Prior to the announcement that Russell Westbrook would be out until after the All Star break with another knee surgery, the Thunder bench was performing in a way that was above and beyond what anyone could have expected. The surprise emergence of second year guard Jeremy Lamb – along with the shockingly mature play of rookie center Steven Adams – had led to a more complete and consistent unit than the Thunder have ever had before. Combine those two with the always stellar play of Nick Collison, the explosive offensive game of Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher’s everlasting Derek Fisher-ing, some were calling it the best Thunder bench ever. And they were right.
But things change.
Reggie Jackson’s necessary move to the starting lineup meant that another player had to step up on the bench if the Thunder were to continue playing with a 10 man rotation, something they have traditionally done. That man was Perry Jones III, the second year forward who had played sparingly since Westbrook’s initial return.
With the loss of Jackson, a fairly ball dominant scorer with some serious passing ability, the Thunder bench lost its primary creator. Left to fend for themselves, the same Jackson led offense just couldn’t work. The system needed to change. And it did.
With Derek Fisher bringing the ball across half-court for the new Thunder all-bench unit – I wouldn’t really call it running the point, he’s just a tiny shooting guard with acceptable handles – they lost just about all of the point guard type creation an NBA offense so often needs to thrive. Out with the isolations and Jackson-centric set ups like pure pick-and-rolls, in with some serious ball movement, player motion and off-the-ball screens.
The current Thunder all-bench unit is averaging a solid 102.6 points per 100 possessions in 49 minutes together this season, though that number has been dropping since they started playing so frequently (it was over 108 ppp less than 2 weeks ago). The Thunder offense has struggled mightily since Westbrook’s absence, but looking to the bench for inspiration may be the place to start, as funny as that sounds.
Each player has a role in this system. Perry Jones III has chipped in by providing an unexpected ability to space the floor. He often stands in the corner for entire possessions, but due to the fact he has shown a propensity for taking threes (he’s even hit about 40% of them so far), teams guard him out there. Corner threes are something the Thunder just aren’t good at, and they don’t take many of them, which is strange in itself because so many of the better offensive teams in the NBA hit them at an outrageous rate. PJIII’s development in this area could be huge for the team moving forward, and will continue to earn him playing time.
Aside from Perry Jones providing spacing in the corner, Jeremy Lamb has shown the ability to do much of the same. The two of them combined have shot 11-20 from the right corner this season, supplying over 1/3 of the Thunder makes from that location. That said, they have shot 6-32 from the left corner, where the Thunder as a team are an abysmal 30-111 (27%). No, I don’t understand it either, but most teams guard corner threes by default, so they need to continue making it part of the offense. It provides necessary floor spacing, and the shots will begin to fall. Eventually. I think.
The true focal points of the Thunder bench unit, however, are the screen games of Nick Collison and Steven Adams. All these guys do is set picks! They create offense with their screens alone, and the whole system is set up around their propensity for setting them. Here’s a short video showing what the Thunder all-bench unit does when it operates effectively, despite their perceived lack of offensive abilities:
No, there aren’t an outrageous number of examples of this unit scoring points, and they won’t be breaking through good starting defenses anytime soon, the offensive talent just isn’t there. But is goes to show how important the system is. And that’s exactly why The Thunder should use more of these sets with the starting lineup (and other lineups with Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson on the floor).
The main weakness of the Thunder on the offensive side of the ball has often been their lack of creativity and total team involvement, especially late in games. It has gotten better through the years, no longer is it just Westbrook trying to get the ball to KD for ten seconds, realizing that he can’t and then creating a shot for himself, but there are still problems. Problems that have only become more evident since Russell Westbrook was sidelined for the second time this season.
But all of the talk about the Thunder struggling without Russell Westbrook is starting to sound less like a truth about an adjustment period and more like a downright excuse. I know the Thunder start two players that aren’t particularly capable offensively – or, at least they’re used in a way that makes it seem so – and that the offense will never be as good as it is without Russ, but why can’t it be relatively efficient? Why can’t they move the ball and set picks to set up their best options while avoiding terrible isolation sets and over-dribbling? Why can’t they be more like the all-bench unit described above?
That all-bench unit has an assist percentage (the percentage of made field goals that are assisted) of 64.9%, the third highest of any Thunder five man unit that has played at least 24 minutes together, and the highest of any Thunder five man unit that doesn’t contain Russell Westbrook. Could that unit score without passing the ball well? Nope. But that’s the point! And they don’t even have a real point guard.
Specifically, in “clutch time” since Russell Westbrook went down (5 minutes or less, +/- 5 point margin), the Thunder team has an assist percentage of 28.6%, which simply means they are playing isolation ball and hoping for Durant to work miracles most of the time. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t (the Thunder are 1-3 in games that have entered “clutch time” since Christmas). This isn’t efficient, and it really needs to change, regardless of who the personnel are on the court.
There is reason for hope, however. The adjustment period referenced above required the team to move through a period of uncertainty, but the success of the Thunder all-bench unit may be wearing off on other Thunder units, and – most importantly – Scott Brooks. The first piece of real evidence of newfound offensive efficiency in their recent games came against the Bucks on Sunday night. And it was a total team effort.
After a start that saw the Thunder leading 14-10 at the end of the first, and shooting 28.6% at the half, there was progress. With 5:48 to go in the third, and the Thunder clinging to a one point lead against the worst team in basketball, Jeremy Lamb checked in for Kendrick Perkins, giving the Thunder a lineup of Reggie Jackson, Lamb, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Out of nowhere, amidst the Westbrook-less struggles, late game collapses and isolation debacles, an offense emerged. One with real ball movement, real screens and a real propensity for playing real basketball. Yes, it was against the Bucks, it came at home, and they were due to play better eventually (if you believe in such things). But it was also beautiful. From that point through the end of the game, the Thunder made 18 baskets. 15 of them were assisted. The other three were created off of offensive rebounds, another side effect of creating mismatches with screens and ball movement. Below is the video of those 18 possessions. Watch how many players touch the ball on each possession and how much the players move, regardless of who they are or their perceived offensive abilities:
Including free throws, the Thunder scored 25 points in the last 5:48 of the third quarter against the Bucks, a number that they have had trouble reaching in entire quarters since Westbrook went down. The Thunder scored 39 points in the third, one point short of their third quarter team record.
A Durant isolation is not necessarily a bad play. But why not set him a pick first and force a mismatch, then isolate him on a player half his size? An isolation after that may well just be a good play. This breakthrough against the Bucks should act as a blueprint for future offensive success, even if it won’t be this simple when playing against better teams.
And all of the progress that the Thunder make with Russell Westbrook out has to continue to be implemented upon his return as well. Few point guards in the league play as well as Westbrook does off the ball. He played off the ball in college, and his proclivity for cutting to the basket is an underutilized weapon that the Thunder would be wise to learn to use in his absence, so that it can be seamlessly made a bigger part of the system when he comes back.
Moving forward without Russell Westbrook won’t be easy, but if the Thunder get it right, they could be even better when he returns.