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[OC] Stuck in the Middle of the West: Questioning the Rapid Resurgence of the Oklahoma City Thunder
The storyline for last week’s Houston Rockets versus the Oklahoma City Thunder was the return of Russell Westbrook. It later turned into a storyline of how Chris Paul was re-inventing the Oklahoma City Thunder into a fun team.
They are not a fun team.
We haven’t heard much about the Thunder for most of this season. A quiet 22-17 record currently has them in the 7th seed of the Western conference which has been formidable, especially for a team expected to be at the bottom of the standings. 4 games above the Memphis Grizzlies, as the trade deadline gets closer and closer, the question of what they should do becomes a little more apparent. But first, we should talk about how they even got this point.
Most will credit the success of this team to Chris Paul. His reminder to the world of how good he truly is has been a feel good story. Completing his best veteran Jason Kidd impression, he’s impact on the court isn’t in the stats: its been his style of play and vocal leadership—or as people will commonly call it, ‘The Chris Paul Effect.’
With Chris Paul on the floor, OKC has a net +4.9 offensive rebound percentage, + 4.9 defensive rebound percentage, - 2.4 turnover percentage leading to a +5.0 offensive rating. His presence on defense has probably been the most impressive thing about his time in Oklahoma City. Because of the realization that their best line-up includes the three primarily ball-handers being on the court at the same time—Paul, Schröder and SGA—the modern 2-3 zone has brought out the best qualities of CP3.
With this line-up, Chris won’t be up defending at the top of zone. Instead, he’ll usually be working around the corner. Despite being known for his on-ball defense, his off-ball work and calls have been the crucial. Being able to jump in front of a pass, get a rebound to start the transition or even working a defender in the corner is what you would want from a zone-wing defender.
On the offensive end, it hasn’t been the Chris Paul show. But his impact on the game, is what we care about.
Chris Paul has turned the Thunder into a half court team. They’re the third slowest team in the association, rank 8th in time of possessions and ranked towards the bottom of the league in pace. This is because of the concept of ‘match-up control.’ Because of their lack of wing-depth, throwing out an additional ball-hander forces a defensive nightmare—where a guard could get a match-up against a forward in isolation or a forward could work his way around the court into a favorable match-up.
There are two things about this Thunder offense that can easily be seen to the average fan: they like the high screen and they like guard penetration. OKC averages the third most drives per game—53.7. What’s kind of surprising is how all three of the primary ball-handers approach the drive.
Shai likes to score. So every time he gets an opportunity to do so, he’ll go into isolation on the wing. He’s the interesting person to watch when leading the offense because of how quick he likes to operate.
Against the 76ers, he brings the ball up the court and immediately creates the two-man opportunity. The team follows his lead, stacking the opposite side and Steven Adams prepares to set-up the high screen. Adams correctly lays off actually setting the screen—as SGA’s first step gets by Simmons—and allows for the 1-on-1 match-up to the basket with Embiid having to respect the possible cut from Adams. With no cut, SGA is able to get the clean left-hand finish with 15-seconds on the shot-clock.
When he isn’t leading the ball up the floor, he’s a lot more patient on his drive. Showing the influence of Chris Paul, he takes the screen from Nerlens Noel and shifts to the foul-line, with Thon Maker protecting the rim. The floor is incredibly spaced well, allowing for a two-on-two battle at the basket with no Wolves defender able to collapse on the driving SGA. Because of a poor steal attempt from Maker, SGA is able to breeze around the defender for the right hand finish.
Chris Paul still wants to get to the middle of the floor. He won’t try to finish at the basket, instead, he’ll get to the foul line and stop—looking for either the cutting high screen or take the easy mid-range jumper. The reason being is this team isn’t necessarily focused on motion. Their style of play loves breaking the modern zone and punishing on the outside. Paul gets the ball with less than 10-seconds on the shot-clock and the Grizzlies have to respect the drive. But as he gets to stripe, he realizes they have overcommitted. Ferguson and Shai stay at home around the perimeter and Ferguson is rewarded.
