What's Wrong with the Thunder?

Oklahoma City's Big 3

After adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, many assumed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would challenge the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs for seeding at the top of the Western Conference and potentially even knock those teams out in the playoffs. PG and Melo were expected to flesh out a roster led by reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, providing size and shooting ability at the forward positions while reducing Russ’s workload and offensive burden.

Things, however, have not exactly gone to plan. Eleven games into the season, the Thunder sit at a disappointing 4-7 and are four spots out of the playoffs they expected to easily qualify for, begging the question: are the Thunder officially a “bad team”, or is this just an early season mirage a-la-Miami Heat?

Team Stats

Traditional

OVERALL GP PTS W L WIN% FG% 3PM 3P% FTM FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK +/-
2016-17 82 106.6 47 35 0.573 45.2 8.4 32.7 19.2 74.5 46.6 21 15 7.9 5 0.8
2017-18 11 101.6 4 7 0.364 44.2 11 34.2 13.5 71.6 42.3 21.1 15.5 11 5.7 4.5

A few observations, comparing this season’s statistics with the 2016-2017 season:

  • Points per game (PPG) is down from 106.6 to 101.6
  • Increased volume of three pointers and slight increase in shooting percentage
  • Reduction in free throw attempts and efficiency
  • Slight drop in rebounding rates
  • Substantial increase in steals per game (SPG), moving from 7.9 to 11
  • Large improvement in Plus/Minus, going from 0.8 to 4.5
  • Other statistics very similar year-to-year

Clearly the year-over-year drop in scoring is a major problem for the Thunder, who were supposed to be far more balanced and dangerous on offense this season. However, their Plus/Minus is actually up quite a bit from last season, improving from 0.8 to 4.5 and begging three questions:

  • Why is the offense worse this season than last season?
  • How has the Thunder’s Plus/Minus improved, even with their offense stagnating?
  • With an improved Plus/Minus, why are the Thunder losing?!

Advanced

Overall GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG NETRTG AST% AST/TO REB% TOV% EFG% TS% PACE PIE
2016-17 82 3961 105 105.1 -0.2 53.2 1.4 53.4 14.8 50 54 100.47 49.9
2017-18 11 528 101.6 97.6 3.9 54.7 1.36 49.5 15.4 50.5 53.2 99.79 51.6

Advanced statistics echo the trends found in the Thunder’s traditional stats. Like their Plus/Minus, the Thunder’s net rating is actually up 4 points versus last season, jumping from -0.2 to 3.9 - good for ninth best in the the NBA. This gain is fueled entirely improvements on the defensive end: moving from a 105.1 defensive rating to a 97.6 gives them the second best defensive rating in basketball, behind only the Celtics. On the other side of the ball, the Thunder have slipped significantly, falling from a 105 rating last year (17th in the NBA) to a 101.6 (22nd in the NBA).

While it’s tough to tell what is driving the decline on offense, it’s obvious that OKC’s improved defense is what is keeping them in games. Despite a 4-7 record, the net rating of 3.9 does offer some hope moving forward. If the Thunder can maintain their stingy defense while meshing better on offense, I expect positive regression will push them back towards the Rockets/Grizzlies/Blazers tier of Western conference teams.

Individual Stats

Russel Westbrook

BY YEAR TEAM GP MIN PTS FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK +/-
2017-18 OKC 11 34.4 19.4 7.4 17.8 41.3 1.6 5.1 32.1 3 5.3 56.9 9.1 10.4 5 1.6 0.2 1.5
2016-17 OKC 81 34.6 31.6 10.2 24 42.5 2.5 7.2 34.3 8.8 10.4 84.5 10.7 10.4 5.4 1.6 0.4 3.1
BY YEAR TEAM GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG NETRTG AST% AST/TO REB% TO RATIO EFG% TS% USG%
2017-18 OKC 11 34.4 102.1 100.2 1.9 49.1 2.07 14.3 14.1 45.9 48.1 30.8
2016-17 OKC 81 34.6 107.9 104.6 3.3 54.3 1.92 16.7 12.2 47.6 55.4 40.8
  • Significant drop in free throw attempt rate and efficiency, dropping from 10.4 FTA to 5.3 FTA and from 84.5% to 56.9%. For a career 82% shooter, this number is both perplexing and troubling
  • 10% drop in usage rate - to be expected with the additions of George and Anthony, but a significant departure from last year
  • While assist and rebound numbers are comparable to last year, scoring and shot attempts are both down significantly (31.6 PPG to 19.4 PPG)
  • Decline in True Shooting % from 55.4% to 48.1%

Typically, NBA players are less efficient the more they are used. What makes superstars so valuable is their ability to sustain a heavy playmaking burden while retaining a high (or relatively high) level of efficiency. What made Russ’s performance last year so remarkable is that he was able to manage an incredible amount of offensive responsibility (see the 40.8% usage rate) while also posting a career high in true shooting at 55.4%. One would expect that with less of an offensive burden this season, he might become even more efficient on offense (similar to his old teammate Kevin Durant on the Warriors). However, this has not materialized to date - with a smaller offensive workload, Russ has actually been much less efficient.

