Oklahoma City's Defense is Dominating in an Unusual Way
The Thunder have the best defense in basketball, but their scheme is rare in today's NBA. Will it hold up in the playoffs?
Photo by Larry W. Smith - EPA
We’re waist deep in an era of NBA basketball that’s defined by offensive favoritism. Rule changes are viscerally accelerating the game's migration towards quicker shots from deeper distances. It’s a joy to watch, but has also nudged defensive strategy to the edge of its own dark age. And it’s there, in the shadows, where the Oklahoma City Thunder refuse to bow.
They don’t own the Western Conference’s highest winning percentage because the three-point line is their best friend, and their two All-Stars don’t turn every game into a fireworks display. Instead, games are won with the league’s best defense, one currently limiting opponents to fewer points per possession than any previous team in franchise history. Since they started 0-4, the Thunder has the NBA’s best net rating by an insane 4.1 points per 100 possessions. (That same gap stands between the league’s second and 11th most successful teams.)
Like any great defense, Oklahoma City has found synergy between its personnel and playing style. They’re long, quick, rabid, and experienced enough to let Billy Donovan conceptualize a formula that peels the roof from what those qualities can accomplish. They’re succeeding with an admirable degree of difficulty, too; their identity is aggression, and requires air-tight rotations sans safety net.
“They’re a little different from a lot of teams,” Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said. “They’re coming. They’ll blitz that pick and roll. It’s a little different from what a lot of teams are doing now, you know, dropping their big, playing more conservatively, not giving up threes.”
It’s essentially a trust exercise and everyone on the team happens to trust everybody else. (This should make Jason Kidd—who actualized the same idea when head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks—feel emboldened and depressed at the same time.)
In theory, it’s a brilliant way to force turnovers, sow chaos, and mitigate their own offensive weaknesses. At their best, the Thunder turn each possession into a galactic struggle over every inch. At their worst, they’re a house of cards. So far, they have turned theory into practice in a way that will either carry them to the Western Conference Finals or, as we saw last year against the Utah Jazz, blow up in their face. Their personality offers very little grey area.
But even without Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City’s defense cedes little ground. They know it’s impossible to take everything away on a nightly basis, but their reach and anticipation turns an ostensibly elusive goal into reality more often than not. They collectively take pride in wanting to get a stop every time down the floor, headway that’s encouraged by new and improved characters who aren’t afraid to tap dance on a tightrope.
Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant are good, bordering on great, in the larger roles they fill. Nerlens Noel is an ideal backup center in this particular context. Dennis Schröder takes nothing off the table. Hamidou Diallo is anti-gravity. Paul George might be the Defensive Player of the Year. Steven Adams is one of a handful of seven footers who flourishes on the perimeter more often than he merely survives.
“The athleticism pops out,” Atkinson said. “Also it seems like they’re connected...they have a lot of continuity there, so guys know what the heck they’re doing.” On the play seen below, Ferguson illustrates what that looks like.
“I saw my teammate was fronting, so I knew I had to be on the backside whenever he threw the ball over,” Ferguson told VICE Sports. “And when he got the ball I was already there. I’ve got my teammates back at all times. I know my teammates got my back.”
Even with internal improvement and new pieces filling meaningful space, George’s growing comfort in year two has sanctioned enough institutional knowledge for him to dip in and out of passing lanes without ever being too reckless. Just like every other help defender on this team, he lives at the nail and in the paint, baiting skip passes that are ripe for a steal. (The Thunder rank third in deflections and first in defensive loose balls recovered.) He’s more familiar with teammates, and isn’t totally caught off guard when one of them (for example *clears throat for 25 seconds* Westbrook) flies off script for a steal.
But even as they dominate, meaningful questions remain. One being: Will their asphyxiating energy sustain against the best of the best? So far, OKC has breezed through the easiest schedule in the league. Their two games against the Golden State Warriors came on opening day and the night before Thanksgiving (when Steph Curry and Draymond Green didn’t suit up). They’ve already been blessed with the opportunity to pulverize Phoenix three times and Cleveland twice.
“The encouraging part is Andre has not played in any games this year and I know that we haven’t played ‘all the best offensive teams in the league’ yet. Our defense will be tested there,” Donovan said. “But...I think we’ve been a pretty consistent team defensively, and I still think we can get better.”
And, as Atkinson alluded to, most teams don’t defend like the Thunder because A) they don’t have the length, mobility, and cohesiveness, and B) they can’t stomach how vulnerable it’ll leave them against spot-up looks on the perimeter. It’s only one series, but the Thunder allowed a wide-open three on nearly one out of every four shots the Jazz attempted during last year’s first-round battle. That’s awful, and wasn’t a total outlier, either. In the regular season, they finished last (in a tie with the Atlanta Hawks) by allowing 20.8 percent of their opponent’s shots to be wide-open threes, per NBA.com. Unsurprisingly, the Thunder also allowed the most corner threes.
It’s tempting to compare this group to what the Thunder were last year, particularly before a ruptured patella tendon ended Roberson’s season. (They had the fifth-best defense at the time, and were 16th from that point on.) Schematically they are similar, a “no middle” team that fundamental desires to keep the ball on the sidelines. When facing a pick-and-roll, they bring their big up to the screen, pull help defenders in from the opposite side, and direct the ball-handler towards his screener’s man. It deters penetration and typically forces at least one difficult pass. (In the screen capture below, Alex Abrines is all the way over, persuading Rodney Hood to skip the ball to Collin Sexton in the opposite corner.)
