With star point guard Russell Westbrook expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the season due to a knee injury, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have to make serious adjustments to their offensive game plan. As the primary ball-handler and team's second best player, Westbrook is a focal point of movement, screens and other on-ball portions of the offense.
On the somewhat limited bright side, OKC does have some experience handling his absence. During last year's playoffs, Westbrook injured his right knee in Game 2 of OKC's opening round series against the Houston Rockets, missing the rest of their short-lived postseason run.
Head coach Scott Brooks attempted to adjust on the fly, but OKC's reliance on the creativity of its two biggest stars—sets designed to create space, and not necessarily buckets—handicapped the possibility of major changes. By the time OKC faced off against Memphis in the second round, their complete lack of secondary offensive options and on-ball decision-makers cramped the floor and led to an early playoff exit.
But Oklahoma City will undoubtedly survive, and even thrive, without Westbrook at the beginning of this season. This is the regular season, after all: This team is certainly good enough to handle the cupcakes and mediocre teams littered throughout the NBA.
They might pick up three or four extra losses to the NBA's elite—possibly enough to slide them down the playoff seeding ladder—but in the grand scheme of the 82-game NBA season, Oklahoma City will be just fine.
If there's any silver lining here, it's this: An extended period without Westbrook will force the Thunder's coaching staff to draw up new wrinkles to an offense that will need to bank on ball movement and more rigid player movement and direction than any singular individual.
And with the loss of Kevin Martin, Durant and Westbrook will see extended minutes of solo action in the playoffs. All of which is to say: They'll need their teammates more than ever this season.
So think of this initial month and a half without Westbrook as a moment of experimentation, because during last year's playoffs, Brooks had nothing up his sleeve to survive without one of his stars. Too often, we saw a pick-and-roll or Durant isolation, with no secondary or weak-side action.
This was particularly killer for OKC due to their personnel. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins aren't exactly floor spacers, and Reggie Jackson and Thabo Sefolosha didn't draw enough attention to ease the pressure on Durant. Check out how little respect Omer Asik has for Perkins as an offensive threat.
Asik is literally double-teaming another player and almost 15 feet away from Perkins. Yet he can't take advantage, by either shooting the basketball or driving to the hoop. He's essentially an offensive zero, and the Thunder are playing four-on-five.
When Perkins finally dumps the ball into Durant for an isolation, Asik has no problem bum rushing him. He doesn't care where Perkins goes, because as he long as he can't catch it at the rim for a dunk, he's not a concern.
So when Durant begins to drive here, he must pull up for the jumper. The paint is completely squeezed.
To make matters worse, Durant isn't a great passer.
Though he has definitely improved this area of his game over the last few seasons, his playmaking ability can use some work. This is especially true because isolation isn't a solution in the long haul: Of players who isolated more than 100 times last season, only four players averaged more than one point per possession—league average for a given possession over the course of a game. Durant's 0.987 was sixth best, but still just an averagely efficient play, according to Synergy (subscription required).
Part of the solution must be empowering Jackson, whose blinding speed and ability to penetrate is an asset. But he can't finish at the rim like Westbrook—very few players in the league are able to contort their bodies at full speed, let alone finish equally with both hands. It's on Brooks to cater to Jackson's particular strengths, namely his speed.
In the half court, it's often difficult to utilize a player's speed. Quickness, explosion and first-step burst count for more, as well as the strength to finish through contact.
But this assumes the typical starting point for an NBA offense. Most teams operate from the three-point line, restricting the total space for movement. And so for the Thunder, there's a simple solution: Use the entire half court.
Sure, this is counterintuitive. No one's taking 40-foot three-pointers, and defenses are smart enough not to guard well beyond the three-point line. But initiating an offense far from the hoop isn't about shooting half-court shots; it's about building downhill speed and drawing bigs out of their comfort zone.
That's what Jackson and Ibaka do here, though probably not intentionally so. Either way, a difficult dilemma develops for Earl Clark, formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers. With Jackson flying towards the pick well before it's set and Ibaka making contact above the three-point line, Clark can't just leave the picked guard, Jodie Meeks, high and dry.
If he doesn't step up, Jackson has an uncontested pull-up three-pointer. If he does, Jackson is already at full speed, while Clark is out of his element. It's an easy blow by at this point, and Clark is too far from the basket to use his length to block the shot from behind.
Derek Fisher might not be what he used to be, but he's enough of a shooting threat that Kobe Bryant doesn't drop off to help. Jackson has a clear path to the rim.
The primary objective of this style of pick-and-roll is to create a favorable matchup in a favorable location.
Though it results in a basket here, it's also an accelerant for pick-and-roll playmaking. Because Jackson is operating more on a straight line path, he can have less concern for his dribble and more concern for his options.
By coaxing the big out to the perimeter, any good defense will throw weak-side help at the ball-handler. Here, Steve Blake is late, and Jackson can score any easy bucket. But had he sniffed out the play in time, Jackson would have had an easy kick out pass to Kevin Martin for the three-pointer.
What's more is that this entire offense doesn't require Kevin Durant. Notice how he stands on the perimeter, an observer and decoy.
But using Durant isn't the worst idea, particularly as an off-screen shooter.
While his 1.02 points per possession were good compared to the rest of the league, it's his playmaking out of these situations that's of more note.
As an isolation player, Durant struggles with ball distribution. He has difficulty adjusting from scoring to passing mode, and therefore he plays with a preset notion of what he's going to do. (Granted, only the most gifted playmakers can choose on the fly.) But in pure off-screen situations, he's become extremely adept at not only recognizing double-teams, but also finding the appropriate teammate with an on-target pass.
Here, it's Serge Ibaka after he keeps Gordon Hayward attached to his hip and sucks in Derrick Favors.
Ibaka flares, both to create space for Durant and a release valve for a baseline jumper. Durant keeps an eye on Ibaka as he heads to the hoop and delivers the ball once Favors has fully committed to protecting the rim.
This is where Durant can succeed as a passer: moving in a straight line, having a preset advantage as a ball-handler. Straight out of the pick-and-roll, Durant isn't always the best at finding his roll man. He's a good ball-handler and savvy enough to create for himself. But creating for others is an entirely different beast, and one that only a select few in the league have mastered.
These are only a few very simplistic ways to open up OKC's offense. There are more complicated sets that they can certainly employ, but in the course of a regular basketball game, sometimes too much structure can be a bad thing.
But if the Thunder can learn to function without one of its stars on the floor, they'll be a better team in the long term.
Note: Unless otherwise sourced, all information comes from Synergy (Subscription Required)