Journey of the OKC Thunder Bench to Find an Identity – Video Analysis
The OKC Thunder bench started a journey at the beginning of the season to carve out roles for new players and may have finally found an identity.
At the start of the season the OKC Thunder had six new players on the roster and just three games in, exchanged one of those new players for another new player. Two of those players (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) are in the starting lineup. The other four (Jerami Grant, Semaj Christon, Alex Abrines and Joffery Lauvergne) were fighting for minutes off the bench.
With so many new players and the departure of a superstar, it is difficult for a team to find an identity. Having Russell Westbrook helped the starters find theirs fairly quickly, but things have been more difficult for the bench units.
After an injury to Cameron Payne in the preseason, Semaj Christon was thrust into a role he was not prepared for in his rookie season. Having never played an NBA game he was now asked to lead the bench heavy units. To help mitigate this responsibility Billy Donovan would play Oladipo next to Christon most of the time to share the ball handling duties. This role isn’t unfamiliar to Oladipo, as it has been forced on him virtually since he entered the league, with little success.
While Billy Donovan tried to figure out his new roster additions and players tried to figure out their new teammates and establish roles, the bench struggled.
As the Thunder tried to navigate the early season struggles of the bench, Donovan would tinker with the lineups trying to find the right combinations. This led to inconsistent playing time for all the bench players outside of Christon and Enes Kanter. The inconsistent playing time made it difficult to carve out a role and get into a rhythm possibly exacerbating some of the struggles.
The Turning Point
The bench’s struggles were amplified when Oladipo injured his wrist and missed nine games, but the injury oddly may have helped speed up the development of the bench. Anthony Morrow was put in the starting lineup and Abrines was able to get some consistent minutes after playing only 49 seconds total the seven games previous to the Oladipo injury.
Somewhere around this time the Thunder made an adjustment, opting to run more post up plays for Kanter and less high pick and roll sets. This move took the ball out of Christon’s hands, who was struggling in the pick and roll. Christon was often unable to find the roll man or get all the way to the rim, which led to him being forced to the short corner and having to kick it out to reset the offense.
RELATED STORY: Analyzing the performance and effect of Semaj Christon
The adjustment was gradual at first and has evolved into almost their entire offense when Westbrook sits. The approach is simple. Get Kanter the ball on the left block, spread the floor and let him do the rest.
Let’s look at the ways the Kanter has been able to create offense from the post.
This is classic Enes Kanter, get the ball in the post and bully your way to the hoop with a combination of strength and footwork.
In this clip, Kanter catches the ball just inside the 3 point line, but is able to get a shot just outside the restricted area.
In this example Kanter bullies his way to the block, passes out, re-posts and gets a nice hook shot just outside the restricted area.
It is rare to see this in any volume in today’s NBA, but the bench heavy units for the Thunder get very little shot creation from their wings and have had to find other ways to create offense. Kanter’s improved passing in these post situations have allowed the Thunder to make it the focal point of the bench’s offense.
In years past, Kanter was one of the few big men it made sense to send a double team to when they were in the post, because of his scoring deftness and lack of passing ability. This year he has improved remarkably at recognizing where double teams are coming from and making the correct play.
In this clip, Kanter gets the ball in the post. Jerami Grant cuts through to clear the side for Kanter to go to work. But, Vince Carter lets Grant go to double Kanter who recognizes this and immediately hits Grant with a pass for a dunk.
It happens here again against the Timberwolves. As Grant goes to cut through, his man stays to double Kanter. Enes sees it and hits Grant for another easy dunk.
The pass out of the double team is not the only pass Kanter has improved on. He has gotten much better on the skip pass out of the post. Here he catches the Timberwolves napping for a Lauvergne three.
In this clip Kanter skips it to Grant in the corner, the defense reacts and leave Abrines open for a three point shot.
An interesting wrinkle the Thunder have added recently is to have Abrines not cut through after the entry pass and almost dare the opposing team to double. In this example Zach Lavine digs down and helps one pass away and it leads to a nice catch and shoot three pointer for Abrines.
The fear of Kanter’s passing has also helped. The play after Abrines hits the three, Lavine doesn’t double and Kanter is able to bully his way to the basket.
Next up, I look at one area of Kanter’s game which is still a work in progress.
Face Up Jumper
Unlike his passing and bully ball, Kanter has not improved significantly at facing up and hitting a jump shot when the defender sags off of him.
It is not a shot you want a player with his skills falling in love with (he hasn’t), but you do want the player to be at least comfortable taking it.
To wit, Kanter has shown a propensity to be at ease enough with the face up to take it and the shot looks okay when he does.
Kanter is just below league average in the aggregate on these mid range shots. Kanter has a ways to go in terms of incorporating this shot into his game, but it is nice to know he is comfortable occasionally taking them.
OKC Thunder Bench – Continuing Evolution
The Thunder bench has evolved a great deal on the offensive side of the ball since the beginning ofthe season. That said, they also still have a long way to go on the defensive side of the ball.
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When Roberson, Adams and Westbrook are all off the floor the Thunder allow 121.7 points per 100 possessions via NBAwowy. If you take Oladipo off too, that number gets even worse at 128.0 points per 100 possessions.
The bench will also have to find ways to take advantage of the return of Cameron Payne. He is a more dynamic offensive player than Christon and can create shots out of the pick and roll. The very thing that the bench has gone away from over the course of the season. It will be interesting to see how they balance this once Payne gets comfortable.
For now, the young Thunder bench is getting better and that is encouraging news midway through the season.