The Oklahoma City Thunder have succeeded this season by hearkening back to a more primitive style of NBA basketball.
The analytics movement in the last decade has taught us many things, with the most basic takeaway being that a three-point shot made one out of three times counts more than a two-point shot made one out of two times. So, why not take more 3’s?
Couple that with the rebounding ability and tendency to move bodies around in the painted area by Steven Adams and Enes Kanter and Oklahoma City has joined the Memphis Grizzlies as one of the most physical teams in the association.
Currently, the Thunder rank last in 3-point percentage and second in rebound rate. They also rank sixth in the NBA in pace and are tied for first in free-throw attempts per game with the Phoenix Suns.
All of this spells out that Oklahoma City gets up and down the floor a ton, attacks the rim relentlessly and hits the glass hard every time a shot goes up. That’s a hard team to play against, whether you’re at your local YMCA or in the NBA.
Not unlike the Rockets of two season ago when they made the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder never stop coming, and though that Houston team shot 3-pointers at a better clip, the parallels are easy to draw.
Overpowering superstar (Westbrook, James Harden), rim-running center who owns the paint (Adams, Dwight Howard) and a supporting cast that fills the gaps where needed.
By no means am I saying that Oklahoma City will make the Western Conference Finals this season, but with the deadline acquisitions of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, the Thunder have improved a thin bench and shored up some of those minutes concerns when Westbrook goes to the bench.
Surely no one will want to draw them in the first round.
Oklahoma City weaponized the Kanter-Adams frontline in the playoffs last season, capitalizing on the mustache brothers’ rebounding talents, something that coach Billy Donovan has used in spurts this year.
Per NBA Stats, the Kanter-Adams lineup has a plus-11.0 rating in 321 minutes this season, with a rebounding rate of 58.1 percent, good enough to lead the league by nearly 5 percent when compared with the other 29 teams in the NBA.
Mar 22, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) congratulates Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (34) after a play against the Miami Heat during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
With Gibson added to that duo and rookie Domantas Sabonis cementing himself in the rotation, the Thunder may possess the most physical frontline in the association.
That in itself is an asset come playoff time, as the postseason is a war of attrition that wears down even the most rested teams and players.
Much ado has been made about Westbrook’s triple-doubles, and how they should be evaluated. Many stat heads will scream that Westbrook leads the league in uncontested rebounds, thereby minimizing his double-digit average.
Though it’s true that Westbrook does lead the NBA in that category, it’s because it’s a component of the Thunder’s attack.
Upon grabbing a defensive rebound, priority number one is to get the ball into Westbrook’s hands (a pretty good rule of thumb when you have an All-NBA point guard), so if that’s the goal and Westbrook has a track record of being an exceptional guard rebounder, why not eliminate the middle man?
That’s why both Scott Brooks and Donovan have encouraged Westbrook to crash the boards every time, at the risk of getting burnt on fast breaks going the other way.
It helps that the Thunder have Roberson and Oladipo to close the gap on fast breaks better than most, but the extra possessions Westbrook generates with his rebounding makes up for it.
In addition, Westbrook’s average rebound distance is 6.3 feet away from the rim, the highest average rebounding distance of anyone among the top 20 in rebounding in the league, according to NBA Stats.
This means that many of Westbrook’s rebounds are long rebounds and can ignite a fast break upon touching the ball when he receives the ball 3-point line extended.
The Thunder have crafted their identity from their personnel and beliefs of general manager Sam Presti.
The NBA is cyclical, and although pace and space is the trend in the league currently, games (and series) can be won by winning the rebounding battle, defending soundly and breaking the rim off each possession.
Oklahoma City’s best chance come April and May is to dominate the areas other teams don’t deem important anymore, forcing them to pay attention to the glass. If they do that, they may find themselves in familiar territory in May.