OKC Thunder D: Cause for Concern?
In the grand scheme of things, how much does an assistant coach matter to the fortunes of an NBA team? There were two key offseason moves involving assistant coaches, affecting three teams, which we're tracking.
One high-profile move involved Tom Thibodeau, who moved up from Boston's top assistant to the head job in Chicago, and whose work as the Celtics' so-called defensive mastermind was well-documented in his three seasons with the team.
The other move went far under the radar, and it involved Ron Adams, who deserved the mythical award of NBA Assistant Coach of the Year in 2009-10 for his work in transforming the Oklahoma City defense, and its role in the Thunder's substantial improvement. Adams left the Sooner State to join Thibodeau in the Windy City as his top assistant. Adams had previously been with the Bulls from 2003-08 during the Scott Skiles era, when the team's defense was a perennial top-ten unit.
To replace Thibodeau, the Celtics made what I considered to be a strong hire in Lawrence Frank, a former head coach with a reputation for strong preparation, whose Nets teams were a top-ten defense from 2004-06. Couple that with Boston's cast of veterans, and it seemed as if the C's would be able to maintain their defensive prowess.
To replace Adams, the Thunder surprisingly did not make a major new hire, and head coach Scott Brooks handed over the primary defensive responsibilities to Brian Keefe, a coach with scant NBA bench experience. How well would the defensive principles established by Adams in 1 1/2 seasons be retained by such a young team?
In February, Basketball Prospectus wrote about the Thunder's improved D, and included this quote from Kevin Durant on Adams: "His segment in practice is defense. We go over the same things over and over again. It might get boring to us sometimes as players, wanting to do something new, but I think it's helping us. We want to be perfect at it, even though that's not possible, and have it become second nature."
Reductive reasoning would suggest that the Bulls are headed for a massive improvement in defensive efficiency (they have jumped from 10th to 5th in league rankings so far), the Celtics are likely to be able to maintain the status quo (they are 6th, just like last year, to date), and the Thunder... well, the Thunder seem to be headed in the most uncertain direction.
We are less than one week into the 2010-11 NBA season, so let's call this the "Small Sample Size Overreaction Theater", but the (very, very) early returns on the Thunder defense leave some cause for concern.
Despite the team's 2-1 start, the last two results have been eyebrow-raisers for me. On Friday, OKC needed a last-second shot to overcome Detroit on the road, 105-104. While the Pistons were expected to be one of the league's weaker teams, they have been competitive in all three games, even though they are 0-3.
Still, 104 points seemed like a high point total allowed, considering that Detroit was 21st in offensive efficiency last season, and they also scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions (league average is just 101.0 so far). But that's fine, no big deal, it's a long season and there are plenty of outlier games, right?
Sure, but on the heels of Friday's narrow win, it was the 120-99 shellacking which the Jazz laid on the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Sunday which was a truly startling result.
Consider the following:
- The 21-point defeat was worse than any loss Oklahoma City suffered at home in all of 2009-10;
- After December home losses to Boston by 18, Cleveland by 13, and Dallas by 14 last season (remember that the Thunder got out of the gate just 13-14 before taking off), OKC's biggest home loss after Dec. 16 was a 106-96 defeat to Chicago on Jan. 26;
- Oklahoma City allowed 120+ points just three times all of last season;
- The Thunder allowed 116.5 points per 100 possessions on Sunday; they allowed 116.5/100 or more only six times all of last season.
But this year, Utah is integrating several new players, and was off to a dreadful start offensively, rating just 29th in offensive efficiency before Sunday, following anemic showings in blowout losses to Denver and Phoenix, neither considered to be a defensive juggernaut.
Oklahoma City did make a run in the third quarter when they went small with a Westbrook-Harden-Sefolosha-Durant-Green pressing unit that briefly made the Jazz look like a sad-sack high-school JV team which couldn't get the ball across half-court, but the Jazz still managed to post 35 points on the board in the third when all was said and done.
Certainly, the Thunder are having problems offensively, as well. Their effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) ranks just 29th in the league, at .422 (last year, they ranked 11th at .547), and their lack of ball movement was noticeable on Sunday, as Utah held a stunning 32-10 edge in assists.
Indeed, in terms of points per possession, Oklahoma City is down by similar amounts on both sides of the ball after a week. Consider, though, that overall NBA offensive efficiency is at just 101.0 so far, compared to 104.9 last season (offensive numbers generally start slow and rise over the course of the season, presumably both because offenses take longer to get on track at the start of the season, and because defensive intensity wanes at the end of the regular season).
Viewing the numbers in the context of league rankings better illustrates OKC's issues over the first week:
EFFICIENCY (POINTS PER 100 POSSESSIONS)After the embarrassing loss on Sunday, the Thunder's numbers show ample regression on defense after a week.
08-09: 21st (106.9) 08-09: 29th (99.9)
09-10: 8th (101.6) 09-10: 12th (105.8)
10-11: 20th (105.0) 10-11: 13th (102.6)
Is this because of Adams's departure? Is it because of the absence of underrated defender Nick Collison? The Thunder were 7.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively (one of the best numbers in the league in that +/- department) with Collison, who led the league in charges drawn, on the floor last season. Collison is out with a bone bruise in his knee, after playing 75 games last season (charmed luck with injuries in '09-10 was a significant factor in the Thunder's meteoric rise).
Or is this all just a bunch of words about a small sample size? Last year's worst defensive team, Toronto, ranks 3rd, and last year's best team, Charlotte, ranks 29th, after one week.
The Thunder did have a good night defensively against Adams's new team, the Bulls, whom they held to 93.1 points per possession in their home opener.
OKC gets games vs. weak offensive units in the Clippers and Sixers coming up, which should bolster the numbers. More interesting tests to watch should come in upcoming matchups vs. Portland (Thu. on TNT and next Fri. on ESPN), which has been one of the most efficient offensive teams per possessions over the last couple seasons.
Royce Young of Daily Thunder wrote facetiously in the wake of last night's loss that OKC partisans should "freak out" now that the Thunder will not go 82-0. As Young went on to write, more seriously, "It’s the third game in. Like last season, this isn’t a finished product yet. Remember, those guys that won 50 last year hovered around .500 for the first two months of the year before really figuring things out. So despite my earlier advice, don’t freak out."
Absolutely, it's only three games, nothing's close to set in stone yet, but, considering that the Thunder have been widely perceived by many to potentially be L.A.'s chief challenger in the West, I do think that Oklahoma City's defense in the post-Adams era is an early cause for concern, and worth keeping an eye on going forward.