How the Oklahoma City Thunder's Offense Finally Grew Up This Season

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2014

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Scoring has never been an issue for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

This year isn't much different. The Thunder rank sixth in the NBA in points per 100 possessions, and the offense hasn't fallen off nearly as much as it could have without injured superstar Russell Westbrook. For that, Oklahoma City has to thank the evolution of its offense over seasons past.

The NBA in 2014 is somewhat of a monotonous game. In a lot of ways, everyone's strategy is so similar. 

Sure, you have your more complex offenses like those of the San Antonio Spurs or the Dallas Mavericks or the Golden State Warriors. Those are a little more imaginative than your normal NBA attack. But when you get right down to it, the average team's scoring is based on simple concepts.

The pick-and-roll. The drive-and-kick. Some transition scoring. Running some shooters through off-ball screens.

That's much of what NBA offense is for most teams. It's simplified, and it takes each coaching staff to find little wrinkles to add onto those types of sets.

The Thunder run one of those simpler offenses.

Keep in mind, now, that simple isn't bad. The Thunder offense is far from that. But their sets place a greater importance on keeping players comfortable than on anything else.

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 13: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder leaves the floor after leading his team to victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on February 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Over the past few years, the Thunder's philosophy has been something along the lines of "My starting five is better than your starting five, so we'll beat you because of that." And with that, Oklahoma City has tried its best to exploit individual matchups.

Russell Westbrook? He's better than your point guard.

Kevin Durant? He's better than your small forward.

Serge Ibaka? He's better than your power forward.

So the Thunder haven't implemented more motion in their offense. All they've done is take advantage of one-on-one matchups.

That's why there was so much isolation with Durant and Westbrook in the past. It's why OKC lost to the Miami Heat in the finals a couple years ago. If your go-to strategy is to take advantage of individual matchups, but you don't have the upper hand in most of those one-on-one battles, you're probably not coming out of a series successfully.

Once Westbrook got hurt in the playoffs last year, it seemed like all the Thunder would do was clear out for Durant. There didn't appear to be much of a backup plan for a sans-Westbrook team. Basically, possessions in that second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies tended to look like this:

This year, the Thunder have ridded themselves of some of those concepts. Now, the Oklahoma City offense, which has always relied heavily on ball screens, is putting an even greater emphasis on the the pick-and-roll.

Without Westbrook again, Durant is playmaking more. Those clearouts aren't happening as often. And the Thunder offense is becoming more balanced because of that. 

Now, we're seeing Ibaka become more active. We're seeing Lamb and Jackson improve. And that allows OKC to create more space on the floor, like with this Serge Ibaka pick-and-roll:

Just under 17 percent of the Thunder's plays have come out of the screen-and-roll this season, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). That's up from less than 14 percent percent last season, a relatively substantial difference. 

And with those added on plays, OKC is removing some of the higher-stress possessions from its offense. Scotty Brooks is saying bye to some of that isolation.

The Thunder used to isolate plenty. When you have as dominant a one-on-one player as Kevin Durant, you can pretty easily get caught in that trap. Now, though, Brooks is starting to cut his way out of the iso net.

Last year, almost 15 percent of Oklahoma City's plays came out of isolation, according to Synergy. But this season, that number is down to less than 10 percent. And plenty of that has to do with Durant acting as more of a playmaker for others than ever before.

The Thunder are running more screen-and-rolls, and they haven't even had their main pick-and-roll threat for most of the season. But Russell Westbrook is (likely) due back Feb. 20, according to Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports, and that means we could see this offense evolve even more. Let ball screening rain.

Westbrook used the screen-and-roll on 30 percent of his plays in each of the past two years. That's his game; it's his bread and butter.

It's how the Thunder get Serge Ibaka involved, whether he's rim running or popping. It's how they get defenders to collapse in on the lane to open up shots for Jeremy Lamb or Thabo Sefolosha on the outside. Like with plenty of other teams, it's the most integral piece of their offense.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 23:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dribbles off the pick of Kendrick Perkins #5 during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 23, 2012 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. N
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

So what happens once Westbrook comes back? Does OKC go to even more pick-and-roll? Do they start running it on a fifth of their plays?

It's probably safe to assume there will be some amount of adjustments once Russ returns. After all, Brooks wouldn't want to stunt the growth we've seen from Durant over the past two months. 

So does the Westbrook isolation game start to go away along with the Thunder's? Does Oklahoma City simplify even more by going to only a few centralized, comforting play types?

For now, though, the offense is working. It could work better if it had an extra shooter. But it's still working.

We've heard the rumors that are out there. The aggressive ones about Arron Afflalo. The tamer ones about Mike Dunleavy.

The Thunder know they need an extra shooter. And it makes sense.

When you're trying to exploit individual matchups, it means you have to prepare for double-teams. Defenses won't want to guard Westbrook or Durant with one guy. And the best way to prepare for those double-teams is by putting shooters on the floor.

Defenses are hesitant to stray from a Dunleavy type on the perimeter. They're far more comfortable leaving someone like Thabo Sefolosha alone in the corner. And that's why Oklahoma City feels like it's one piece away from insuring itself as the favorites to win the title.

But the Thunder are waiting on a top-10 player to return. Maybe Westbrook is all Oklahoma City needs to propel itself to a championship. 

This team is still so young. Ibaka, Durant, Westbrook, and Lamb may all still be yet to enter their primes. Maybe improvement for this squad merely needs to be internal.

The Thunder could still win it all with their current roster. Adding a shooter would merely help provide some more stability.

At the moment, Oklahoma City should be considered the favorites in the West, and as the offense continues to evolve, that proclamation may become even more definitive. And for now, the Thunder should remain comfortable keeping it simple, because after all, that's what they do best. 


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 or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of Feb. 18 and from or unless otherwise noted.


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