What OKC Thunder Must Do Between Now and Start of the NBA Playoffs

Luke Petkac@@LukePetkacFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2014

It's time for the Ibaka-Collison tandem to see more minutes together.
It's time for the Ibaka-Collison tandem to see more minutes together.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit at the top of the Western Conference at 44-15, but even they have some work to do between now and the start of the NBA playoffs.

Russell Westbrook is back, Kendrick Perkins is out with injury and Caron Butler is reportedly signing on with the team, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com. That's a whole lot of midseason change, and it's up to OKC to adjust.

Keeping that in mind, here are a few of the biggest things the Thunder need to tackle over the next few months.


Incorporate Caron Butler into the Rotation

Butler may not be the flashiest pickup, but he's a solid one, especially for a team that needs shooting pretty badly.

Butler only hit 36 percent from deep with the Milwaukee Bucks, but he shot nearly 42 percent on spot-up threes, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required). That will likely make up half of his offense with OKC.

The Thunder rank just 16th in the league from deep, and Butler, who should get much cleaner looks with OKC than he did with Milwaukee, can certainly help on that front. Butler has a few problems—he's too fond of deep jumpers, and he's not a good defender, per NBA.com. But that should all be minimized with the Thunder, and Butler has proved this season that he can still light it up from time to time.

It's hard to speculate on whether or not Butler will get regular minutes moving forward, though Daily Thunder's Royce Young's prediction that Butler will get 15 to 20 minutes off the bench sounds about right.

Either way, OKC would do well to get him some playing time and let him adjust to the offensive and defensive schemes. He could be a useful contributor down the stretch, especially when defenses tighten up in the playoffs.


Play Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison Together More

This is somewhat nitpicky, as Scott Brooks has been fairly flexible with lineups this season and has done a terrific job holding the Thunder together in Westbrook's absence. Still, he's sometimes too set on having a traditional center on the floor, and that limits the number of minutes his best frontcourt combination—Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison—can log together.

The Ibaka-Collison duo is by far the best big-man combination on the Thunder roster. It's not even close, honestly. Check it out, per NBA.com:


The Thunder are crushing opponents with Collison and Ibaka on the floor together, and though those units give up some size, they've rebounded the ball well. But despite all that, Collison and Ibaka average under five minutes per game together and will probably soon be outstripped by the Adams-Ibaka tandem in terms of total court time.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 22:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers takes a shot over Serge Ibaka #9 and Nick Collison #4 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 109-97 Thunder win at Staples Center on January 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Harry How/Getty Images

There's some reason to what Brooks does.

Collison's passing and pick-and-roll savvy have been integral to the second unit, and as seen above, he's partnered well with Adams. Still, there are ways of staggering the rotation so that Collison sees time with both the reserves and with Ibaka, and there's no real argument against doing just that.


Protect the Basketball

The Thunder have been among the league leaders in turnovers for just about forever, and chances are pretty slim that they suddenly reverse that trend over the next few months. Still, it's one of their few weaknesses and thus bears repeating—they turn the ball over way too much.

OKC is turning the ball over on nearly 15 percent of its possessions (good for 27th in the league), and since January, no one has turned the ball over at a higher rate, per NBA.com. The Thunder have a strong offense in spite of all those miscues, but their defense has suffered as a result.

Over the same two-month span, the Thunder have ranked 10th defensively (poor by their standards), in no small part because they're being shredded when they turn the ball over. No playoff team has allowed more points off of turnovers, and few have even come close, per NBA.com.

Perkins is a turnover magnet, and his absence will help in that regard (though Adams isn't exactly the most sure-handed big, either). But the main culprits are OKC's best two players—Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 21:  Scott Brooks, Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder talk during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 21, 2013 at AT&T Arena in San Antonio Texas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Durant's taken on a larger chunk of pick-and-roll responsibility recently, and he's been stellar scoring in those sets this season. However, he's also turning the ball over at an extremely high rate, per Synergy, and Westbrook's been even worse.

Turnovers are inevitable when players carry the offensive burden Durant and Westbrook do, and it's worth pointing out that Westbrook's handle should improve over the next few months. Still, a good chunk of those turnovers are silly and easily preventable.

The Thunder duo are often guilty of trying to split tough double-teams, throwing pocket pick-and-roll passes that just aren't there, throwing interior passes in big crowds...you name it.

Durant and Westbrook have never exactly been conservative players, so again, the Thunder's turnover problems are likely to stay. But even just cutting down slightly on the giveaways (not too much to ask) would give OKC a big boost on both ends.


Step Up the Defense

The Thunder's recent defensive woes probably aren't anything to be majorly concerned about, but it's worth mentioning as an aside.

As was discussed above, OKC has dropped off defensively over the past two months. That sounds scary, but it's much less so when you consider that a huge chunk of the data is slanted by a few of its last games.

OKC's defense was actually better than average heading into the All-Star break, per NBA.com, but it has been roasted by three of the teams it has seen since then, two of which—the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers—boast top-three offenses.

Still, the Thunder also got crushed at home by Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and that just shouldn't happen to a top-level team. You can point to Westbrook's return or Perkins' absence if you want, but it's really just a lack of effort mixed with a dash of bad luck.

If there's one solid thing the Thunder should focus on, it's putting more effort into contesting shots. That would seem to go without saying (of course they should contest more shots), but the numbers behind it are pretty shocking.

For example, NBA.com's John Schuhmann recently wrote:

"According to SportVU, no team has contested a lower percentage of its opponents’ jump shots than the Thunder. They’ve contested just 24 percent of opponent jumpers, a mark well below the league average of 31 percent."

That's the kind of thing that can—and has, recently—catch up to a team, and considering how much success the Thunder have had defensively in the past, it's hard to imagine the problem is systemic. Time to step it up.


All statistics accurate as of 2/28/2014 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference, unless specifically stated otherwise.


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