“They say marriages are made in Heaven. But so is thunder and lightning.”
- Clint Eastwood
All off-season I’e been waffling around like a big ol’ waffle, trying to figure out who I like coming out of the West to challenge the Cavaliers in next year’s Finals. Which team is the biggest kahuna? Because, it seems to me that there are 5 potential biggest kahunas in the Western Conference, each large kahunas in their own right – The Clippers, The Spurs, The Warriors, The Rockets, and The Thunder. However, in the immortal of Duncan McCloud:
also there’s this.
I’ve mentioned on my podcast that if the Clippers can manage to avoid being dysfunctional, then they’re the best team in the west. I also mentioned on a different podcast that if Ty Lawson is properly implemented as the Rockets’ third star, then they are my favorite. But Buts are Butts. So after much deliberation, I’m gonna go on record saying that OKC comes out of the West. The Rockets are a close second. Ugh. Not an easy choice. I mean the Warriors too?
Seriously though, the Thunder.
The Thunder were struck by thunder twice last year, losing then-MVP Kevin Durant and DPOY candidate Serge Ibaka for most of the regular season and all of the playoffs. The Thunder hoped for vindication following Kevin Durant’s MVP season and their 2014 Western Conference manhandling against the Championship Spurs.
Then they didn’t make the playoffs this year.
The Thunder management (finally) got rid of mediocre coach/ excellent eyeglasses fashionista Scott Brooks this offseason, replacing him with Billy Donovan who is alright I guess. I was salivating at the possibility of D’Antoni coming in, guns blazing, creating the first 200+ ppg offense the NBA has ever seen; but, like the Thunder, I was reminded that dreams rarely come true and life is constant misery.
The roster shifted a bit this offseason, adding players, losing a couple of players, but the 2 primary editions came in the regular season: Enes Kanter and Deon Waiters.
A lot has changed. Generally that doesn’t bode particularly well for teams – roster continuity is great, particularly when everyone knows their role in their teams system. So, in light of that, my argument is essentially as follows:
but the Thunder tho.
#1 – Ibaka Blocka
Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver outlined his top 10 most important player comebacks for this coming season. Ibaka occupied the 4 spot, which is sort of funny because he plays the 4, but it’s not that funny. I had to seriously consider whether or not I was going to even mention that.
The 25-year-old shot-blocking extraordinaire has three All-Defensive First Team selections to his name, he ranked No. 15 league-wide in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season, and he’s a potential ace in the hole for new coach Billy Donovan. If the Thunder decide to go smaller more often, Ibaka’s rim protection and shooting range make him an ideal option at center, and Oklahoma City could trot out some of the league’s most devastating lineups by surrounding the Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka trio with two shooters.
Ibaka is just so important in so many ways: he lets the defense-less Enes Kanterstay on the court, he provides spacing for Oklahoma City’s playmakers, he can match up with big fours like LaMarcus Aldridge, athletes like Blake Griffin, bruisers like Zach Randolph, and versatility guys like Draymond Green. Following Ibaka’s season-ending knee injury in February, the Thunder’s defensive rating ballooned to 107.7, a mark that bested only the injury-ravaged young Timberwolves down the stretch.
I just really don’t like how he writes. It’s so cheesy and cliched and bad. He’s not a quality writer.
That being said, Golliver is right in noting Ibaka’s pivotal role in the Thunder’s defense.
What I’m really looking forward to seeing this year is Ibaka’s potential in an offense that wasn’t drawn up by Scott Brooks, who sucks. Sam Presti snuck this into a recent pre-season interview:
“I think Serge may have had the best summer of any of our players, in terms of just improvement in overall game. He’s shooting the ball well. His passing has really improved. Where he is right now, he feels good. He looks great.”
I took the liberty of italicizing and boldifying that part about Ibaka’s passing.
Since his rookie year, Ibaka has added a mid-range jump-shot then a 3-point jumper, has developed offense off the dribble, has improved his post-defense, and has stolen my heart. He sniffs out his weaknesses and then snuffs out his weaknesses. Speaking of weakness, his career average assists per game is 0.5.
0.5! He plays with Russel Westbrook and Kevin Durant! What?!
