The Oklahoma City Thunder have big dreams, but in order to realize them, they might have to start thinking small.
An undersized approach was key to OKC's 115-113 win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday night, and if head coach Scott Brooks is smart, he'll continue to field a five-man unit that lacks a traditional center.
By taking Kendrick Perkins off the court in the final period, the Thunder were able to unleash the full force of their two-man wrecking crew. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took Oklahoma City home down the stretch, and Serge Ibaka proved capable of handling interior duties all by himself.
In that final period, the Thunder outscored the Nuggets 32-21.
A deeper look into the Thunder's makeup reveals that their success as an undersized unit isn't all that surprising.
Unleashing the Beast(s)
Taking a center out of the equation helps clear the middle for both Durant and Westbrook, which makes a uniquely dangerous scoring duo nearly unstoppable.
See, there aren't more than a handful of individual defenders who can stay in front of either KD or Westbrook, so most schemes call for plenty of help when either scorer gets into the lane. If Ibaka is technically playing center for the Thunder, his man can't stray too far away. The bulk of Ibaka's offensive production comes in the mid-range area, which means he's not in the paint clogging things up on offense.
And because his matchup can't leave him to help without surrendering an open shot to one of the game's best shooting big men, defenses are left at a decided disadvantage.
Durant is hard enough to guard under ideal conditions. But when defenders have to come all the way out beyond the three-point line to try to prevent a long-range bomb, they're necessarily sacrificing their ability to stay in front of KD if he chooses to attack. With no help in the lane, Durant can simply beat his overextended defender and fly to the rim.
Against the Nuggets, help came far too late, leaving J.J. Hickson and Kenneth Faried with little choice but to foul Durant at the basket.
As a result, KD got to the line 16 times, hitting 13 foul shots on his way to a game-high 38 points.
Another benefit of OKC going small is that opponents sometimes follow suit, which allows Durant to make use of his size advantage down low. The Nuggets got into a particularly tough spot on Monday when they attempted to match OKC's smallish lineup, per Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman:
The Nuggets are sitting here letting Evan Fournier guard Durant one on one in the post. They're bringing help way too late.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) November 19, 2013
Westbrook isn't the kind of perimeter threat that Durant is, but he's probably even deadlier off the dribble. The lack of a big man inside makes his ability to get to the cup even deadlier.
It's hard to create a situation that makes Westbrook more aggressive than he naturally is, but when there's no shot-blocking deterrent in the lane, he practically starts drooling. In this clip, he blows past his own man and puts the nonthreatening Hickson on skates.
All a late-arriving Faried can do is feebly swat at the ball.
Without a conventional center on the interior, OKC's star pairing is extremely hard to stop.
For proof of the efficacy of a small-ball attack, the Thunder need only look to the two-time defending champs.
The Miami Heat have employed a centerless lineup with great success, feasting on slower teams that can't match up with their wing scorers or sweet-shooting big man. In Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, the Thunder have the closest thing to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
It makes perfect sense to emulate the Heat's approach.
Granted, there's a significant difference between James and Durant. LeBron is big enough to play conventional power forwards on defense without much of a problem, something the wispier Durant can't manage. But bigs have a much harder time staying with Durant than they do with James, so the tradeoff remains favorable for the Thunder.
Plus, OKC is actually much more dangerous than the Heat when its small lineup gets out in transition.
Because the Thunder love to push the tempo whenever possible, it's a little surprising that they've allowed themselves to be anchored by a traditional center longer than the Heat have. For what it's worth, Brooks seems to be gradually catching on to the importance of fielding a unit that takes advantage of OKC's talent.
Per the Associated Press (via the Oklahoman) Brooks said after the game: "That's my job to figure out our best lineups at the end of the game and we found the defensive team that was willing to compete every possession."
News flash, coach: Your best lineup has been obvious for a long time.
Subtracting a Negative
When you consider the blatant ineptitude of the Thunder's starting big man, the fact that they've resisted copying Miami's unconventional approach becomes an even bigger mystery.
Put simply, Perkins can't play anymore.
He can't touch the ball on offense without turning it over, he gums up the offensive works, and his defensive prowess has all but disappeared. It's no wonder that the Thunder have played to a net rating of plus-9.5 points per 100 possessions with Perkins on the bench but have amassed a minus-10.5 rating when he's on the court, per NBA.com.
Those are enormous splits, but they're not really all that surprising. Perkins' awful play was what analytics buffs talked about last year. Now, knocking the big man just feels like piling on.
So we'll move away from what Perkins doesn't do in favor of focusing on what Ibaka can do.
Ibaka's offensive contributions are obvious: He can hit a jumper and he works hard on the offensive glass.
Five Nuggets around the ball and Serge Ibaka gets it. pic.twitter.com/CuBTfuLQGe— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) November 19, 2013
The latter skill helped keep the Thunder in the game against the Nuggets, and it stands to reason that he'll be able to offer similar production in the future.
Slotting Ibaka in the middle allowed the Thunder to trot out a lineup with three point guards (Westbrook, Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson) alongside KD. And while it's never ideal to feature Fisher in such a prominent role, having another wing or guard in place of Perkins is an undeniable upgrade.
Eventually, rookie Steven Adams will mature enough to make the option of a conventional lineup a bit more viable. But we're at least a year away from that, and right now, Ibaka has been good enough to give Oklahoma City a legitimate small-ball option.
Switching Things Up
Ultimately, we know how far the Thunder can get with a conventional center.
Two years ago, a slightly more effective Perkins helped them challenge the Heat in the NBA Finals. Because of Perkins' devolution and the still-painful absence of James Harden, Oklahoma City can't rely on the same model to get over the top this year.
Instead, the Thunder need to seriously entertain a new identity.
Going small plays to almost all of the Thunder's biggest strengths. They can play faster, get more easy looks for their best players and generally put opponents on their heels. Given the anecdotal sensibility of such a move—combined with the undeniable statistical evidence that small-ball is OKC's best option—it's actually kind of stunning that they're still just toying with the idea in short spurts.
It helped them handle the Nuggets in the fourth quarter on Monday, and all of the information we have points to it being a major asset going forward.
One victory against a middling opponent shouldn't necessarily inspire a total stylistic change. But when it's blatantly obvious that the victory came about because of a particular tactical decision, it should at least give OKC's coaching staff pause.
If the Thunder want to play their best, the solution is obvious: They have to go small.