Thursday, February 13, 2014

State of the West: Oklahoma City Thunder

For the next month or so, Hack-a-Shaq will be having these State of the West posts, which will be about the current and future state of each of the Western Conference teams. It will include some guest writers for certain teams and I'm really excited to see how this turns out. Enjoy! This post comes from good friend and Dodgers Digest commentator Joseph Wolfe, A.K.A Lobo. Thanks, Lobo!

Previous State of the West posts: Lakers | Blazers

Even though I grew up in LA, I wouldn’t really call myself a huge Laker fan. I definitely pull for the team, but I don’t have the same vested rooting interest in them that I do in the Dodgers. In fact, in my whole family, only my uncle is a big Laker fan, despite all of us being fans of basketball as a sport. My brother somehow ended up being a Cavs fan (LOL) and my Dad and I both are kind of just fans of the sport as a whole rather than of one team. As a result, though I will pull for the Lakers over pretty much anyone, there are really about 4 or 5 teams that I consider myself a fan of.

Chief among the teams I root for (apart from the Lakers) is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Yeah, yeah, bandwagon fans and all that but I’m a bit of a #casualfan when it comes to basketball so I don’t really care. What I care about is that the Thunder are an exciting team to watch and a very well run organization. And when it comes to basketball, that’s what I tend to look for. I like teams that are fun to watch for either their hustle or explosiveness and that are well put together. The other two teams that I tend to root for are the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies, both of whom are teams (to my eye at least) that play hard and are very well built teams, particularly the Spurs who have been great year in and year out despite swapping out role players seemingly every season.

But I digress. Back to the Thunder. Led by superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have been one of the best teams in the NBA over the last four seasons. And while James Harden was a huge part of their initial success, the Thunder have been just as good in the season and a half since they traded him to the Houston Rockets. Though there is little doubt that the Thunder team is spearheaded by the dynamic duo of Durant and Westbrook, it is the solid core around them that has led to their dominance of the Western Conference. So without further ado, let’s take a look at a Thunder team that should once again be serious contenders for the NBA title.

Starting Lineup:

Russell Westbrook, PG (yes he’s injured right now but he’s clearly the starter when he comes back and he’s expected to be back for the playoffs)

Kevin Durant, SF

Serge Ibaka, PF

Kendrick Perkins, C

There is no question that the Thunder have one of the best starting lineups in the NBA. Hell, you could start with Durant and Westbrook and fill in the rest with scrubs and they’d still be pretty ok. But they have more than mere scrubs manning the other three positions, Sefolosha, Ibaka, and Perkins are all solid players who contribute a great deal to the team’s success. Let’s take a look at Ibaka first. Since coming into the league in 2009, Ibaka has been one of the game’s better big men. Though he mostly plays power forward, he has the height to play center, something he uses to his great advantage. With his long arms and thick frame, Ibaka is a force to be reckoned with down low. Averaging 8.9 rebounds to go with 14.7 points, Ibaka has provided plenty of value to the Thunder, and that’s without even considering his defense. This year, Ibaka ranks 13th in the NBA in Defensive Rating, and 10th in Defensive Win Shares, anchoring a Thunder defense that is 5th in Opponents Points per Shot and 7th in Opponents Points per Game. That’s a defense plenty good enough to support one of the league’s best offenses. But perhaps most importantly, Ibaka has really developed a nice outside shot, which lets the Thunder spread the floor and get a ton of different looks for their big three offensive weapons.

Now we move to Sefolosha and Perkins. I’m going to discuss these guys together because I want to address a trend among defensive statistics in basketball that affects both of these players. Now, as a baseball fan I tend to dismiss the impact of hustle or “grit” in the sport. In the game of baseball, there just aren’t many opportunities for hustle to greatly impact the outcome of a play or a game. It’s certainly a desirable trait, but it doesn’t really add any significant value to a players skill set. However, it’s a completely different story when it comes to basketball. Because of the nature of the sport, where every player is active on every play and every player interacts with all the other players on the court, hustle and effort can have a HUGE impact on a game. Running after a loose ball, battling for position down low, standing tough to draw a charge against a driving opponent, all of these can impact the outcome of a play. The problem is that there’s no easy way to quantify these things, the number of times a player dove to save a ball that was going out of bounds isn’t recorded anywhere that I know of. And so this hustle isn’t really reflected in a player’s defensive ratings. In the case of Perkins and Sefolosha, I really think that advanced defensive metrics sell them short, particularly with Perkins. If you watched the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals which both pitted the Celtics against the Lakers, you may recall just how much trouble Perkins presented to the Lakers. It was particularly bad in 2008, because with Bynum out for the Finals due to injury, Perkins was matched up against Pau Gasol for most of the series, and though Pau was a more skilled player, Perkins absolutely abused him down low by simply outmuscling and outhustling Gasol. It didn’t necessarily manifest itself in the scorebook but it had a huge impact on the series as Pau was basically a non-factor in every game. And while Perkins isn’t as good now as he was back then, he still provides plenty of value with his hustle and toughness. And though he may give back a lot of that value with his abysmal offensive production, because he plays on the same team as Durant and Westbrook, the damage is minimized as those two are more than capable of picking up the offensive slack. Sefolosha suffers similar disparagement from the defensive statistics, though to a much lesser extent. As the SG counterpart to Westbrook, he is allowed to be a slightly more defensive oriented player. While he doesn’t provide a ton of value on his own, he fits well in the construction of the Thunder roster as a complement to Westbrook.

