The Thunder offense has been tough to watch since Russell Westbrook’s injury, mostly because it’s less an “offense” than a series of predictable, slow-moving sets designed to maximize the talent of two individual superstars. Take one of those superstars away, and those same predictable, slow-moving sets aren’t as powerful.
This isn’t Miami or San Antonio, where there is a system of constant movement, screening, and side-to-side action that functions in the same general way, creating the same efficient shot types, regardless of which parts you plug into it. And so the Oklahoma City offense without Westbrook has become drudgery for Kevin Durant. He’s isolating much more, which means the team is isolating much more — on nearly 22 percent of its offensive possessions in three games without Westbrook, up from about 14.5 percent in the regular season, per Synergy Sports. They’re getting fewer shots out of the pick-and-roll or via transition, two Westbrook specialties, and Durant is not exaggerating by much when he suggests Houston is quadruple-teaming him.
Rarely have so many non-involved NBA people watched a playoff game out of sheer curiosity as was the case Saturday night, when the NBA world tuned in to see how the Thunder would function without Russell Westbrook. Things went well in many basic senses. Oklahoma City won, Kevin Durant didn’t pass out from a Luol Deng–ian minutes requirement, and the Thunder’s offense, no. 2 in the league in points per possession during the regular season, checked in with a scoring mark that would've tied San Antonio for seventh-best overall, per NBA.com.
And yet the verdict from those curious onlookers was almost unanimous: The Thunder might be in even deeper trouble than we thought. Oklahoma City has never had an offensive system in the way the Spurs or Heat do — a structure in which each possession features a series of movements, countermovements, built-in options, and side-to-side actions the teams run through until the most desirable shot becomes available. The Thunder instead have a series of pet plays designed to produce certain end outcomes — a Serge Ibaka midrange jumper, an open Kevin Durant shot, a driving lane for Westbrook, or a favorable isolation for one of the perimeter stars. There aren’t really third, fourth, and fifth counters; if the first or second actions don’t produce a clean look, the players mostly stand still and watch Durant or Westbrook go to work.
Yesterday, we revealed the 2013 CourtVision all-stars of the Eastern Conference. Today we look to the west, where there are many great players, but only five slots to fill. Remember, the selection criterion is simple: These are the players who are scoring much higher than league averages at their most common shooting locations.
In the time of attack guards, small ball, and stretch 4’s, Big Al Jefferson’s game is unapologetically old school. He’s the kind of post player that was once so ubiquitous in the league, but now seems to be an endangered species. Like Adrian Peterson rushing as if it’s still the 1980s, Jefferson’s throwback style is strangely comforting to fans of a certain age, and the scarcity of those who play like him also offers commentary on the state of the NBA in 2013.
When you watch the Jazz offense trot down the court, chances are you will see Jefferson quickly assume his position in his native ecosystem, down on the left block. Simply stated, Al Jefferson loves the left block. If all the NBA players were on Foursquare, Big Al would definitely be the mayor of the left block. He has compiled a collection of effective pivots, drop steps, half hooks, mini-jumpers, “weezies,” and up-and-unders that are highly calibrated for the left side, not the right. This asymmetric love affair is so torrid that Big Al has become the most lopsided shooter in the NBA. No player in the NBA has a more asymmetric shot chart than Al Jefferson. Out of the 137 players who have attempted at least 200 field goal attempts this season, Al Jefferson is the most one-sided shooter.
Even if luxury-tax concerns were the no. 1 factor in the Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden earlier than they had to, the deal still amounted to a calculated series of basketball wagers. The most general one: that the Thunder’s current personnel would evolve quickly enough to keep this team in the title hunt, and neck and neck with Miami, even after trading a borderline franchise player in Harden for a less dynamic guy in Kevin Martin.
During Sunday night's game against Atlanta, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha of the Oklahoma City Thunder finished the first quarter by barking at each other on the sidelines until their teammates squired them to opposite corners of the huddle. It was an ugly scene in an ugly loss. Despite a Gemstar-sharp performance by new acquisition Kevin Martin, the Thunder were selfish, exasperated, and disjointed.
With two losses in their first three games, the defending Western Conference champs have not resembled the glowing dynamo that engulfed opponents in blue flames last season. And it was impossible to forget that the Hawks, who were win-less and without star forward Josh Smith, were the same club that James Harden disemboweled with a 45-point outburst only a few days earlier.
James Harden plays basketball like a video game character: all 3s, dunks, and layups. About 87 percent of his shots come from either near the rim or beyond the 3-point arc. He’s great in both areas, but make no mistake — it’s his ability to create and convert opportunities at the basket that makes him special. He’s incredible off the dribble, in transition, and in pick-and-roll situations. He has a high basketball IQ that’s most obvious in the two-man game, in which he reads and reacts better and faster than almost any other NBA player.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Jeremy Lin continued to amaze and electrify, dishing out a career-high 13 assists to go along with 10 points in a 100-85 Knicks win over the Sacramento Kings. After the game, in an attempt to reclaim his status as America's basketball darling, Kings guard Jimmer Fredette released a series of adorable pictures with puppies. I'm not saying it worked, and I'm not saying it didn't work, but I'll trade a "Jimmer With Labradoodle on Sofa" print for anything from the Black Lab Cuddle Sessions.