Can OKC Thunder's Floor Spacing Survive Loss of Serge Ibaka?

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Can OKC Thunder's Floor Spacing Survive Loss of Serge Ibaka?
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder can score, but they do it in isolated ways.

The Thunder ranked seventh in points per possession during the regular season, but they still had issues all year when it came to spacing the floor. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are tremendous offensive players, but they can score from anywhere. And ultimately, floor spacing has more to do with those who play off the ball.

Spreading out the offense got even tricker Friday, when Oklahoma City learned it would be without a key cog in the offense. From Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

Ibaka, who injured his left calf in Game 6 of OKC's series against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, is one of the best shooting power forwards in the NBA. He pops off screens like few other bigs in the league.

From Thunder general manager Sam Presti:

We are obviously disappointed for Serge, as he is a tremendous competitor, and we know how badly he wants to be on the court with his teammates. At this point it is important that our team directs its concentration and energy towards preparation and execution for our upcoming series. As with all teams, our group has confronted different challenges. It is our collective experience that we will call on to ensure that we play to our capabilities.

Now, as the Thunder head into the Western Conference Finals to face the San Antonio Spurs, they are losing Ibaka's pick-and-pop game. They're finding themselves having to compensate for his ability to slide to the corner and drain threes. And considering OKC already had some issues stretching the floor, this upcoming conference finals series against the Spurs could present some major problems for the Oklahoma City offense.

Some of these complications will be new in a sans-Ibaka world. Others, though, have poked their head through the holes of the Thunder offense all season. But regardless, Oklahoma City needs to find ways to stretch the floor against the Spurs—if it can't, this may end up being a shorter series than we once thought.

 

Stiff-alosha

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Thabo Sefolosha hasn't done much to help the Thunder space the floor this year.

He doesn't get shots off in time. Basically, he's a statue, perfectly stiff as he stands there in the corner.

Sefolosha was always someone who could hit corner threes. He hit 47 and 46 percent of them over the previous two years, respectively, before this season. But in 2013-14, it changed for some reason.

Thabo hit just 34 percent of his threes from the corner this year, and that's a serious problem for a team that was relying more heavily than it may seem on its shooting guard to knock down those shots.

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Watching Sefolosha shoot is like observing an elephant drink from a watering hole. It's a tedious process. 

Is there any other capable shooter in the league who seems less willing to capitalize on an open look? At this point, the release is slow enough that Sefolosha is actually giving time to defenders trying to close out on him. Or he's just giving away looks altogether.

You can talk about Thabo being a defense-first player. Of course he's that. He's always been someone who prioritizes ball-stopping over scoring, but still, he's one of the more important players on this offense.

On any given night, the Thunder know what they're going to get from Durant. Over the course of the season, they know what they're getting from Westbrook and Ibaka.

Sefolosha is the wild card. When he's on, he spreads the floor.

But now, defenders are happy to leave him in the corner, because they know with that slow release, they will have time to close out on him. And if he's not going to hit an exorbitant amount of those open looks, the Spurs defense, just like that of other teams, will sag off him.

 

The Rest of Them

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Clearly, the Thunder's poor spacing has something to do with personnel. Of the guys in the rotation, only Durant is a true, knockdown three-point shooter.

Sefolosha, as we just went over, isn't that guy. Derek Fisher is inconsistent. Reggie Jackson is as well. And Caron Butler has become all too comfortable passing up potentially open threes for his patented pump-fake, take one dribble and shoot a 20-foot jumper on the move. 

Really though, those players aren't the problem. When the bench unit plays, there are guys out there who can shoot. At the very least, defenders have to respect reputation. 

That's something NBA players will do. Reputation as a shooter can sometimes carry you further than accuracy.

It's not shot-making that provides floor spacing; it's the threat of it. And in the minds of plenty of players, Fisher and Butler in particular are threats.

So, those guys aren't necessarily the issue. Even though the Thunder shot 35.1 percent from the corners this year, 28th in the NBA, there's a greater problem here.

The non-Ibaka bigs plug up the floor like human Imodium. And with the Serge Protector in a suit and tie for the rest of the postseason, the Thunder could find themselves with some serious issues.

 

The Bigs

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Without Ibaka, the Thunder don't really have any bigs who can step outside the paint and shoot with consistency.

Steven Adams has proven to be a solid bench player and defender, but he attempted just 10 shots outside the paint all year. Kendrick Perkins, meanwhile, has that Perkins-style floater, on which his form makes him look like he's gently changing a lightbulb. But that's it for the two of them outside of layups and dunks.

The floor-spacing role for Adams and Perkins comes as screen setters. They have to be running around throwing a body on everyone they possibly can.

But then, there's the third and final big, Nick Collison, who is becoming one of the more interesting case studies on this team.

Who is the Thunder's best big man with Ibaka out?

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Collison has always been able to knock down mid-range shots at an efficient rate. He sunk 40 percent of his attempts from that area during this regular season, and in recent years, he's usually been around that percentage.

But that's not on a particularly gluttonous amount of shots, and the OKC scheme doesn't exactly let its backup big man hang around the perimeter. Part of the problem is Collison has never really been a willing shooter. Whenever he gets the ball on the outside, which isn't particularly often, he'll dribble and try to pass it up. 

After Ibaka suffered that calf injury, Collison had to play 17 second-half minutes in Game 6 against the Clippers, and here's the big catch: He managed to stay out of foul trouble.

That's an issue not just for Collison, but also for Adams, who managed to stay on the floor for 21 second-half minutes in Game 6. Those guys have ability and can contribute, but they're fouls personified, and now, without Ibaka, the Thunder big-man rotation dissolves to just three. And considering Adams hasn't shown any offensive ability outside the paint, that puts the onus on Collison to provide something other than pick-and-roll basketball.