“[Last year] we wanted to take away the middle of the floor, and in doing that you’re going to give something else up. And a lot of those straight line drives or drives to the basket put us in rotations,” Donovan said. “I think trying to put more of an emphasis on guarding the ball, squaring up, more of an emphasis on the three-point line, more of an emphasis on not fouling. I mean these were things we talked about last year—I don’t want to make it seem like we just totally blew everything up and started over from scratch—but there were some minor changes that I felt like from watching film that we needed to make.”
Today’s difference also comes from who they play—more minutes for Grant, Ferguson, Schröder and Noel, fewer minutes for Ray Felton, zero minutes for Corey Brewer and Carmelo Anthony—and how those players keep the ball in front of them while sprinting in and out of help positions. This roster is built to switch, too. And they’re more willing to do that for extended stretches, without fear of getting beat on the boards or off the dribble.
"Our length," Schröder said when I asked what stands out about Oklahoma City's defense. "Everybody is so long."
Their opponent’s three-point volume is down overall, and teams are only converting 29 percent of their open threes—the second-lowest number in the league. It’s an aggressiveness that’s yet to burn them, but keep your hand on the stove for an entire season and shots like this will eventually fall. (They still forfeit a bunch of corner threes, just not as many as last year.)
It’s reasonable to wonder if this is sustainable. The Thunder want to generate a ton of turnovers and they do so more than anyone else. But they also want to keep offenses off the glass and contest shots without fouling, two objectives harder than they have to be when trying to pull off a game plan that demands continuous rotations, pulls bigs out to the perimeter, and sucks guards into the paint.
But the Thunder swarm with purpose. Back-line rotations are crisp and there’s always someone with freakish tentacles waiting down low, either forcing another pass or protecting the basket. Only five teams are allowing a lower shooting percentage at the rim. Grant is a special brand of menace in this area. Instead of putting out fires early on, he’ll (intentionally!) wait for an opponent to go up with the ball and then disintegrate them in midair.
The Thunder get back on defense and drag out possessions, be it after a missed shot or a turnover. That discipline matters. (The Houston Rockets are the only team that chokes a higher percentage of their opponent’s field goal attempts with seven or fewer seconds on the shot clock.)
"Yeah, there’s a bunch of shit that goes into it.”
“It comes down to effort,” Adams said. “Wanting to actually get stops, forcing them to take shots that they probably don’t want. Yeah, there’s a bunch of shit that goes into it.”
The Thunder wouldn’t play the way they do if Adams couldn’t comfortably glide his 250-pound frame along the perimeter. Same goes for Noel, who’s so incredible at poking the ball from ball-handlers as they drive towards the rim. But the Thunder know they can’t trap every screen and rely upon help defenders to bail them out in the paint. Here’s what happens when Adams is a step too low and Ferguson is a step slow:
And so they’ve adopted a few new principles and tweak how they want to play based on different matchups. Sometimes they’ll switch everything and help accordingly, looking like an even more horrifying and clenched version of last year’s Rockets. (Don’t be surprised if in a few months this is how they treat most defensive possessions; fluidly switching every screen is the only way to stifle the Golden State Warriors, and if the Thunder aspire to make the Finals that’s the offense they’ll need to stifle.) Sometimes they’ll have both weak-side defenders in the paint before a roll man can gain any momentum.
“You’re not going to in today’s NBA have one cookie cutter defense that’s going to work for everybody,” Donovan said. “For instance, the other night against Blake Griffin, we felt like with our power forwards we needed to come a lot of times and provide help. There’s a lot of games where maybe at the power forward spot we don’t have to provide help, so those situations create different challenges schematically. But in terms of the things that are important to us, like contesting shots, defensive rebounding, trying to eliminate layups, trying to take away silly fouls and putting people in the bonus, those things are going to carry through for 82 games.”
Defense matters, but for them to actually defeat the very best teams in the league four times in seven tries, they’ll need to score a lot of points that aren’t directly leveraged by their excellence on one end. That means the Thunder need to add another three-point shooter, someone opponents won’t go out of their way to attack in the playoffs.
They can’t trade their own pick this year because they owe a first to Orlando in 2020 (and a first to Atlanta in 2022), but how about Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Abdel Nader, and a future second-round pick for Wayne Ellington? Or TLC and a second-round pick for Sterling Brown? Or Patrick Patterson and two future second-round picks for Justin Holiday? For a variety of reasons, seeing these transactions through won’t be easy. Outside shooting is at a premium for a reason. The Thunder have instead chosen to secure the other side of the ball, then hope those players would eventually develop enough to balance everything out.
But they have a right to feel impatient. This is a championship-caliber defense right now, one that matches up well with the defending champs, along with the Eastern Conference’s most elite teams. Westbrook isn’t getting any younger, and there’s only so many years of embracing a frenetic struggle before the players who bought in start to lose focus. It’s far too dramatic to label this Oklahoma City’s last stand, but with a defense this good, it’d be a damn shame if their front office didn’t treat it that way.