The Oklahoma City Thunder offense used to center around Russell Westbrook. Now, though, Westbrook is sidelined with a right knee injury, and the Thunder are running their offense through Kevin Durant. And with that change, everything is becoming so much simpler.
With Westbrook gone, there just aren't as many options. And without those options, the Thunder are going to their bread-and-butter offense more often than usual.
That means lots of pick-and-rolls with Serge Ibaka. It means running Durant off screens and pin-downs. And mostly, it means Durant having the ball in his hands as much as humanly possible.
Often, NBA offense is just about manipulating a defense. It's not about overpowering it or hitting contested shots over it. That sort of stuff happens, but it's not the type of scoring on which an offense is predicated.
Westbrook doesn't necessarily complicate an offense. "Complicate" would be the wrong word. But he does add some complexity to it.
When Westbrook is healthy, there are more wrinkles for the Thunder offense to run. Durant can play off the ball more. There is more dribble penetration and there are more pin downs sending KD or Jeremy Lamb off screens from the bigs down low.
A simpler offense is not necessarily a better one. It's just—well, it's simpler. That's not automatically a bad or good thing, but if it's working, there's no reason to change anything.
Ultimately, an offense wants to make a defense move, because when it moves, that's when it makes mistakes. If five statues are standing next to motionless offensive players, there aren't going to be lapses, and there aren't going to be holes for ball-handlers or cutters to find.
That's why off-the-ball movement can be so important. It's all about getting the defense to rotate to the wrong place. And the off-the-ball cutters are the players who can get defenders to do exactly that.
Players like Nick Collison have offensive value because, even though they don't score often, they can set screens and roll. They can cut. And with that, the defense will move with them.
But there is one slightly less conventional way to get a defense to move: Have one guy who is so impossibly hot that defenders can't stop running at him.
Usually, that sort of hotness will happen for quarters. Sometimes for games. But it doesn't happen for weeks. It doesn't happen for months.
That is, unless you're talking about Kevin Durant.
Since Westbrook played his last game (on Christmas against the New York Knicks), Durant has been putting up almost unrealistic numbers.
Over 23 games, he's averaging 34.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on 53 percent shooting. He's even hitting 41 percent of his threes.
He's scored more than 40 points five times. He's been everything anyone could ask for, and defenses are starting to adjust.
Durant isn't just hot. He's steaming. He's boiling. He's burning. He's solar.
Because of that, defenses are running defenders at him left and right, especially in late-game situations.
Look at Durant's game-winning basket from Jan. 27 against the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks sent three—even four—defenders at him, but the Thunder's best player made the shot anyway.
No, Durant's game-winner didn't make his teammates' lives any easier, though it surely made them better considering they all left the building with a win that evening. But it's those kinds of plays that are starting to create better shots for the Thunder offense on future possessions.
Those kinds of attempts—the ones that someone like Kobe Bryant has mastered—can open up an offense as much as anything else.
We always talk about good and bad shot selection, about picking your spots and only taking what we classify as "open" or "smart" attempts. With a healthy Russell Westbrook on the floor, those selective looks were the types Durant used to take.
It's not that Durant couldn't or wouldn't hit contested shots. Of course he would, and of course he could.
He just wouldn't dribble around the court only to chuck up a fadeaway out of a double-team. That was more Westbrook's job, as Durant waited and watched on the side.
Now, when Durant dribbles, he's more of a threat to shoot one of those Kobe-like shots. And he's making them.
With that, defenses are moving more. And that's the whole point.
This doesn't necessarily mean the Thunder offense is better without Westbrook. It most certainly is not.
Westbrook remains one of the five best point guards in the NBA, someone who can affect a game with his scoring, dribble penetration, transition offense and, yes, even his passing. But it does mean that Durant's hot streak paired with the absence of Westbrook allows the Thunder to revert to a more basic offense, keeping their complementary players in simpler, more fundamental roles.
Serge Ibaka can shoot spot-up jumpers, roll to the hoop and not have to worry about doing much else. Reggie Jackson can penetrate and create off the dribble for shooters on the outside. It's all just more rudimentary.
Durant is using 34.4 percent of the Thunder's possessions since Westbrook's re-injury (compared to 29.7 percent before Christmas), but he's also handling the rock more. He's playmaking more. And those contested shots he seems to be making with each attempt are ironically helping him distribute the ball.
Again, KD is averaging 6.3 assists per game since the Westbrook injury; he has a 31 percent assist rate over that stretch. Both of those numbers would easily be career highs if extended over a full season. But assists can be misleading, considering they usually tell you more about how often a player has the ball in his hands than they tell you about how well he's actually passing.
A Great Example
Durant, though, is clearly creating more, and plenty of that has to do with how scared defenses are of him. Just look at his Feb. 3 game against the Memphis Grizzlies to see how defenses are guarding him differently sans Westbrook.
Over the course of the night, the Memphis defense didn't want to leave Durant, especially when a screener would come his way. So when Durant tried to go around a pick or run a screen-and-roll, two defenders would fly out at him. That made it easy for a screener (often Ibaka) to start popping or rolling.
As a result, seven of Durant's eight assists from that game went to Ibaka. And those assists were because of plays like this:
The Grizzlies actually defend the first screen that Ibaka sets quite well. Of course, it helped that Durant dribbled in the opposite direction of the pick.
Tayshawn Prince steps in front of the screener and manages to stick with Durant. Zach Randolph, meanwhile, plays behind Ibaka and doesn't get beat since the Thunder power forward sets a relatively passive screen, which Durant decides not to use at all.
But then Ibaka rescreens.
The Thunder try this often. Ibaka is such a strong screener that when his initial pick doesn't work, he just tries it again, usually from the other side of the defender.
This time, Ibaka sets his second screen on the same side. The difference comes not in the actual pick, but in the way Durant plays off it. Instead of going to his right as on the first screen, he goes to his left, dragging both Prince and Randolph with him.
Randolph switches, Prince doesn't, and Ibaka is left wide open for a baseline jumper on the right side.
Maybe it was a case of miscommunication by a Grizzlies team that's one of the best-talking teams in the NBA. Or maybe this is just what Durant causes now.
The Grizzlies don't make those sorts of mistakes on the defensive end. That's one of the smartest, most disciplined defenses in the whole league. But it happened against the Thunder.
Keep It Simple, Stupid?
This isn't just happening with Ibaka, either. Teams are sticking with Durant even more when Nick Collison or Kendrick Perkins, who are lesser offensive players, come over and set screens for him. Defenses are swarming him, but he continues to dominate, and everyone else on the Thunder is benefiting.
We're seeing it with Ibaka. We're seeing it with Jackson when whoever is guarding Durant on the wing won't leave the perimeter to help on dribble penetration. We're seeing it with everyone else whenever Durant runs off a screen and takes the entire opposing team with him.
When Westbrook returns, the Thunder will likely stick with the same offense we've observed over the last few years. But maybe, just maybe, we will see some sort of change. After all, Westbrook is still dominant when he plays off the ball every once in a while.
Maybe we'll see Durant handle the rock a little more with Westbrook running off screens or hanging on the perimeter. Maybe we'll see more of the 1-3 pick-and-roll, which has been so smooth in the past but which Scott Brooks possibly hasn't run as often as he should.
Oklahoma City can learn from this stretch. The question remains, will it actually implement the new offense it's discovered?
But for now, nothing is complicated. It's all easier. And because of that simplicity, the Thunder have managed to stay dominant without their other star, Russell Westbrook.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute 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 current as of Feb. 8.
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