CP3 has the set the tone for mid-range game displayed by the Thunder. They’re shooting incredibly well, 47.2% on 13.7 attempts from the mid-range—which is the best in the league. Because of the limited scoring potential from Noel and Adams, the biggest advantage is that mid-range jumper becomes open on two-man possessions. If, for example, Paul is able to penetrate thanks to a high screen from Adams, the secondary defender will often times defend the roll and paint, rather than stepping up to stop ball.
Shai and Chris have been good but the two keys have honestly been Dennis and Danilo—two players that simply have hit another level this season. Both players can thank the foundation Shai and Chris have set.
Dennis has become the wildcard ball-handler. His improvement as a scorer has been key factor number one—shooting 5.5% better from the field, 47.9% from the mid-range on 144 attempt—which has been a set-up from his 42.7% on 232 last season. The phrase people might use to describe him is that he’s become a lot more efficient, which is leading to a lot more trust in his capabilities. This year, he’s accounting for 27.6% of his team’s assists, 26.2% of his team’s points and 28.9% of the team’s made three-point attempts when on the floor.
He’s been an incredible compliment to the other two guards. Danilo Gallinari has been an incredible compliment to the whole team. While primarily being a catch-and-shoot specialist—accounting for 46.7 of his attempts versus 34.7% while on the Clippers—his 60.3% eFG rate has been a critical compliment to the driving guards of the Thunder. Guards having him as an outlet around the perimeter has forced defenders to stay at home.
With all of this being said, the players’ individual performance has only accounted for the partial story. All of this background was a primer to the three things that are explaining the tale of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Because truthfully, there are still a lot of questions and concerns going on.
Thing #1: The team hasn’t been punished for going small.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are defending the three incredibly well—opponents are averaging 31.3 FG attempts from three, hitting 34.7% of their shots from deep. Instead, teams are looking to get their points from the paint—attempting to punish times where Paul will be guarding out in the corner. And teams are often able to.
To beat the zone, it needs to be stretched. The Indiana Pacers, the Los Angeles Lakers did this to perfection and put up the biggest point differential the Thunder have faced this season. If you force the three-guard line-up to not work, it inhibits a huge portion of the Thunder offensive flow. Because of the limitations in scoring from the 5 role—often resorting from high post to low post as their offense, any disruption of rhythm is huge.
Thing #2: Teams are guarding the Thunder wrong
Did you know the lowest scoring game put up by the Oklahoma City Thunder was against the Washington Wizards in the second game of the season?\ The Wizards pushing the boundaries of the defensive—making the Thunder working from above the foul-line. With an exceptional perimeter defense performance—being able to stop the ball forced wasted possessions. The pack-line defense frustrated the offense of OKC.
In reality, we don’t see a lot of variance in win-loss offensive performances. Surprisingly, the Thunder have a higher points scored per game in their losses versus when they win. However, it is incredibly frustrating to what teams get baffled by small ball yet again. The fundamentals of defense suddenly get thrown out the window.
The modern zone does not work against an isolation offense. The Clippers have found out the hard way and they’re just stubborn or don’t care enough to change it. A true zone or an aggressive zone can force poor choices from the point guards. The problem is that right now, the lack of aggression on the defensive end in the modern NBA appears to be the bigger problem. It what makes scrappy teams like the broken Golden State Warriors so annoying to play against.
Thing #3: The Expanded Win-Loss Record of the Oklahoma City Thunder
They’ve kind of lucked out. They’re 6-11 against above .500 teams, 16-6 against below .500 teams. They’ve seen Golden State 3 times (3-0), Cleveland, Chicago, Charlotte, Brooklyn and the New Orleans for a total of 7 games, all of which they’ve won. Their incredible December included wins against the Pelicans, Minnesota, Portland, Utah, Chicago Memphis, Phoenix, the Clippers, Toronto, Dallas and Charlotte. They’ve had it pretty easy—and to their credit, they’ve taken advantage of it.
But at times, their ‘clutch factor’ is kind of worrying. Everyone talks about how their incredible in clutch time. They have the lowest average scoring margin for an above .500 team (+1.5), they’re 5-5 and in games that end up with a margin of victory being less than or equal to 3—which is 16th best in the league.
