Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Offense and The Offensive...

Over the past few seasons, as the Thunder have have risen to the elite ranks of the NBA, a common point of detraction has been the Thunder's offensive strategy, structure, or lack thereof.  Thunder fans have evolved from wondering if Russell Westbrook would contend with Kevin Durant for the alpha dog spot, wondering if he'd pass the ball, to watching the Dynamic Duo transform into a blood curdling, fear inducing element for opposing defenses.  Russell has continued to improve each year, while Durant extends his dominance beyond scoring.  We've come from questioning the number of shots Westbrook takes compared to Durant, and Durant's perceived ability to pass up shots that he'd have taken 3 years ago, to a new era of watching Russell fine tune his mid-range game, teleportation-like drives to the basket, as Kevin continues to garner NBA scoring titles.  

As fans, we've always focused on the Dynamic Duo, and wondered if the other Thunder players will ever become a part of an offensive system that keeps coaches awake at night...generally arriving at the conclusion that KD and Sasha Fierce are our primary offense and there's little hope for a Spurs well organized guerrilla attack offensive that involves every player on the floor in a lethal way.  

Away from the Thunder's primary guns, we've watched Serge Ibaka continue advancing to his ultimate potential as a big man, gotten over the Harden trade (almost), and witnessed the maturation of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb surprise us to no end.  Still, many fans still cling to the idea that the Thunder have a "willy-nilly" concept of offense that relies mostly on a pick and roll setup with one or two players actually being involved in scoring attempts.  Fans long to see an offensive setup that starts a clock-work effect of passes, picks, and cuts resulting in open baskets, or strong moves inside the lane for easy points.  I'll gladly admit that I've shared this, it's time to look at this in a different light, and pick it apart a bit.

The majority of well run offensive sets are generally based upon two elements, player movement away from the ball, and ball movement, with ball movement generally equating the number of touches by players in any given possession.  We watch the Spurs, or the Heat repeatedly pass the ball around and find an easy bucket.  However, the flip side of the "touches equals good, organized offense" theory, focuses on the scoring efficiency of the offense in general.  Keep in mind the fundamental elements of basketball, each pass poses a risk, and a single player scoring all your points can be double or triple teamed.  

The question becomes:  Is there a balance, and do the Thunder have that balance?  

Could the theory of the Thunder's lack of offensive organization and method, be a mis-perception of the style of offense the Thunder rely on to win games?  I don't recall anyone really criticizing the Jordan-Pippen era Bulls as having an unbalanced offense...Championship trophies silence most, if not all critics.

So, about that offense, touches, and on whether the Thunder have it together offensively, or just make it up as they go along, knowing that KD and Russ are there to score...Let's look at a drawring, as Simon would put it.

Graphic pulled form:

As you can see from the chart above, the beloved Spurs rank a highly efficient ratio of high-touches to high-points.  Whereas the Thunder rank lower in touches, but still have a highly efficient points per possession.  The key to look at here, are all the other teams... 

Charlotte achieves a high number of touches per possession, but can't score.  Golden State relies on Stephen Curry with the lowest number of touches per possession.  So, what can we pull from this chart?  Is there a balance?

Highly efficient scoring NBA teams have differing styles of offense that can still rate highly efficient, with fewer, or more touches per possession.  Interestingly enough, the lower right quadrant represents the majority of the clustering of teams, with 12 teams achieving a high rate of touches per game, yet remaining below the NBA scoring average per possession.  More touches does not necessarily mean efficiency, or assurance of offensive scoring.

My point:  The NBA first season is about scoring the basketball on offensive end, and there are many ways to accomplish this task.  The Thunder have a highly efficient scoring per game average (currently 3rd in the league at 105.9 per game), while managing about a touch less than the NBA average.  

This year, we've witnessed the emergence of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, who have both impressed game to game, while Serge Ibaka continues to grow his game.  Meanwhile, Steven Funaki [several other middle names] Adams, has been a surprise to everyone in his ability to step into the NBA as a rookie, and play meaningful minutes...leading to an exciting buzz that, if he continues to grow, he's going to be an awesome center in the NBA.  Clearly, Reggie leads this pack of role players, largely due to Serge's improvements in shooting made last year.  However, the additional scoring threats the Thunder needed to fulfill the loss of James Harden appear not to be a manifestation of a single player, but rather a group of players, each inching along towards being excellent contributors to a team already possessing the gauntlet of Durant and Westbrook.  

I've taken to something Royce Young, who writes the posed early in the season, when he referred to the contributing troup in a singular stat...something like Reggie Funaki Lamb.  If you combine the statistics of the two or three of the secondary contributors, you begin to see the third element of the Thunder's offense.  

For instance...
  • Reggie Lamb  (per 36 minutes):  
    • 3 Pt = 36%
    • 2 Pt = 53%
    • Ast = 3.5
    • Ft = 97% (you do NOT want to foul Reggie)
    • Stl = 1.15
    • Reb = 4.8

Let's compare that with Harden's last season with the Thunder,

  • James Harden (per 36 minutes): 
    • 3 Pt = 39%
    • 2 Pt = 49%
    • Ast = 4.2
    • Ft = 84%
    • Stl = 1.1 
    • Reb = 4.7

 If we are still holding on to the James Harden trade, which has almost completely lost its grip, in my opinion, then we see that the growth of production within the Thunder's younger lineup is producing similar numbers, but with one this case, there are two of them to guard.  

What about those touches?  What about the offensive sets, and structure?

The Thunder currently sit 15th in the league where assists are concerned, which puts them in the middle of the NBA pack.  Revisiting the points per touch chart above, I think we can safely arrive at a conclusion that the Thunder have an offensive mindset, and structure that relies on less touches, while still producing the leagues 3rd best offensive production.  The main element to look at here:  while the Thunder rely on Russell and Durant heavily...they should.  If you had Barry Sanders in the backfield, you'd give him the ball, right?  So, regarding the rest of the offense, what we are discovering is that the Presti / Brooks model of using the team's developing youth for distributing the scoring responsibility outside of Durant and Westbrook doesn't focus on a specific player.  Jackson, Lamb, and Ibaka are contributing 17, 16, and 16 points, respectively per 36 minutes.  That's solid production coming from our most productive big man, and adding a powerful punch from the bench.  

One last word on assists...taken from Royce Young on KD's points:

"Assisted by numbers this season for KD: five from Nick Collison, eight from Serge Ibaka, nine from Kendrick Perkins, 10 from Thabo Sefolosha, 13 from Reggie Jackson… 39 from Russell Westbrook."  [Thru 12/9/2013]

What does this end up?

A pass to Durant, generally concludes the number of touches per possession...which for the league's scoring leader, isn't a bad thing.  Although it can reduce the overall number of touches (particularly if its the first or second pass).  The Thunder's relentless tactic of attacking the rim, most often results in a shot, or a one-pass dish for a shot...again, reducing the number of touches per possession.

Brooks continues to mature his offense, along with his players.  Fan perception can be misleading, because we certainly don't have all the information that Brooks and his staff hold.  However, if you look at the makeup of the Thunder's offensive armory, their development, and the fact that a team bent on attacking the basket will have less touches, the Thunder remain highly efficient on the offensive end. When you have the league's leading scoring champion, and a point guard that attacks the rim like a cheetah on a antelope...that pass will probably be the last of the possession.  Fewer passes doesn't necessarily equate to inefficency, or lack of offensive production.  Particularly when Durant's shooting over 50% from 2, and Russell continues to shake off the rust at 44%.  It simply means that the Thunder continue to mature their offensive attack, according to the personnel they have on the floor.

I wouldn't worry, this first season keys on redefining the chemistry of this team, realizing the potential of the younger players, and getting them ready for the playoffs...the NBA's proverbial 2nd season.  

Believe me...across the nation, coaches are unsettled in their sleep while muttering the likes of "Reggie Funaki Lamb"...