The Oklahoma City Thunder have picked the wrong time to start struggling.
With only 15 games left in the regular season, the Thunder are just 6-6 in 12 contests since the All-Star break, a stretch that perfectly coincides with both Russell Westbrook's return and Kendrick Perkins' groin injury.
Coincidence? Or are those at all related? Actually, can it be a little bit of both?
We know the Thunder have been baking up turnovers like the corner bakery since Westbrook returned from the right-knee injury that sidelined him for almost two months. But how new is that problem?
The turnover issue is one we've seen before. Many times. And it's one Thunder have been able to overcome, because their defense has been good enough to provide some sort of foundation for the team.
Now, that's not so true anymore.
Let's remember that this was a defensive unit that ranked third in defensive efficiency heading into the All-Star game. Since the break though, the Thunder are allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions. That places them 18th in the NBA over that stretch.
The Perkins injury has just been one part in a series of unfortunate events. To learn the rest of them, you can ask Thabo Sefolosha.
Sefolosha, who may be Oklahoma City's best defender on the perimeter, has missed the past eight games after hurting his calf. And Jeremy Lamb hasn't really been able to replicate Sefolosha's role.
Lamb has been effective off the bench as a scorer. He's been able to hit his catch-and-shoot jumpers. But he's not a defender of Sefolosha's caliber and has actually started to lose more and more playing time with each game that Thabo sits.
One of the reasons Sefolosha is so valuable for the Thunder is that he's never really caught out of position on the defensive end. And in some ways, that's the most valuable trait a defender can possess.
When a player on the perimeter always moves to the right spot, helps at the correct times and guards the guy (or guys) he's supposed to, it makes everyone else's job so much simpler.
If a defender rotates incorrectly, then another player trying to help can overcompensate and find himself out of position, too. That's how defensive breakdowns happen.
Isn't this shocking? It's almost like being a good defender actually has something to do with how you integrate yourself into the team.
Sefolosha does just that.
Without their starting shooting guard, the Thunder are churning out plays like this one from Monday night's game against the Chicago Bulls:
The Oklahoma City defense didn't get back on time, and ultimately, this is because of a lack of communication.
No one picked up Kirk Hinrich, and Westbrook got flat-out lost, neglecting to cover anyone. No one even called for a teammate to go man up a wide-open guy in the corner.
In a way, this is on the absence of Perkins, too. As much as we critique all the problems his lack of mobility can cause (and rightfully so), he's loud on the court. He knows how to direct a defense and can teach in the moment. These are the sorts of plays that a team can be prone to when it doesn't have a proper anchor.
That's how you fall to the middle of the pack in defense, especially when your defensive system relies more on personnel than consistent scheme.
Nick Collison and Steven Adams are both nice complementary bigs to Serge Ibaka, but both have the exact same flaw in their games: they hack like lumberjacks. When Collison or Adams get into foul trouble, the Thunder now find themselves without anywhere else to go.
Adams averages 6.4 fouls per 36 minutes on the season. Collison is in the same boat. 4.9 fouls per 36, and he's had eight games of three-or-more fouls in his 12 games since the break. And that's without ever playing more than 20 minutes in any of those contests.
So is Perry Jones supposed to provide consistent production now when the Thunder need a big? How about Hasheem Thabeet? How realistic is that?
It doesn't help that Oklahoma City has missed Perkins' main value (post defense) in a stretch in which it's gone up against Blake Griffin, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Al Jefferson, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki.
Of course Ga-ZBo will hurt them. Of course the hot-as-ever Big Al will do the same. As many negatives as Perk may bring the team, he can still guard in the post.
That's not the most valuable skill anymore in a league that has all but done away with back-to-the-basket players. But in small stretches against squads who have guys who like to hang around the low block, Perkins can help. And that darn groin hasn't allowed him to stay on the floor.
Ultimately, the blame for this 6-6 stretch all comes down to defense.
Kevin Durant is going to score. Actually, he's never going to stop scoring.
Westbrook is going to shoot. And though he'll miss one game of every remaining back-to-back on the schedule, neither his health nor his production has been the issue over this stretch. Nope, the Thunder's problems are far too subtle for that.
At what point do we ask ourselves if the Thunder defense is too simple, too easy to break down?
It relies so much on Serge Ibaka to play garbage man and clean up everyone else's trash. It adjusts so often to offenses without enforcing some sort of owned style on opposing teams. But those are usually traits that you find in teams who lean more on personnel than scheme.
Defenses like that can rank high statistically, but usually, when you dig deeper, you can find they struggle against the top offenses. And we've seen that during this 12-game slump.
A hundred and three points to the Miami Heat. A hundred and twenty-five points to the Los Angeles Clippers. A hundred and twenty-eight points to the Phoenix Suns. A hundred and nine points to the Dallas Mavericks.
Oklahoma City can beat up the Philadelphia 76ers. It can knock out the Charlotte Bobcats. But those Heat-like offenses can get to them schematically. And that's a nerve-wracking trend to see heading into the playoffs.
At the very least, though, these problems could be fixable.
Perkins should be back eventually. Same with Sefolosha. The defense will shed some of its discombobulation then, and at that point, it would be reasonable to expect the Thunder to return to their previous defensive success.
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 March 18 and from NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.
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