OKC Thunder, Russell Westbrook Need to Boost Efficiency to Rejoin NBA's Elites

Jon Hamm@@JonMHammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterOctober 16, 2018

Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George, right, and Russell Westbrook during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder enter their 11th season with an eye on returning to the NBA's elite.

After back-to-back first-round playoff exits, OKC spent its offseason looking for ways to get back on track.

Scoring points has rarely been an issue for the Thunder. Last season, Oklahoma City scored 109.9 points per 100 possessions, the seventh-best mark in the league.

How efficiently the Thunder score those points, however, has been a point of emphasis this summer. 

Effective field-goal percentage—a metric that measures field-goal percentage by accounting for the additional value of three-point shots—shows that the Thunder have dropped off significantly of late.

While there's no magic pill that would suddenly reverse OKC's regression, shooting the ball better could go a long way.    

The need for an efficient shooting team isn't just something conjured up by an analytics department. Recent history shows that the most efficient NBA teams tend to win the most games. Pair that with a stout defense—something the Thunder are capable of—and you have a recipe for a real contender.

From 2011 until 2016, the Thunder were among the league's most efficient shooting teams, save for the injury-marred 2014-15 campaign. OKC ranked sixth or better during that stretch, which included an NBA Finals berth and multiple trips to the Western Conference Finals. However, Oklahoma City's effective field-goal percentage has plunged over the last two seasons, ranking 24th and 17th leaguewide, respectively.

In his season-opening press conference, Thunder general manager Sam Presti highlighted the ways OKC can become a better-shooting team.

"There's ways in which we can improve that," Presti said. "One, we can go out and try to find someone that's a better shooter than what we have." That served as notice for the Thunder's role players: get better or prepare to fill out change-of-address forms. 

"Second thing would be that guys can step up and make some shots," Presti added in a way that may seem obvious but bears a deeper look.

Oklahoma City generated the most shots deemed "open" last season, yet it was a lowly 24th in the league in actually making those shots. One culprit is Westbrook, who's never been mistaken for an accurate shooter. However, OKC has been able to build high-level offenses around him, often masking his shaky shooting with premier shot-making from the likes of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Carmelo Anthony, who hit less than 37 percent of his open shots, also dragged those numbers down. Just as Anthony was unhappy with his role on the Thunder, the team expected more from him offensively.

Add in an uncharacteristically bad season from the free-throw line—next-to-last in the league at 71.6 percent—and the Thunder forfeited a lot of points.

"In today's day and age, if there are shots that aren't really good or high-quality shots, not taking them and distributing that possession to another place on the floor could actually make us a much better shooting team," Presti said.

The team's continuity may be part of the solution. All-Star forward Paul George has already spent a full season playing with Westbrook, and the two hope to mesh better in 2018-19.

"Anytime you have two high-caliber players like that, there's going to be an adjustment period that goes on," head coach Billy Donovan said during the team's media day on Sept. 25. "Getting to know each other, how each other plays, how you play off of each other, I just think that's normal."

George should get more touches this season with Anthony now in Houston. His drives per game increased from 7.5 per game in 2016-17 to 8.9 this past season, and he shot a career-high 7.7 threes per game. Many of the inefficient possessions Anthony used last season now figure to go to George this year.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Anthony's departure also opens up a big opportunity for forward Patrick Patterson. The ninth-year veteran came to camp healthy, unlike last season, when he was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. He's also working to change his mindset on offense.

"I just have to get passing out of my mind," Patterson said after an intrasquad scrimmage in late September. "There's opportunities where I pass up open looks. Opportunities where I have shots that I don't take. Just trying to get that mentality out of my mind, and when I'm open, shoot the ball."

If Patterson finds himself with an open look, it's because the offensive set worked. It'll then be on him to shoot with confidence. 

"Russ, every day, is just screaming in my ear to shoot the ball," Patterson said, which seems a bit like Thomas Edison encouraging someone to invent something.

Presti stocked the roster with a number of wings over the summer, adopting a Darwinian approach. Alex Abrines hit 38 percent of his three-point attempts last season, making it a dicey proposition for defenses to help off him. Yet minor nagging injuries keep setting him back, making his future in OKC uncertain. Second-year guard Terrance Ferguson seems likely to start in the absence of Andre Roberson but was as streaky as you'd expect any 19-year-old rookie to be.

Forwards Abdel Nader and Hamidou Diallo could also factor into OKC's offensive plans. Nader didn't play in the preseason, but he's making an impression on his teammates.

"Abdel is one of our better shooters," George said. "He can really spread the floor and doesn't need much time to get [the shot] off.

Diallo impressed observers with his unreal athleticism, but he's still a project offensively. For now, Donovan is more concerned about Diallo learning the nuances of when to shoot, pass or drive.

It's unwise to build cases around small preseason sample sizes, but OKC's shooting is still a work in progress. In four games, all of which they played without Westbrook, the Thunder shot 40.4 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from three. Patterson (26.1 percent) and Jerami Grant (31.4 percent) were particularly erratic, but OKC's offensive dynamic will change when Westbrook returns.

The Thunder, and particularly Westbrook, are capable of heeding Presti's words. Taking away Melo's jab-stepping long-range clanks alone will juice the shooting stats. Convincing Westbrook to surrender a handful of questionable shots per game is the next step. A few percentage points separate good from great in the NBA, and the Thunder can realistically make that leap.

However, breaking old habits is easier said than done.

       

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Jon Hamm covers the Thunder for Bleacher Report and for 107.7 The Franchise in Oklahoma City. He is also part of the OKC Dream Team podcast. Follow him on Twitter @JonMHamm.

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