What We Learned About the Oklahoma City Thunder During the Season's 1st Half

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (9) high fives teammate Kevin Durant (35) in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder just keep winning.

It almost doesn't matter that they have missed Russell Westbrook for 15 games and counting. It almost doesn't matter that they're still young or that they "lost" in the James Harden trade. They just keep winning games.

Now, without their second-best player, the Thunder are discovering slightly different ways to win.

Halfway through, we've seen a different type of Thunder season than we did last year. Russell Westbrook is gone, and Kevin Durant is shooting his heart out.

Durant is on track to lead the NBA in scoring for the fourth time in five years, averaging a would-be career-high 30.6 points per game. 

Serge Ibaka is becoming one of the best power forwards in the league and is getting help from Westbrook fill-in Reggie Jackson, Mr. OKCtober, still one of the better NBA nicknames.

We've seen bench players like Nick Collison continue their production, and we've seen the younger Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams begin to contribute more, which is exactly what the Thunder need with their second-best player riding the pine for far too long. 

The Thunder currently stand at 30-10, third in the West and on track for their second consecutive 60-win season. Here's a look at some of the things we've learned about them halfway through the year:


The Thunder Need Russell Westbrook

John Minchillo/Associated Press

Maybe this seems obvious. Maybe it doesn't. It all depends on your Westbrook starting point.

The majority of people will tell you Westbrook is a great player, someone who can dominate on any given night in any aspect of the game: scoring, creating, rebounding, defending. But then there are those who point out the shot selection.

That part of his game isn't always preferable. It's an acknowledged flaw in his game. He's not perfect. But that doesn't mean he isn't great. 

Westbrook's presence completely opens up the Thunder offense

He runs the pick-and-roll better than anyone else on the team. When he goes to the rim, defenses collapse in on him, leaving shooters open on the outside, and that's an even bigger deal for the Thunder than for most teams, considering their shortage of three-point shooting wings. The Thunder need the space that Westbrook creates merely by showing up every night.

Oklahoma City is 21-4 with Westbrook and 9-6 without him. In the short term, it can win with its point guard out, but that's not something that can be sustained in the long term and against better teams. 

Kevin Durant can't go ahead and drop 54 on every single night when the Thunder need a win (though maybe he can). 

In 12 games since Christmas, the last time Westbrook played, the Thunder rank just 13th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions. But they ranked fourth in the league in that statistic on Dec. 25.

The offense is different. We're seeing more Durant isolation plays and less movement. And the transition game isn't quite the same.

The Thunder are a team that loves to get out on the break. MySynergySports.com (subscription required) classifies 15.1 percent of the Thunder's plays as transition plays. 

Since the Westbrook injury, though, the Thunder have reached that 15 percent number in only four of their games. It's Westbrook's speed, his ability to take an outlet pass and take the ball all the way to the rim. How many point guards can get a defensive rebound and fly from one end of the court to the other as quickly as him?

The pick-and-roll game with Ibaka is different. The transition game is different. And because of that, the offense has completely changed.

It's all about adjustments—and those adjustments will show a greater effect in the future. But so far, none of it has mattered very much. And we can thank Kevin Durant for that.


Kevin Durant Doesn't Need Russell Westbrook

Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

The Thunder may need Russell Westbrook to remain a contender, but Kevin Durant apparently doesn't need Westbrook for anything. 

Finally, we're getting to see high-usage Durant. And we're talking super high usage—insanely high usage.

In 12 sans-Westbrook games, Durant is averaging 36.3 points per game. He's shooting 50 percent from the field. He's scored upward of 30 points in 10 of those games.

When a player's usage increases, his efficiency decreases. That's a rule you'll learn in Stats 101 on the first day of basketball college. It tends to hold true no matter what.

When Westbrook played in his last game against the New York Knicks on Christmas, Durant's usage rate stood at 29.9 percent, his true shooting at 62.8 percent.

He was shooting often. He was making an almost unrealistically high percentage of his shots. But still, he may not have been taking enough of them.

Since the injury, though, the ball is finishing in Durant's hands on 35.9 percent of the Thunder's possessions. And his true shooting has increased to 63.7 percent.

To put into perspective how often Durant is actually shooting the ball now, only four qualified players (2,000 minutes played) in NBA history have posted a full season with a usage that high: Michael Jordan (1986-87, 2001-02), Allen Iverson (2000-01, 2001-02), Dwyane Wade (2008-09) and Kobe Bryant (2005-06).

Durant has become more efficient as his usage has spiked to unprecedented levels. That doesn't happen to normal people. It just doesn't.

Efficiency doesn't go up along with usage. Those numbers have an inverse relationship, but Durant is proving everything we know about them wrong. 


Serge Ibaka Has Become an Elite Defender

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

When it comes to defense, reputation usually tends to trump fact.