This isn’t 100 % Ibaka’s fault: Scott Brooks’ offensive playbook was scrawled in crayon on the back of a Luby’s kids menu. You can only do so much with that. We’ve started to see a cool trend which comes hand-in-hand with the advent of the small ball: the play-making 4. Think Josh Smith, Blake Griffin, Joe Ingles – but mostly think Draymond Green:
If Ibaka can become a reasonable passer, the ball-movement in OKC could potentially be bearable to watch this year, a major improvement over the nauseatingly stagnant iso game of seasons past.
#2 – Kanter-Intuitive
You’d think Kanter’s natural gifts on offense — the smooth interplay with Russell Westbrook in the pick-and-roll last season, the ability to grab 277 offensive rebounds — fourth in the NBA in 2014-15 — would translate to the defensive end more than they have in his young professional career.
I’m so sick of hearing about how bad Enes Kanter is on defense. Yeah, he’s bad. Congratulations on noticing that. You’re not the first person to notice that, dip-shit.
He is bad though.
The thing is, he’s not horrific, which is the general consensus among the NBA community. He might not be horrific, is more accurate.
Enes Kanter is a victim of the fickle and imprecise nature of advanced stats.
In Utah, he was forced to chase around quicker 4s and play help defense from the high-post, and he was clearly not equipped to do that. Accordingly, the Utah defense suffered when he was on the court. His apparent defensive deficiencies were inflated further due to Gobert’s and Favor’s stellar defensive capabilities: Kanter’s defensive +/- was largely due to the face that when he was benched, it meant that both Favors and Gobert were on the court.
The same situation played out when he arrived in OKC – the team’s defensive rating was ~7 points worse with Kanter in the lineup (110.4) than without him (103.6). He was forced to start at the power-forward position rather than his natural center position. The other two bigs, Stephen Adams and Mitch McGary, have the same skill sets as Favors and Gobert in Utah, except Favors/Gobert is like an iPod, and Adams/McGary is like a Zune.
This year, Kanter will play defense at his natural position – thank God.
Not only is he playing his natural defensive position, he’s playing it next to Serge Ibaka.
Furthermore, out of centers who have faced at least 100 total shots in the basket proximity study, Serge Ibaka ranked last; when he is within 5 feet of the basket, opponents shot 74% of their shots in the close range area. This means that Ibaka is likely to be around any shot near the basket and suggests that while Ibaka leads the NBA in blocks per game, part of the reason is that he has many more “potential blocks” than almost any other defender.
The Dwight Effect is a fantastic dissertation on post defense in the NBA written in 2013. One of the many conclusions the writers arrived at was that Ibaka blocked so many shots because he’ll often manage get to the opposing shooter regardless of where he is. I happen to be toying with my own analytics research, hinging on wing defense rather than post defense, and one of the glaring realities I’ve stumbled upon is that Westbrook tends to over-commit on defense, letting his man slip by him. In the 2014-2015 season, the next line of defense was Kanter. Ouch. This year it will be Ibaka, leaving Kanter to focus more on rebounding, an area in which he is more than comfortable.
Durant’s return will contribute further to the Thunders defensive capabilities. Kanter shouldn’t be over-whelmed to nearly the same extent he was last year.
#3 – Kevin Spacing
I understand the reasoning behind Scotty’s decision to start Andre Roberson at shooting guard next to Westbrook; that doesn’t mean that it’s good reasoning. Well, it is good reasoning. It could be better though.
Now that Jeremy Lamb is on the lamb, today is Morrow’s tomorrow. I have a hunch that the ‘secret weapon’ line-up of this team is going to be as follows:
- Russel Westbrook
- Anthony Morrow
- Kyle Singler
- Kevin Durant
- Serge Ibaka
If you’re thinking to yourself “man, I’m a little bit hungry, I should order some pizza,” then stop doing that. Instead, think to yourself: “I feel like I’ve seen this type of line-up before… Somewhere in another life.” That life is this life, and that lineup is the dominant Miami Heat Line-up of recent memory.
It might even be better.
The roles of Ray Allen and Shane Battier are played by Anthony Morrow, coming off a 43. 4 3-pointer % (career: 42.9%), and Kyle Singler who posted 39.8% from 3 last year, and 37.8% over his career.
One is very good, the other is very, very good: Anthony Morrow.
Anthony Morrow averaged less than three rebounds, one assist and steal per game last season, isn’t known as the staunchest of defenders and hasn’t been a playmaker with the ball throughout his career. What he can provide is possibly the best three-point shooting in the league. According to NBA.com’s SportVU cameras, Morrow shot over 45 percent on three-point attempts in catch-and-shoot opportunities last season. Among players that averaged at least one catch-and-shoot three-point attempt last season, this ranked 10th behind players like Kyle Korver, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Why Oklahoma City Could Have the NBA’s Best Backcourt, by Thunderous Intentions blog writer Shawn Woods.