So, maybe without their starting power forward, the Thunder will have to change how they play with Collison on the floor. In that second half of Game 6, we did actually see Collison stretch to the corner and hit a three at the end of the third quarter:

We shouldn't expect that three to go up or to go in consistently, but OKC needs some way to spread the floor. If spacing is more about the threat of a shot than the shot itself, then placing Collison in the corner on particular possessions could serve a greater effect than we might imagine.

From Eric Patten of Clippers.com following Collison's Game 6 corner three:

There's clearly some effort here. After all, it's not like he's never done this before. He did hit three corner threes during the regular season. 

Maybe this is all hopeful. It probably is, but if the Thunder want to force the Spurs defense to feel some element of discomfort, stretching Collison to waters in which he's never sailed before may be the best answer.

Still, you don't want to get away from what you do best.

Running the screen-and-roll with Adams and Collison will try to create some defensive movement. The 1-3 pick-and-roll will become even more essential for Westbrook and Durant. And ultimately, all those plays are going to be about Westbrook finding a way to get himself into the lane.

In the end, that may be the Thunder's best way to space the floor and score.

 

How Do They Fix This?

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Of course, if there's one way the Thunder can create better spacing, it's by going small with a lineup that puts Durant at the power forward position. And we've actually seen Scotty Brooks go to that in the postseason.

In both Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Brooks closed with a small-ball lineup, but after his team blew a 16-point lead in the final nine minutes of the series' fourth game, he got away from it. Brooks tends to be inconsistent with his lineup preferences, so it's not particularly surprising that one game in which the Thunder strangely had no answer to Chris Paul guarding KD would make that big of a difference.

With Ibaka gone, though, small ball may be the answer. Throw Durant at the 4, and all of a sudden the floor spaces far better than if you have one of the non-shooting bigs out there. From Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated:

Going smaller is the most sensible way to address a potential scoring deficit. The Thunder bigs are good for utility points only — Adams will get the odd roll to the rim, Collison can hit a few open jumpers and Perkins might net the occasional putback. Yet by keeping just one of those bigs on the floor with Westbrook, Durant, Reggie Jackson and either Caron Butler or Sefolosha, Oklahoma City at the very least would vacate the lane and give its offense some combustible material. Maxed-out spacing might be the Thunder’s best bet.

Still, Oklahoma City's answer without Ibaka may be more complex than just going small for extended periods, which is something Brooks may not be prone to do.

Now may be the time for the Thunder to start concentrating on creating off Westbrook drives more than ever before.

The OKC point guard is one of the most dynamic drive-and-kick players in the league, and it's been no different in the playoffs, when Oklahoma City is averaging about 1.33 points per Westbrook drive. That's quite the jump from the 1.08 points per possession OKC is averaging in the postseason.

When Westbrook heads to the hoop, defenses collapse on him. They don't have a choice. He's too strong a finisher around the rim, and when he's on—which he's been for most of the postseason—perimeter defenders have to help off their men.

This is what a defense will typically look like if Westbrook gets into the paint, like on the play when he passed to Collison for that three:

Courtesy of NBA.com

The Clippers have three defenders in the paint. That's just because Westbrook is such a threat to score once he gets his momentum going at the rim. And if a defense collapses in on Russ when he's penetrating, that can open up the floor as well as anything else the Thunder run.

The Spurs, though, have a pretty conservative defensive strategy when guarding the pick-and-roll. If Tiago Splitter's man comes up to set a screen, Tim Duncan will stay back, rarely venturing above the foul line. 

With Duncan, the Spurs "zone up" the pick-and-roll, which is pretty common when you have someone like the Big Fundamental, who is still a tremendous defender but doesn't have the mobility he once did. When he stays back, that's a major asset for San Antonio, an effective way to keep Westbrook out of the lane.

So, one way the Thunder can try to keep the Spurs honest—and expose defensive flaws for Westbrook's drive-and-kick—is to use Duncan's man in the pick-and-roll. You can't neutralize a future Hall of Fame player whose anti-aging ability proves that he's probably the offspring of Benjamin Button and Peter Pan, but you can try to pull him away from what he does best.

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In the end, that may be the Thunder's best way to space the floor, and the personnel has to take note of that. 

Movement can affect spacing as well, and some of these complementary Thunder players don't really move much or understand how to do so when they play off the ball. 

Butler is a stander. As energetic as Jackson is when he has the rock in his hands, he's inactive and tends to hang out in the corner when he plays the 2. At least Jeremy Lamb, who never plays anymore, was willing to run off some screens. 

Even on the Collison three-pointer, you can see in the screen shot above that Adams is purposelessly standing on the left baseline. He's not in a position to receive a dump-off or to get a shot. He's just there, allowing his man, Glen Davis, to step in front of Westbrook at the rim.

It's this counterintuitive thought process that has consumed the OKC attack all season. And it hasn't yet ceased in the playoffs. There just isn't an understanding of how to spread out the defense.

Without Ibaka, spacing is going to become more important for the Thunder. Of course, Oklahoma City needs its stars to go off more than ever (and if KD is pulling up from 28 feet, we know that can help spread the floor as well as anyone else), but regardless, the offense is going to have to get more creative.

Spacing isn't a star's game, it's a team one; it's predicated on all five guys knowing where their teammates are situating themselves. For the Thunder to defeat the most well-oiled team in the NBA, they're going to need to concentrate on spreading the floor with the full lineup more than they have in the past.

 

All statistics current as of May 16 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains 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.

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