Amidst another successful season for the Oklahoma City Thunder one thing has become clear – the Thunder play, and win, a lot of close games.
Of the 72 games they’ve played thus far, 27 have been decided by five points or less, with OKC emerging on the winning end in 17 of these contests. Undoubtedly the presence of two elite scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has been a decisive factor in the majority of these games and their high usage rates in these scenarios only back up an already unmistakable truth: one of these two will be taking the shots. According to the “Clutch Stats” compiled by 82games.com (statistics accumulated in the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than 5 minutes left and neither team ahead by more than 5 points), both Durant and Westbrook rank in the top ten in the NBA in field goal attempts per 48 minutes of crunch time.
The two young stars provide a nice diversity in scoring style, with Durant proving a reliable catch and shoot player (46% of his possessions are isolations or catches off screens according to Synergy Sports Technology), while Westbrook is an explosive virtuoso with the basketball in his hands (52% of touches come in iso’s and pick and roll sets). One would think that two stars whose games appear so complementary would be utilized together when a basket is needed the most. Surprisingly, the opposite has overwhelmingly been the case.
Of the 143 possessions defined as clutch that Durant and Westbrook have been involved in these games (meaning one of them took the shot or turned it over), only twice have they directly worked together to produce a shot. On paper, at least, it would seem logical that the two would created a deadly pick and pop duo, or that Durant could settle on the wing looking for a kick out when Westbrook attacks the rim. But to this point the duo has yet to produce these kinds of scoring opportunities.
Not surprisingly, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks generally elects to play to his stars’ strengths when it matters most, opting to get them the basketball where they are most comfortable. When examining the play-by-play breakdown in these games it is readily apparent that both Durant and Westbrook go to their strengths almost exclusively. The 46% usage rate of isos and catch and shoot touches for Durant nearly doubles to 71%, while Westbrook’s use of pick and rolls and isolations spikes to almost 80%. This makes them awfully predictable when the game is in its pivotal moments, but it doesn’t appear to have had an outsized impact on either player’s efficiency.
We know in general shooting percentages drop in clutch scenarios, but Durant and Westbrook surprisingly don’t suffer dramatic drop off, which is likely connected to the presence of two elite scoring options on the floor at once. Durant shoots 43% in clutch situations (3% decrease from overall shooting), while Westbrook hits on 40% of his attempts (4% drop). Just for perspective’s sake, of the top ten players for field goals attempted per-48 minutes in the clutch, Durant and Westbrook rank 6th and 9th, respectively, in shooting percentage, but neither is in the top 50 in total game FG%.
Still, it seems that the lethal scoring nature of both players could be significantly enhanced by utilizing their strengths together. Consider how we’ve recently witnessed the devastating effects of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade working as pick and roll partners has had on opposing defenses.
In theory Durant and Westbrook can be even better.
Durant would be an exceptionally difficult screener to defend, given his ability to bury jumpers from anywhere on the court on “pops” and his “rolls” would be effective given his sure hands, long arms and success finishing at the rim.
According to Hoopdata, he shoots 47% from 10-15 feet, 39% on long two’s and a very respectable 36% from beyond the arc. Furthermore, the case can be made that he is the top finisher at the rim in the NBA right now as no individual who has played at least 40 games this season has a higher mark than his 77.3% shooting in this setting.
Then there’s Westbrook, of course, who is very difficult to effectively cover coming off of screens as it is, but imagine how tough he would be to contain if opposing defenses also had to pay equal attention to his screener.
Even if both primary options are taken away, logic predicts that the amount of help defense required to slow down this action would allow someone in a Thunder uniform to get wide open, resulting in a fantastic look for blooming role players like James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive that two teammates who exhibit so much emotional chemistry on the court so rarely sync up in clutch situations (just 1.4% of the time). Despite being in their third season as teammates and second as the primary focal points of the Thunder offense, perhaps Durant and Westbrook are still learning to play with one another in the most effective manner.
None of this is to say the Thunder isn’t a good offensive team as Oklahoma City has the 5th highest offensive efficiency in the NBA. With that said, it’s hard to classify them as a truly elite offense as long as their two stars fail to operate in true concert with one another. As Durant and Westbrook strive to push their team to the next level in this year’s playoffs, one wonders if the missing offensive piece is already on the roster, hiding in plain sight.