That's how we saw Kobe Bryant linger on the NBA's All-Defensive team for a couple of years too many. It's why it took far too long to get Tony Allen on the first team.

Defensively, reputation is everything.

Serge Ibaka has the reputation. He always has. It's how he's made his way onto the NBA's All-Defensive First Team two years in a row.

Ibaka, though, wasn't necessarily deserving of those honors when he received them. The league's two-time leading shot-blocker can contest shots at the rim and is an above-average post defender, but he still found himself out of position all too often on the defensive end.

Ibaka would occasionally fail to rotate to the right spot. He would over-hedge on pick-and-rolls, often finding himself too aggressive on those plays.

He went for the blocks. And he'd get them. But only three times a game. There were another 90-plus possessions about which to worry, and those are the plays on which Ibaka would occasionally make mistakes.

It wasn't that Ibaka was bad defensively the past few years. He was good, very good. He just wasn't great. He wasn't one of the five best defenders in the NBA.

Now, though, everything is changing. 

Mainly, it's about Ibaka's pick-and-roll defense. It's refined; it's intelligent, but most importantly, it's patient.

That has been Ibaka's biggest defensive issue over the past few years: patience. He ran after plays; he didn't let those plays come to him. 

Ibaka used to make his move before an offense would develop. Now, he controls the play, like in this early-January possession against the Boston Celtics:

Ibaka doesn't over-hedge. He doesn't overcommit to the ball-handler, Jordan Crawford. He gives himself enough time to recover onto Brandon Bass.

It's perfect pick-and-roll defense.

Add in the athleticism, the quickness and the explosion, and Ibaka has become legitimately one of the best defenders in the league. People can't complain about his overrated defense that produced empty blocks and overzealous movement anymore. 

Serge Ibaka has arrived, and he's not going away.


Anyone Can Make a Half-Court Shot in Oklahoma City 

Apparently, there is something in the water in Oklahoma City. Everyone is hitting half-court shots, enough people that there is already a YouTube tribute to the Thunder fan and his or her incredible ability to chuck a ball into a hole from 45 feet away.

There was a point earlier this season when Thunder fans made five half-court shots in a 22-game period. And keep in mind that over that stretch, Reggie Jackson was 5-of-23 from three. 

It's been proven. Thunder fans are better shooters than Reggie Jackson. And Jackson doesn't even get to meet Jay Z.


Steven Adams Should Play over Kendrick Perkins

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - DECEMBER 29 :  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Chesapeake Arena on December 29, 2013 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly ac
NBA Photos/Getty Images

Well, that is a little obvious, right? Most people should play over Kendrick Perkins.

Adams, though, is coming on of late.

Remember that development is key with Adams, and that's not just because he's 20.

This is someone who had only one year of college experience, someone who didn't play against top-notch competition growing up in New Zealand, someone who is still learning how to use his seven-foot, 250-pound frame on a play-to-play basis. 

A few years ago, Adams was still playing coed basketball—literally. 

Perkins is supposed to be a defensive enforcer. At least, that's the reputation. But he can't move nearly as well as he used to.

Perkins doesn't get up. He doesn't contest shots. And considering how little he brings the Thunder on offense, if he isn't giving you anything defensively other than some occasionally decent post defense, he's never going to help.

A player whose primary skill is post defense is a troubled player in today's NBA. Guys don't really post up anymore. Sure, you have your occasional LaMarcus Aldridge or Al Jefferson, but generally, teams aren't posting up on a night-in, night-out basis.

There are scenarios when Perkins can produce, but ultimately, he hurts you more than he helps. When an opposing offense goes to anything other than a post-up, Perkins doesn't have nearly as much to offer his teammates as he used to have.

As Perkins' skills have eroded, so has his quickness. Run the pick-and-roll against him, and you're likely good to go. And the Golden State Warriors definitely agree with that statement:

Perkins didn't necessarily defend that pick-and-roll any differently than he ever did in the past. But he just doesn't have that quickness anymore (not that he was ever that quick to begin with, anyway).

Very little that the Warriors did on that play mattered. Perkins just couldn't recover.

Andrew Bogut isn't the quickest center in the league, but he still created space. So if Perkins is defending a pick-and-roll with a ball-handler who can shoot (like Steph Curry), he has to play as conservatively as possible. 

He can't commit to the shooter, because he'll leave a roll man wide open heading to the hoop. He can't commit to the roll man, because he'll leave the shooter with a good look. All of a sudden, his defense is rendered useless.

Adams is quick enough to recover. He can actually defend that kind of offense and if the Thunder want to win against heavy pick-and-roll teams, like the Los Angeles Clippers or Portland Trail Blazers, in the playoffs; OKC stands a better chance if Adams is the guy defending the roll man.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

(All statistics valid as of Jan. 20 and courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.)


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