Have the Oklahoma City Thunder Fixed Their Spacing Issues?

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

Apr 12, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Anthony Morrow (3) reacts after a shot  during the first half against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't exactly loaded with shooters. Even the addition of Anthony Morrow can't completely change that. 

But wasn't like the Thunder had no shooting last season, either. The team made 36.1 percent of its threes and finished seventh in points per possession. But OKC's attempts didn't always come from optimal spots on the floor.

That all starts with the big men.

Serge Ibaka is one of the NBA's best pick-and-pop bigs and can stretch the floor out to 21 or so feet after setting screens. Starting last year, he even began hitting corner threes—and it won't be surprising if Ibaka elevates his three-point shooting even more next season.

He knew how to pick his spots, too. 49 of his 60 three-point attempts came from the corners. 

Ibaka, though, was one of the only guys on last year's roster who prioritized corner threes, which led to issues with OKC's spacing beyond just the big men's lack of shooting ability. Granted, a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is usually going to take plenty of above-the-break bombs considering where those ball-handlers play on the floor.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 25: Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots against Tiago Splitter #22 of the San Antonio Spurs during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 25, 2014 in Ok
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Still, OKC ran the sixth-most isolation of any team in the league, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). And as mentioned before, the threes Durant's teammates were taking weren't ideal ones.

Last year's Thunder attempted loads of contested, off-the-dribble bombs from above the break. They finished in the middle of the pack in corner-three attempts and 28th in percentage from the corners.

To create ideal spacing, a team needs someone to draw defenders toward the sides of the court. That way, defenses aren't able to help as comfortably on penetrators and bigs in the middle of the floor. But OKC didn't have that. 

Thabo Sefolosha was supposed to be the camper in the corner for the Thunder, but injuries and general ineffectiveness ended that plan. By the postseason, Thabo wasn't even playing.

Morrow's presence will add a new element to OKC. He is a 42.8 percent career shooter from long range and hit 46.1 percent of those vaunted corner threes last season. Unlike with Sefolosha, Morrow's defender won't want to leave him to help on penetration in the lane. This is a symbiotic relationship in the making.

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

"I needed them,” Morrow told Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman. “Everybody’s been telling me that the team needs me. I’m like, ‘I need them more than they need me. I’ve never been in the playoffs, so it’s just a situation where I’m glad to be able to step in."

Morrow's presence helps. But in some ways, the court may still be a bit cluttered in Oklahoma City. 

One of the Thunder's biggest offensive problems last year is still going to plague the team in the upcoming season: Outside of Ibaka, the bigs can't shoot. 

Stephen Adams isn't scoring away from the rim. Kendrick Perkins isn't either. And while Nick Collison is actually a more capable mid-range shooter than he gets credit for, he's so hesitant to square up that defenses have no problem sagging off him. They know he's not going to throw it up, and if he does, he'll take enough time to allow a defender to close out on him. 

The Thunder struggled offensively when Ibaka was off the the floor last year—especially when they played two-big lineups. That became doubly true when Perkins in on the floor. Oklahoma City averaged 7.9 points per 100 possessions fewer with Perk on the court last season, and keep in mind he's getting the majority of his minutes with the starters.

With OKC's go-to center out there, the offense has a tendency to turn into four-on-five, even with the vet's brawny (and often underappreciated) screen setting. 

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Big men killing the Thunder's spacing is hardly a new theme. Brett Koremenos wrote about the issue at HoopSpeak.com:

Thankfully for Brooks, all of his center’s biggest issues can be addressed with the same solution: Keep Perkins off the floor.

Perk’s offensive struggles are augmented by the OKC’s other posts. While Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison have some range on their jump shots, neither is a floor-spacer cut out of the Channing Frye or Kevin Garnett mold. In today’s game, consistent offense is hard to sustain without giving scorers the room to operate. 

Seems like a pretty basic take on the Thunder attack, right? Except that's from more than three years ago.

Nothing has changed. And to this day, Koremenos' central thesis remains true. 

The Thunder still have problems. This is a team that was playing Derek Fisher and Caron Butler in crunch time (and though Detroit vastly overpaid Butler, who has his fair share of weaknesses, realize that when they Thunder lost him, they watched their only effective corner-three shooter walk).

Now, they have a few guys who can make threes and create spacing as cutters and slashers (Westbrook, Durant, Morrow, Ibaka, Reggie Jackson), but the bigs remain a plug in the offense's pipe. OKC is so talented at the top that it'll always contend for a title, but as long as the bigs can't step away from the paint, the Thunder won't be able to maximize their offensive potential.


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, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of August 22 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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