Sure, putting a defense first shooting guard is a reasonable conclusion to come to if you’re not capable of complex thought. Something worth noting is the fact that Scott Brooks is not capable of complex thought.
Raise your hand if you think that nearly 40 year-old Ray Allen defense would be better in a statistically significant way, as opposed to a 27 year-old Anthony Morrow, who, despite
“Morrow is known for being able to shoot the deep ball at historic levels of great. He’s a career 42.8% shooter from three, which ranks him 8th in all-time three-point shooting percentage with the only active players ahead of him being Stephen Curry and Steve Novak…
Morrow’s three-point jumper should be both consistent and accurate at an elite level, which is exactly what the Thunder need alongside their ball-dominant stars. Durant and Westbrook will receive the floor spacing they need to operate in one-on-one or pick-and-roll situations, something that wasn’t consistently there last season. Where a defender might have previously ignored Thabo Sefolosha standing in the corner, (31.6% from three in the 2013-14 regular season) and leave him to help, Morrow will make them pay for it.”
#4 – Singlered Out
Next up, Kyle Singler!
He’s totally average!
“In three seasons, Singler holds career averages of 8.1 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 37.8 percent from 3. A four-year player at Duke, Singler won a national championship in 2010 and was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player.”
Kyle Singler Staying with the Thunder, ESPN Staff Writer Royce Young
You know who else was a 6′ 8″ forward who won a National Championship at Duke and then thrived as a 3-point assassin on multiple successful teams?
Me. The answer is me.
Jk, it’s Shane Battier.
I feel like I should make this clear before I start: Shane Battier is better than Kyle Singler is and probably will ever be. However, they both are suited to play in a super sexy pace and space championship caliber team:
Next season, Singler has to improve his motion in the offense. He needs to know where to be and when to be there. At Duke, he knew his spots; he knew where to be on the defensive end of the floor. If he can master the ability to run the floor with Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow, Singler can provide valuable floor spacing and he can be open to knock down the mid-Range jumper or 3-point shot.
I’m not going to spend any more time justifying the comparison, partly because its not worth the time, and partly because I don’t entirely have faith in Kyle Singler’s ability to fill the role that Battier filled, particularly with the same deft precision. That being said, it is worth mentioning that the Thunder have other bench options who could man the wing: Deon Waiters, Steve Novak, and Andre Roberson. Kyle Singler is just the most attractive option because he could potentially utilize his size to operate as a 4 on defense, sparing Kevin Durant the post banging that would likely ensue. That’s the beauty of this roster:
#5 Rollin’ in the Deep
It’s a classic dummy move to go into a season with the expectation that a player will develop a new skill through which the team is dramatically improved. Every year, Deandre Jordan lumbers to the free throw line and does this:
It’s all gravy when players take the time to develop skills and patch up holes in their games, but more often than not it doesn’t happen.
Instead of crossing their fingers, hoping that either Singler develops as a defender, or that Roberson starts nailing corner threes, OKC’s new head coach, Billy Donovan, will adapt player rotations catered to each player’s individual strengths:
I’ve always believed offensively, year to year, you have to evolve. Especially coming out of college, your team changes so drastically. I’ve always believed in running an offensive system where you can look at each guys strengths and talents and abilities and try to put something in place where you can take advantage of those strengths. Having the ability and understanding to know that something that’s good for Kevin Durant may not be good for Kyle Singler. You try to create a system to play to his strengths. What may be great for Russell Westbrook, in terms of post-ups and those kind of things, may not be great for D.J. Augustin.
Evolve. Adapt. Survive. Scott Brooks didn’t, and now he’s up shit brook without a paddle (in terms of likelihood to land another head coaching gig).
The Thunder’s championship aspirations will live or die depending on not only Donovan’s ability to craft a system around his players, but also the players’ abilities to play their role within the system by utilizing their strengths. This Thunder team is pissed off, disrespected, and salty as hell: everyone who has limped alongside Kevin Durant season after season knows that this needs to be their year.
Either that, or the Durant Dynasty could be over before it ever began.
Deon, you better stop being such a dick head and play team basketball: