The Thunder’s 5-2 start and third ranked offense belies glaring issues with Oklahoma City’s scoring attack. Though the Thunder are finding success, stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing extremely inefficiently out of the pick-and-roll. In fact the Thunder stars’ questionable decision-making has been masked by above average shooting – something the law of averages tells us won’t last.
Oklahoma City is currently attempting 20 shots per game at the rim according to Hoopdata – down from 25 attempts per game last season. Furthermore, they’re attempting a greater number of three-pointers, but unlike last year, they are currently well above the league average for scoring efficiency here. Though James Harden and Daquan Cook provide a welcome boost here, there’s reason to doubt that the Thunder’s degree of cumulative long-range success will continue.
The Thunder won’t rely on 3’s all season, but they will lean heavily on their pick-and-roll attack, a play-type that has dramatically declined in efficiency. After ranking in the top ten in the NBA in efficiency in this play-type last year, the Thunder are 29th thus far, scoring at an atrocious .61 points per possession on a league-worst 24% shooting, according to Synergy Sports. How does this happen with the defending scoring champion and one of the game’s most explosive point guards sharing the court?
Durant and Westbrook are both settling – a lot.
The all-star duo is responsible for 62% of the Thunder’s pick-and-roll possessions, so generally speaking, the pick-and-roll game goes as these two go. Through the first seven games of the season, Durant is settling for a jumper 69% of the time when dribbling off a screen, up from 60% last year while Westbrook’s pull-up jumper rates have jumped from 55% to 75% while his shooting percentage has dropped from 38% to 25%. Given that pick-and-roll sets are the second most prevalent kind of play Oklahoma City runs, the sudden spike in jumpers on this particular play type is troubling.
Durant isn’t making shots at his typical rate (down 9% off of pick-and-rolls), and though he’s far more effective near the hoop, that he is shooting more jump shots is not necessarily cause for alarm. Overall this season Durant is hitting on 42% of his jumpers, a rate almost identical to last season. Like any elite scorer he has the tendency to force the issue on occasion, but there’s no glaring cause here other than settling for the jumper more frequently.
Westbrook, on the other hand, is suffering a lapse in production not simply because of decision-making, but because defenses are playing to his weakness as a jump shooter. In his three full seasons in the NBA, Westbrook has never been above the league average for mid-range jumpers or long 2’s. With Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka often serving as the screener, teams are taking the approach of hedging just enough to prevent an open passing lane or line to the basket for Westbrook, while also daring him to shoot. More often than not this season, he’s taking the bait.
The absence of Jeff Green may be what’s allowed defenses to sag and force Westbrook to settle more frequently this season. A legitimate shooting threat, Green was the Thunder’s top option out of pick-and-rolls last season as a screener, specifically as a pick-and-pop player. Of the 78 times he touched the basketball as a roll man last season, 56 were in pick-and-pop plays where he shot nearly 40%. That’s not a spectacular number, but this season Oklahoma City is hitting the roll man less frequently overall, but their top option has been Ibaka who barely ranks above the bottom one-third in the league in scoring efficiency in this play type. Long story short, with players like Ibaka and Perkins – largely non-shooting threats – serving as the Thunder’s roll men, the defense can play back towards the paint, cutting off the ability for the big or Westbrook to get to the basket easily.
As we’ve said, to this point the Thunder’s struggles in the pick-and-roll and inability to get shots at the rim haven’t proven too detrimental in the win column. But continuing to run this play-type as frequently as they do (18% of the time) with such a low rate of success will ultimately start to catch up with Oklahoma City against teams that can account for the Thunder’s incredible open court game.