OKLAHOMA CITY — Too often in the past, the Oklahoma City Thunder cared little for passing. That’s not to say the team was stubborn or selfish; it just subsisted heavily on the incredible isolation talents of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The strategy made for one of the NBA’s best offenses over the previous eight years.
The offseason trade of big man Serge Ibaka and free-agency loss of Durant means head coach Billy Donovan must manufacture scoring rather than simply yell, "Iso Kevin."
More than ever, the Thunder must embrace ball movement and action away from the ball in order to stay afloat in the Western Conference.
Passing Becomes Paramount
The Thunder ranked dead last in passes per game last season, according to NBA.com. Not coincidentally, the team was also last in touches, which measure the number of times a player possesses the ball during the game. Last season, the Thunder ranked in the bottom third in secondary assists, or so-called "hockey assists," yet were 10th in assists per game at 23.
While those are not necessarily positive or negative indicators—OKC had the league’s second-best offensive rating, according to ESPN.com's Hollinger stats, while the lowly New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers were two of the better passing teams—these are areas the Thunder will have to change with Durant now living on Pacific time.
Thunder players never passed the ball much because they never required much passing in order to score. Much of this was due to two of the league’s best one-on-one isolation players: Durant is an otherworldly scorer; Westbrook has the ability to take just about any opponent off the dribble and get to the rim at will. Ibaka was also an effective pick-and-pop target. Steven Adams and Enes Kanter became good pick-and-roll players who finished at a high rate at the rim.
Despite its effectiveness, such schemes are difficult to sustain for an entire game and over an entire season, and that didn’t stop pundits from calling for change in the Thunder’s simplistic offensive game plan. The front office agreed to a point but never bought the idea that it needed to adapt a San Antonio Spurs-like system.
"If Pop [Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich] had Durant and Westbrook, he’d run a different style of offense," a Thunder front office source once told me.
Now without Durant—and without Ibaka to a lesser extent—the Thunder must adapt. Donovan was asked about potential changes to the offense on media day.
"I always think any time your personnel changes at all—even from year to year—you're going to have a defensive system and philosophy and identity," Donovan explained. "But I always think that offensively, you have to evolve based on your personnel."
Find the Hot Hand
That personnel seemingly includes a pair of hard-charging guards, several interior scoring options and a dearth of shooters who can reliably spread the floor.
Spacing could become as cramped as the Devon Tower elevator at 5 p.m. on a workday unless the team can manufacture shooting.
Durant, Ibaka and reserve Dion Waiters accounted for almost half of last season’s three-point attempts, and all three have new zip codes. New players will soak up many of those attempts, but with what accuracy?
Westbrook downplayed the Thunder’s perceived lack of long-range shooting.
"Well, we got Alex [Abrines], who’s a pretty good damn shooter. We got A-Mo [Anthony Morrow], who’s a pretty good damn shooter, Victor [Oladipo], who was a great three-point shooter last year. Domas [rookie Domantas Sabonis] is a good shooter. Enes can shoot the three. Nah, I’m good. I’m good."
After a moment, he remembered teammates Ersan Ilyasova, the Turkish big man who shoots 37 percent from deep for his career, as well as Andre Roberson.
Westbrook’s confidence overshadows several disclaimers. Abrines, in his first NBA season but with a proven track record as a shooter overseas, may not be a rotation regular. Morrow is a career 42.5 percent shooter from deep but doesn’t have another elite NBA skill, which limits his usability.
Oladipo hit just under 35 percent of his three-point attempts last season, which is near the league average. Sabonis attempted only 14 career three-point shots in his two seasons at Gonzaga. Roberson has improved as a shooter in his first three seasons but is still working through mechanical issues with his shot.
Kanter is an interesting case. He nailed 10 of his 21 shots from deep last season, and all but four came from the corners. While he could help make up for some of the lost shooting, his three-point attempts were situational.
"Last year when I played with Steven on the court, he was just the more of the roll guy, and I was the pop guy," Kanter explained. "So I would just spread out to the corner, and he would roll more. So I think that created more space for him and for Russell going down the lane."
Cut to the Bucket
The Thunder will not only attempt to pass more and shoot better, but also move more off the ball, as Roberson told Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript:
It’s a tactic that was effective in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors assigned Draymond Green to "guard" Roberson so he could operate as a free safety of sorts. The Warriors all but ignored Roberson on offense as he parked himself outside the three-point stripe, while Green caused plenty of havoc as a collapse defender.
Donovan made a change in Game 3 of that series to use Roberson as a screener and a cutter, effectively making him the power forward on offense. That could continue this season.
Despite the concerns, the Thunder’s pantries are not bare for talent. That speaks to general manager Sam Presti’s strategy of sustainability. Now it’s up to Donovan to install a new identity.
Donovan is expected to tinker with his starting lineup and rotations throughout the preseason and perhaps into the regular season. Meanwhile, observers are looking for any indications they can find.
At the team’s annual Blue-White Scrimmage, the White Team consisted of Westbrook, Oladipo, Roberson, Adams and Sabonis.
Pain for Cameron
Second-year guard Cameron Payne showed promise as a shooter last season, connecting on 43.1 percent of his three-point attempts in December and January. That plummeted to just above 20 percent the rest of the season and in the playoffs. Much of the blame can be attributed to a bone fracture in his foot that was discovered in December but didn’t require immediate surgery.
Since having the fracture repaired in July, Payne suffered another fracture in the same bone during the Blue-White Scrimmage. No timetable has been set for his return, but it could be anywhere from one to three months.
Could Josh Huestis play a role in this coming season? According to Kanter, he’s been impressive in training camp. "He’s been really good," Kanter said. "He’s been shocking me."
Huestis spent much of the previous two seasons with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s NBA Development League affiliate. He’s been a willing participant in the Thunder’s plan to home-grow a so-called three-and-D wing and was the NBA’s first-ever domestic first-round "draft and stash" who agreed to be stashed in the D-League after OKC drafted him in 2014.
He played during five NBA games last season, logging 55 minutes. In a small sample size, Huestis looked like he might not be a sunk cost after all. He nailed four of his six three-point attempts, a surprising figure given his 31.3 percent mark with the Blue. He showed a knack for getting to the rim without the ball and finishing and displayed the potential to become an effective NBA defender.
Huestis has a terrific opportunity to seize playing time given Durant’s departure. The Thunder would be thrilled to see their gamble pay off.