In fact, their clutch statistics aren’t really impressive. The two key stats have been personal fouls drawn (2.7) and opponent turnovers (1.5).
There is always a team that benefits from the chaos and it appears this year’s team is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Poor starts to the season from believed contenders like Portland, Minnesota, and the Spurs, the Warriors and Pelicans being plagued by injuries, turned a possible disaster year for the Thunder into a quick rebuild. The problem is that chaos may think you’re in a better spot that you truly are.
With the amount of assets at the disposal, media outlets are murmuring over the thought that the Thunder could make a move to be buyers this season. But with their biggest whole being in the wing position, how unconventional their best line-up is, it doesn’t feel like their one piece away from contending for a title. Truthfully, it feels like they’re stuck in the middle of the west). Elite teams to the left of them, jokers to the right.
Sam Presti isn’t the type of individual to go all-in during the middle of the season and truthfully, he shouldn’t feel pressured to do so. He’s set the team up for the future. Success takes time. They’re in the middle of this chaotic ride but everything, everything will be just fine. Everything will be all right).
The Real Bird Box Challenge: making the New Orleans Pelicans a winner
Today, we're focusing on a team that's arguably the biggest underachiever among them all.
The New Orleans PelicansIt feels like a lifetime ago, but we have to remember that the New Orleans Pelicans actually swept their round one opponent Portland this past playoffs, despite not having DeMarcus Cousins around. At the time, we took that as a great sign. The quicker, smaller, sleeker version of New Orleans (with Anthony Davis playing center) clearly worked and unlocked an upside that we hadn't seen before. The sky was the limit from here!
But unfortunately, the Pelicans have flown into rain clouds since then. At the moment, they're 17-22, and nestled in 14th place among the 15 Western Conference teams. Those rain clouds may turn into a thunderstorm soon, because there are Anthony Davis trade rumors swirling around them.
So what do they do? What can they do? Let's offer some advice.
step one: keep your blindfold on
If you watch the talking heads on ESPN, you'd think an Anthony Davis trade would be coming down the pike any day now.
From the Pelicans' perspective, they have to keep their blindfold on and avoid the crazies all around them.
There's no doubt that Anthony Davis may be frustrated with the lack of success (and his reps may be frustrated with lack of exposure in the market), but other factors are contributing to that and trying to light the wick to cause this powderkeg to explode.
We're living in a media landscape where sports channels have 24 hours of coverage to fill, and maybe 1 hour of actual "news" to stretch out over that day. As a result, they tend to create controversies and sensationalize soap operas, because that's more entertaining in their minds than actual basketball. More specifically, the sports media would love to see a superstar like Anthony Davis head to a premiere franchise/city like the Los Angeles Lakers. Not only would that keep the Lakers in the headlines, it would keep LeBron James (the most famous player in the game) in the headlines as well. The idea that these Lakers may win 45-50 games and lose in R1 isn't particularly exciting. But the idea of an Anthony Davis trade? Now that -- we can sell! The fact that so many print writers/radio broadcasters come from Boston and so many TV personalities live in L.A. only contributes to the noise.
The Pelicans need to tune that out talk (for the rest of the season.) In fact, they cannot even discuss an Anthony Davis trade this year. I would hang up on GMs faster than on a telemarketer.
The reasons "why" are fairly obvious: we're talking about a generational talent whose stats defy realism. 28.7 points per game, 13.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.7 blocks... etc. More amazingly still, he's 25 years old and still getting better and better from here. If Davis played for a winning team, he'd be in the thick of the MVP discussion.
Is Davis upset that he's not on that winning team? I imagine so. But at the moment, there's nothing he can do about that. He's under contract for $25 million this year, $27M the next year, and then will have the chance to void his player option of $29M the following summer in 2020. If the Pelicans draw a hard line in the sand, that's the earliest that he can leave the team.