Paul George

BY YEAR TEAM GP MIN PTS FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK +/-
2017-18 OKC 11 35.2 19.5 7.3 17.2 42.3 2.9 7.6 38.1 2 2.5 81.5 5.5 2 2.5 2.5 0.5 0.4
2016-17 IND 75 35.9 23.7 8.3 18 46.1 2.6 6.6 39.3 4.5 5 89.8 6.6 3.3 2.9 1.6 0.4 2.3
BY YEAR TEAM GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG NETRTG AST% AST/TO REB% TO RATIO EFG% TS% USG%
2017-18 OKC 11 35.2 100.6 100 0.6 9.5 0.81 8.4 10.8 50.8 53.3 25.2
2016-17 IND 75 35.9 108.9 106 2.9 15.7 1.14 10.3 11.1 53.4 58.7 29
  • Decreases in Field Goal % and Free Throw % drive the 5.4% decline in True Shooting
  • Free Throw attempts have fallen from 5 per game to 2.5
  • Large increase in Steals per game, from 1.6 to 2.5
  • Decline in Assist % and Assists per game
  • Drop in Usage Rate from 29% to 25.2%

Compared to his role last season leading the Pacers, George has become more of a spot-up shooter and less of an offensive playmaker. This difference is borne out in his assist and free throw numbers, where he is sharing the ball less and creating less contact. His numbers across the board are similar to what he posted last year, but it is clear that he has not quite found his groove shooting the ball (5.4% decline in True Shooting from last season).

Carmelo Anthony

BY YEAR TEAM GP MIN PTS FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT% REB AST TOV STL BLK +/-
2017-18 OKC 11 32.4 20.8 7.4 17.4 42.4 2.5 7 36.4 3.5 4.4 81.3 5.7 1.5 1.7 0.9 1 2.5
2016-17 NYK 74 34.3 22.4 8.1 18.8 43.3 2 5.7 35.9 4.1 4.9 83.3 5.9 2.9 2.1 0.8 0.5 -3
BY YEAR TEAM GP MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG NETRTG AST% AST/TO REB% TO RATIO EFG% TS% USG%
2017-18 OKC 11 32.4 101.5 100.3 1.1 7.7 0.84 10 7.7 49.7 54 27.9
2016-17 NYK 74 34.3 106.1 111.1 -5 14.1 1.39 9.2 8 48.8 53.5 29

Melo’s numbers are very similar to last season’s, with two main differences. First, his shot selection has changed to favor three pointers more heavily. Secondly, he is passing less, with his assist rate dropping from 2.9 per game to 1.5. This indicates that the Thunder are using Melo as more of a finisher, and less of a playmaker. Interestingly, Melo has the highest Plus/Minus of any of OKC’s “Big 3”, coming in at 2.5 compared to PG’s 0.4 and Russ’s 1.5.

Lineup Effectiveness

LINEUPS MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG NETRTG TS% PACE
S.Adams, C.Anthony, P.George, A.Roberson, R.Westbrook 162 100.3 98.5 1.9 51.1 96.44
A.Abrines, C.Anthony, R.Felton, J.Grant, P.Patterson 37 106.7 102.3 4.5 57.1 95.91
A.Abrines, S.Adams, P.George, J.Grant, R.Westbrook 30 99.6 75.4 24.2 57.2 112.06
S.Adams, P.George, J.Grant, A.Roberson, R.Westbrook 25 77.8 93.6 -15.8 41.3 99.74
A.Abrines, S.Adams, C.Anthony, P.George, R.Westbrook 22 114.3 113.1 1.2 60.6 104.33
A.Abrines, R.Felton, P.George, J.Grant, P.Patterson 16 120.1 104.6 15.6 64.1 94.18
S.Adams, C.Anthony, P.George, J.Grant, R.Westbrook 13 81.9 159.4 -77.5 42.5 103.05
S.Adams, C.Anthony, J.Huestis, A.Roberson, R.Westbrook 11 93.6 103.8 -10.2 43.4 111.11
A.Abrines, C.Anthony, R.Felton, P.George, J.Grant 10 99.7 56.5 43.2 65.5 113.3
A.Abrines, R.Felton, J.Grant, J.Huestis, P.Patterson 9 77.4 96.7 -19.3 43.5 104.86

Looking at the Thunder’s ten most used lineups reveals a few interesting trends:

  • The Thunder heavily rely on their starting lineup, with it logging nearly five times as much usage as any other lineup despite recording a mediocre net rating of 1.9
  • Andre Roberson is toxic on offense: the starting lineup with Alex Abrines instead of him has an offensive rating 14 points higher (albeit with a much worse defensive rating)
  • Abrines is featured on the three best lineups by net rating
  • The Thunder’s small ball bench lineup with Felton, Abrines, Anthony, Grant, and Patterson is their second most used lineup and has posted a net rating of 4.5
  • A “supersize” lineup of Westbrook, George, Anthony, Grant, and Adams has been terrible on defense, getting torched for a 159.4 defensive rating

Takeaways

Why is the offense worse this season than last season?

Russ has regressed significantly from his MVP-level performance last year. George and Anthony have both experienced declines in shooting efficiency and are doing less playmaking. Roberson continues to clog the floor due to a lack of shooting ability. The team as a whole is attacking the rim less and taking fewer free throws, costing them valuable free points. Ultimately, this team will go as far as Russ can take them - he has to get better for this offense to get back on track. If he (and George) become better attackers and keep spreading the ball around, I expect the offense to shoot back up.

How has the Thunder’s Plus/Minus improved, even with their offense stagnating?

Improvements in the Thunder’s defense have offset the declines on offense and given the new Big 3 some time to gel. With every player on the team recording a defensive rating below 101, the team’s uniformly strong defense has kept every game close.

With an improved Plus/Minus, why are the Thunder losing?!

Most just bad luck! Even if they don’t improve at all for the rest of the season, their 3.9 net rating is much more indicative of a low-seeded playoff team than a lottery team. If Westbrook is able to solve his problems at the line and George and Anthony become more aggressive on offense, I expect the Thunder to return to the playoffs, albeit perhaps not at the level of the Warriors and Rockets that we thought was a possibility.