OKLAHOMA CITY — Too often in the past, the Oklahoma City Thunder cared little for passing. That’s not to say the team was stubborn or selfish; it just subsisted heavily on the incredible isolation talents of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The strategy made for one of the NBA’s best offenses over the previous eight years.
The offseason trade of big man Serge Ibaka and free-agency loss of Durant means head coach Billy Donovan must manufacture scoring rather than simply yell, “Iso Kevin.”
More than ever, the Thunder must embrace ball movement and action away from the ball in order to stay afloat in the Western Conference.
Passing Becomes Paramount
The Thunder ranked dead last in passes per game last season, according to NBA.com. Not coincidentally, the team was also last in touches, which measure the number of times a player possesses the ball during the game. Last season, the Thunder ranked in the bottom third in secondary assists, or so-called “hockey assists,” yet were 10th in assists per game at 23.
While those are not necessarily positive or negative indicators—OKC had the league’s second-best offensive rating, according to ESPN.com’s Hollinger stats, while the lowly New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers were two of the better passing teams—these are areas the Thunder will have to change with Durant now living on Pacific time.
Thunder players never passed the ball much because they never required much passing in order to score. Much of this was due to two of the league’s best one-on-one isolation players: Durant is an otherworldly scorer; Westbrook has the ability to take just about any opponent off the dribble and get to the rim at will. Ibaka was also an effective pick-and-pop target. Steven Adams and Enes Kanter became good pick-and-roll players who finished at a high rate at the rim.
Despite its effectiveness, such schemes are difficult to sustain for an entire game and over an entire season, and that didn’t stop pundits from calling for change in the Thunder’s simplistic offensive game plan. The front office agreed to a point but never bought the idea that it needed to adapt a San Antonio Spurs-like system.
“If Pop [Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich] had Durant and Westbrook, he’d run a different style of offense,” a Thunder front office source once told me.
Now without Durant—and without Ibaka to a lesser extent—the Thunder must adapt. Donovan was asked about potential changes to the offense on media day.
“I always think any time your personnel changes at all—even from year to year—you’re going to have a defensive system and philosophy and identity,” Donovan explained. “But I always think that offensively, you have to evolve based on your personnel.”
Find the Hot Hand
That personnel seemingly includes a pair of hard-charging guards, several interior scoring options and a dearth of shooters who can reliably spread the floor.
Spacing could become as cramped …