The fact that Davis is locked up for 1.5 years should afford New Orleans some patience. In theory, the longer you have on his deal the more trade value he has, but I'm not necessarily sure that's the case in this context. The specter of free agency is going to loom over his head regardless until he signs a super max extension, for which he'll only be eligible this summer. The Pelicans (or a team that trades for AD) will want some clarity on his plans that they won't be able to get until then. For that reason, there's not a fundamental difference between trading Anthony Davis now and trading him over the summer in terms of the expected return. And given that, the franchise should keep him under lock and key until then.
In the meantime, that also gives the Pelicans the rest of the season to turn things around. As bad as that 13th out of 14 in the West sounds, the team isn't completely out of the playoff picture. The team is 17-22, but their +0.7 point differential suggests that they're better that that. Elfrid Payton has recently returned after missing 20+ games with injury. Niko Mirotic, Jrue Holiday, and Anthony Davis are all shooting worse from 3 than last year; that could bounce back in a positive way as well. This team is better than their current record.
Right now, the L.A. Clippers are in the field with a surprising 22-16 record (+1.2 point differential.) Could a team like New Orleans catch them if they rattle off a solid winning streak? Absolutely. We were all worried that the Houston Rockets may miss the playoffs a few weeks ago, and now they're in the 4 spot and threatening to rise even higher.
Obviously, New Orleans doesn't need to catch the Clippers alone; they have to pass several more teams to do it. It won't be easy. So for that endeavor, let's offer some more suggestions.
step two: get these poor birds some wings
The Pelicans have a fairly thin roster, but a few decent players here and there. Jrue Holiday is a good combo guard. Elfrid Payton is a playable 20-minute PG. Power forwards Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic both have their merits.
But notice one position that was left out: the small forward spot. And if you haven't noticed, that happens to be quite an important one in the NBA these days (particularly in the West.)
Due to their horrible wing depth, the Pelicans have been forced to play heavy minutes to players like Solomon Hill, Wesley Johnson, and Darius Miller. And that's a problem. According to ESPN's real plus/minus, Miller is the "best" among them with a -0.97 impact. Hill lags behind at -2.70, and Wes Johnson brings up the rear at -3.16.
Not only does this hurt the Pelicans on offense, but it's quietly damaging on defense as well. Because they're not getting quality minutes from their small forwards, the team often has to play "small." Jrue Holiday has great size for a PG, but average size at the SG spot. SG E'Twaun Moore is a decent rotational player, but at 6'4" he's undersized when he's forced to play "up" at SF as well.
Right now, the Pelicans rank 26th in the league in defensive rating, hanging right in with other sieves like Washington and Phoenix. Those defensive issues betray an offense that is -- by contrast -- not too bad at all. In fact, the Pelicans rank a healthy 4th in offensive rating. However, they need to get better on the other side of the ball, and that means finding a better (and bigger) rotation at the wing spot.
Where do you get wings? Admittedly, that's not that easy. Almost every team in the NBA wants competent small forwards these days to help them win games.
But fortunately, not every team is trying to win games right now.
The Pelicans need to target teams that are preparing for a possible "tank," and try to swipe away their playable rotational wings.
Atlanta's SG Kent Bazemore doesn't have great size (6'5" albeit with a good wingspan) or a shot that's always consistent (32.7% this year from beyond the arc after 39.4% the year before), but he's a solid veteran who can give you 25 minutes a night. His once awful contract looks a little less awful as it gets closer to expiring. He'll be due $18M this year and $19M the next, but there's a scenario where the Hawks may accept Solomon Hill's big deal in return if you attach some minor assets with it. The Knicks' Courtney Lee fits a similar profile. He's a true SG (and would be undersized SF), but at least he's playable. His contract ($12M+$13M) is also around the Hill range. You'd hate to trade for a long-term contract only to see Davis sneak out the backdoor, but neither of these deals (which will be expiring next year) are prohibitive risks.
But as I mentioned, the Pelicans should try to get more size than that. Rather than competent SGs, we'd love some competent SFs instead.
The one (polarizing) player that I'd be eyeing is Washington's Otto Porter Jr. He's also criticized for his contract ($26M+$27M+$28M) but he has a skill set that fits well for New Orleans. He's a low-usage player who can hit 3s and play decent defense given his 6'8" frame. It's disappointing to see Porter regress this year after improving his 3-point percentage the previous four seasons, but he's also in a toxic situation in Washington. If the 15-23 Wizards want to clean house and to get "off" the long-term contract, the Pelicans should consider giving him safe harbor. By all accounts, he's a high character and hard-working kid who may help their own locker room as well.
Of course, to get good players, you have to give good players, which may lead the Pelicans to a tough dilemma and a river rapids Sophie's Choice at PF. Both Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle have played well for them based on raw stats, with Randle racking up 19.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and Mirotic sniping away for 17.4 points himself.
In an ideal world, you'd keep them both and keep your frontcourt rotation strong, but this is not an ideal world. This is a post-apocalyptic Bird Box world. And in this world, we may need to turn a PF into a SF. It's a decision that may need to be made sooner than later as well. Mirotic is expiring, and Randle has a player option for $9M next season that he may turn down.
If I had to pick one of the two, I may lean to Mirotic. He's a better natural shootespacer, and thus a better fit with Davis. I thought Randle may be a great wrecking ball at PF+C, but his lack of length still limits his impact as a smallball five. That side, he's re-established his value based on his stats and may interest a lot of teams (like a Washington.) He has been a fun addition, but he’s more Lil Rel sidekick than true star; the story can function without him.
Essentially, the moral of the story is: aim to balance out the lineup. The Pelicans need to have a starting 5 that makes sense together, which means finding a way to plug up that hole at SF.
step three: the final standoff
As mentioned, the New Orleans Pelicans should keep their blindfolds on and try their best to paddle through the West and towards that 8th seed (even if they crash into the rocks in the process.) I absolutely, positively, would not let anyone pry Anthony Davis away from me unless they rip him out of my cold, dead hands.
That is, until May 14th.
That happens to be the date of the NBA Draft lottery, which may be a crucial one for New Orleans. Sure, there's a chance they may get lucky and win the lottery, but that's not the type of plan that I'd count on. We're not that big of fantasists here. By trying to compete for the playoffs this year, we essentially acknowledge that we aren't getting a top 3 pick ourselves.
At least, not with our own pick.
But depending on which team wins the lottery, the Pelicans may grab that pick after all. Here's what I mean:
This summer, the Pelicans should offer Anthony Davis a super-max, and hope that he'd take the deal and worry about winning and legacy later. It's a shit load of money, after all, and awfully hard to turn down.
But if he does turn it down – and formally DEMANDS a trade -- then I have to start listening and considering offers.
The reason that I wanted to wait until this offseason (and until the lottery) to actually take my blindfold off is because I happen to think the lottery pick may be among the best offers on the table.
Right now, we're hearing a lot of names like Jaylen Brown, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram in trade talks. Those players are all solid prospects, to be sure. But in my mind, those offers will still be there this summer. Those teams aren't going away, and their interest in Davis won't go away either.
But waiting until after the lottery allows other teams to jump into the fold with some nice packages as well. Duke's R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson are legitimate bluechip talents. Chances are: they won't be on Davis' level, but they are least the type of prospect that you can talk yourself into being "franchise players." Better yet, they'll be locked up on rookie deals from day one, compared to a player like Brandon Ingram who is 2 years closer to his own fat extension and his own possible trade demand.
Depending on how the lottery shakes down, a whole new host of trade candidates for Davis may crop up. If the Chicago Bulls win a top 2 pick, would they trade that pick (and someone like Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter) for hometown hero AD? Maybe, maybe not. If the Wizards win the # 1 pick, would they trade it (and/or Bradley Beal) for Anthony Davis? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we'd need to bring in a team like the Lakers or Celtics into this party and make it a menage a trois trade to have it click into place. But either way, the point is: throwing the # 1 or # 2 pick in this draft class into the pool opens up new options for the Pelicans. The more suitors, the better. The more options, the better. You don't want to be forced into making a trade prematurely, especially when those current offers will likely still be around for you as well.
step four: don't be afraid of the unknown
If Anthony Davis feels good about the second half of the season and decides to take the super max, wonderful. Do it.
If Davis decides to formally demand a trade, then you reluctantly have to do that as well. As mentioned, you want to go as young as possible with the returning package (preferably including top draft picks). You'd have to embrace a full Sam Hinkie-style "Process" to accrue top 5 picks for the future.
But what if it's somewhere in between? What if Anthony Davis doesn't sign the max but also doesn't demand a formal trade? What if this situation is a "wait and see?"
Then I wait and see. You go into 2019-20 hoping for a better season and another shot to convince him to stick around.
That said, it would be a mistake to blindly guess at what Davis wants and make desperate moves to keep him. Those may include trading for huge contracts like John Wall, or throwing $10M+ salaries at his college coach John Calipari.
Moves like that (employed by Cleveland prior to LeBron's first departure) are not only desperate, but they reek of desperation that makes your franchise look sniveling and weak. It's like the nerdy high school boy who tries to be extra nice to the girl he has a crush on, doing everything to please her. We've all been there. How does that story end? She gives you a hug on the way out the door to meet up with douchebag from down the road. Superstars want to play for confident franchises that have their act together, not ones who look to them for answers.
The team will add a fresh asset in the draft, possibly as high as a top 10 pick. It'd be hard to find a ready-made impact rookie, but there are actually a few prospects like that their needs for a big forward. Kentucky's Keldon Johnson comes to mind, as does Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura. I happen to love UVA's De'Andre Hunter's potential as an elite defender and improving shooter; he has shades of Kawhi Leonard in his game. Best yet, all three of those prospects rank around the 5-15 range, making them potential targets. And if not, the team can debate flipping the pick for veteran help instead.
Another adjustment that may make sense is a coaching shift. Coach Alvin Gentry will be on the rocks if the team keeps disappointing, but that doesn't necessarily mean they have to make a sweeping change there either. The Pelicans have an intriguing replacement on the staff in Chris Finch, one of the most well-regarded and highest paid assistants in the league. Finch has extensive head coaching experience himself, winning several Coach of the Year honors abroad and in minor leagues. He helped the Denver Nuggets rev up their offense around Nikola Jokic, and helped the Pelicans push the pace over the last few years. He's the type of modern candidate that makes sense for an NBA club.
You may scoff at the idea of replacing Gentry with some "minor league" coach like Finch, but it's a move that worked well for Toronto this past year. Finch's resume is quite similar to their former assistant Nick Nurse, including accolades in the D/G-League. Both had some head coaching experience, but also the eye of the tiger and fresh ideas to offer. Better yet, both have been around their current team for a few years now. Like Nurse, Finch would know the strengths and weaknesses of the roster without any sort of learning curve. A coaching change (hopefully an upgrade) may tick an extra couple of wins out of this team that may result in the difference between making the playoffs or not.
And if not? If you wait this long and still stumble, then you're likely to lose Anthony Davis. Possibly for "nothing." (Although you may be able to swing a sign and trade, worst case.)
However, to me, losing AD for nothing isn't actually the "worst case." The worst case would be accepting 20 cents on the dollar and a slew of B/B- prospects that are about to get Zach LaVine-type salaries. If you do that, there's a chance the Pelicans will be stuck in the dreaded 30/35 win range for the next few years, which is a worse scenario than completely bottoming out and starting from scratch.
the bottom line
I wish I could cobble together a plan of attack that would represent a true title-worthy team. But realistically, that's going to be difficult given the Pelicans' current roster. That said, this is a roster that can feasibly still contend for the playoffs this year and next. And if that results in re-signing Anthony Davis, then their window for an actual title grows considerably.
Of course, if the team continues to stall, then they may need to have a long, hard talk with Anthony Davis this summer. However, I wouldn't rush that a moment too soon. I would keep striving for that -- tweaking the roster or tweaking the coaching staff when necessary -- as long as I can. I would keep fighting like my friend Sandy Bullock until the bitter, bitter end.