This brings us to the stars of the team, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. As if I even need to tell you how good these guys are. Though Westbrook has been hurt for almost all of this season, when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best point guards in the league. For his career, Westbrook averages 20.7 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), and over the last three seasons he’s averaging 22.8 (league average is 15). His Offensive Win Share (OWS) last year was 7.7, good for 8th in the NBA. He’s one of the league’s fastest players and also one of its most trigger happy, which is probably his biggest flaw. Westbrook has a tendency to just heave up shot after shot, regardless of whether or not he makes them. While in some respects this can be a good thing (for example, he rarely gets down about missing shots and doesn’t let it go to his head), when he’s cold, it can be a huge drain on the team as he throws up miss after miss. Luckily for the Thunder, Westbrook is a darn good shooter, posting a 45.2 2P% and 30.3 3P% for his career. Even though that’s just a league average 2P% and a below average 3P%, very few players shoot well from both within and beyond the arc. And though he’s never been known as a pass-first point guard, Westbrook has still managed to average 6.9 assists per game. So while Westbrook may not do one thing particularly well, very few players possess a skill set as diverse as Westbrook’s.

What Kevin Durant is doing this season is nothing short of historic. Currently, Durant is sporting a .327 WS/48. If the season were to end today, that would be good for the 2nd best single season number of ALL TIME, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1971-72 season when he posted a .3399 WS/48. That’s right, better than anything Michael Jordan ever did and better than LeBron James has ever done (though LeBron and Jordan each hold 3 of the top 10 spots. Durant’s 31.0 PER would be good for the 11th best single season PER, missing out on the top 10 by 0.11. For the past two years, the title of “NBA’s Best Player” has been a hotly debated topic, with Durant and LeBron having the strongest cases. But while LeBron may still be the best overall player and the one more likely to be better next year, Durant has been without question the best player in the NBA this season. It’s not even particularly close, Durant’s OWS is just 0.1 less than LeBron’s TOTAL WS. Add in Durant’s defensive value (a part of his game which he has greatly improved on over the last few years) and he’s been the league’s best player by a margin that isn’t even close. The rest of the Thunder are great players, but Durant takes them from being a good team to one of, if not the most, dangerous teams in the NBA. No player has had a bigger impact on their team this year, and this level of individual play arguably hasn’t been seen since LeBron’s days in Cleveland, when he single handedly led that team to the NBA Championship game. Durant is an incredible player and we should all be thrilled that we get to see him play in his prime.


Perry Jones PF

Nick Collison PF

Derek Fisher PG

Jeremy Lamb SG

Steven Adams C

Andre Robertson PF

Hasheem Thabeet C

Ryan Gomes SF

Royal Ivey SG

The Thunder bench is largely made up of solid but not spectacular players. With Westbrook out, Reggie Jackson has taken over starting PG duties and has performed admirably. While his quality of play is a sharp drop off from Westbrook’s, he has provided roughly league average production which is all the Thunder needed right now with how Durant has played. The bench is anchored by two longtime vets in Derek Fisher and Nick Collison. Fun fact: Collison and Durant are the only players still on the team from the Seattle Super Sonics days. Collison provides solid minutes down low with his hustle and fundamental play. Fisher, who is incidentally my all-time favorite player, may not light up the stat sheets but he is a veteran presence, and he and Collison are strong leaders for this fairly young team. Jeremy Lamb has shot very well of the bench and provides a nice counterpoint to Sefolosha so that the opposing team has to deal with two very different shooting guards. The remaining guys don’t play much, but none of them outright hurt the team. All in all, the Thunder bench does a good job of providing solid rest minutes for the starters and ensuring that the game remains even when they’re in so that the starters can continue to pull away from the opposition when they’re in.

Championship Chances:

Let’s not beat around the bush: the Thunder have to be the favorites to represent the West in the Finals and are almost certainly the favorites to win it all. There are a lot of very good teams in the West this year (Portland, San Antonio, and the Clippers), none of them have quite the talent that the Thunder do. The Spurs are always good but their Big Three are another year older and they just haven’t played as well this year as they have in the past. The Clippers starting lineup is good, but Westbrook and Paul are very close in value and the Clippers have no answer for Durant. Portland is the really dangerous team here, but again, they just don’t have an answer for Durant while the Thunder do have answers for the Blazer’s best players (Lillard and Aldridge). In the end, the Thunder are probably not going to lose unless they beat themselves. There’s just no other team in the West that can compete with them when they’re at their best, and they are almost always at their best. My prediction: Thunder beat the Spurs in 5 in the Western Conference Finals and beat the Pacers in 6 in the Finals.