isaiah is aware that his game is about keeping the offense ticking over rather than trying to find the defense splitting pass. Providing that Roby does what he is good at, the Thunder can make DHOs work this season.

I think Roby stepping out to the perimeter to receive dribble hand-offs is a decision that will benefit the Thunder as a whole. Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey both thrive finishing at the hoop and it would be a wise idea to get them as many looks in that shooting zone as possible.

Iverson Cut:

The Iverson cut came to prominence twenty years ago during Allen Iverson’s first stint in Philadelphia. Larry Brown coached a roster that was tough-minded and strong defensively but had little in the way of scoring. Brown had a transcendent star in Iverson but the lack of other scoring options meant that the defense could simply crowd Allen as much as possible.

Larry Brown had to find creative ways of getting Allen Iverson the ball as much as possible without Iverson facing too much defensive pressure. The cut that would eventually be named after his transcendent star was a key staple of the Sixers’ offense.

A basic Iverson cut involves a wing player sprinting across the high post and catching the ball open in the mid-range area. Iverson was a master of using this action to create a second impromptu dive to the rim for a layup.

In recent years, we have seen coaches like Tyronn Lue use this action to keep role players engaged in the game. Lue would often run an Iverson cut action for JR Smith in Cleveland. The play involved Smith curling around the high post screens to shake his defender before finishing at the rim off an easy backdoor cut.

Coach Daigneault can run a similar sort of action with SGA. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a great threat on the ball but being a top-level point guard in the modern NBA is not just about on ball threat. Stephen Curry raises the level of the Warriors’ offense time and time again because his off-ball threat creates space for his teammates to score.

Shai has to get off the ball more and finding him easy scoring opportunities would be a great way to maximise his scoring threat while getting everybody else touches. Shai does not have AI’s speed but his weird, arrhythmic footwork should mean that he can get to the rim comfortably in this action.

Spain Pick and Roll:

Spain Pick and Roll has been a staple of European basketball for years. The narrow courts and constant presence of help defense means that coaches like Zeljko Obradovic, arguably the greatest European coach ever, have to be creative to find open shots.

Coach Monty Williams loves the set and has used it pretty frequently during his time as an NBA head coach. Monty called the set a lot in last year’s postseason with Cameron Johnson and Chris Paul being regular beneficiaries.

His love affair with the action goes back to his days as the Pelicans’ head coach. Monty ran this action with Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis a fair bit. For New Orleans, it was a potent action.

With the Suns, the action was even stronger. Johnson feasted on defensive breakdowns and effortlessly drained open looks behind the arc. Ayton always seemed to get away from his defender and get finishes at the rim. Paul benefitted to a huge degree as Chris could get the big on an island and dance in the mid-range area.

As actions go, it is useful for spacing the floor. The use of three players creates mismatches all over the court. When the ball-screen is set, the attacking team has a 2v1 against the defense. This advantage changes to a 3v2 when the back-screen disrupts the back-pedalling defense.

Within the space of three seconds, the attacking team has a player rolling to the hoop, a player popping out to the 3-point line and an easy lane to the hoop for the ball-handler. On the other hand, the defending team has a player dropping back to the rim and two players in no man’s land that do not know their assignments.

The Thunder can run this action regularly given the number of ball-handlers on the roster. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would be the obvious choice but I think that Ty Jerome would be pretty interesting for this sort of action.

Jerome is a marksman from downtown which is why he is so interesting in that lead ball-handler role. Ty’s shooting threat will draw the defense out even further and should create easy swing pass opportunities.

Oklahoma City lack shooting this season but they have an abundance of playmaking up and down the roster. The Thunder have to use their passing to space the floor. Players and the ball will have to move sharply and precisely for the Thunder to stretch the defense out and create great looks down low.

Coach Daigneault has a task on his hands but I believe it is a good challenge for him as well. Last season, Coach Mark proved that he can improve players and get the most out of a limited roster. It is now time for him to prove that he can outthink the opposing coach and win games using his tactics.