The Oklahoma City Thunder's emerging defensive identity

The Oklahoma City Thunder's emerging defensive identity

I have a particular affinity for whiteboards. My thoughts are pretty unorganized and the most random thoughts about Jalen Duren's potential as a short-roller or Chimezie Metu's face-up game will come to me at any odd hour of the day. Expo markers and whiteboards all around me are an absolute must and godsend. I have three in my room, one dedicated strictly to future story ideas and league wide trends I'm curious about. One constant on that board since mid-November; Why are the Oklahoma City Thunder good at defense?

The defense has been above league average for the majority of the season, they have length and athleticism, and a few defenders who routinely stand out in watching. Yet, I couldn't really point my finger as to why.

Due to the public plea from Alex Speers (listen to Down to Dunk), I finally made it a mission to really get into the thick of it and get a better view of what makes the Thunder such an effective defensive team.

Per Cleaning the Glass, OKC is 12th in defensive efficiency on the season: Not bad, above average, but nothing crazy. Ultimately, better than I'd expect (They finished in 26th last season, but were above average prior to Al Horford sitting the remainder of the season).

Fine tune it a bit more; they're 10th in defense in 2022. Ok, we've got something here.

Flip through a few more lenses, choose between one and two, and cycle to the halfcourt: The Thunder have allowed 90.7 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt since the turn of the year, the third best mark in the league. That's not just good, that's bordering on elite. For perspective, the Utah Jazz were first in halfcourt defensive efficiency last season and allowed 91.3 pp/100. 

Ok man, what is going on here?! Where has this come from?

Oddly enough, the Thunder told us themselves early in the season in a 56 second video (Sidenote: How does this video only have ~300 views? It has great production value, a sick beat and what more could you want frankly?)

As Darius Bazley tells us "If a guy's going for a layup or a dunk, that's a moment of truth, whether you're gonna take the charge or you're gonna go up to attempt to block it or verticality."

This is the first piece of the puzzle. The Thunder contest everything at the rim. While not necessarily an indicator of defense one way or another, the Thunder lead the NBA in contests per game according to Second Spectrum (partially because of something we'll hit on in a bit).

They don't generate steals or blocks at an above average rate, they lack a true defensive anchor at the five spot, and yet, they make it work. However, that's part of the charm in OKC's defense. 

Legendary (and somehow underrated) rap duo, Gang Starr, had an incredible album called Moment of Truth, including a track of the same name. First of all, this is one of the few 20 track double-sided albums that's worth it. Secondly, I'd like to think Mark Daigneault is just a massive fan of Gang Starr and built this mantra with Guru's lyrics in mind, and Premo's beat as the foundation.

"Peep the language. It's universal, you play with fire it may hurt you."

The Oklahoma City Thunder simply do NOT play with fire. Everything about their defense is solid. Their whole identity is crafted around managing firepower. Gum up what the offense wants and force them into really difficult looks without gambling.

They allow the 2nd fewest attempts at the rim in 2022 (4th on the season), while holding opponents to 62.6% shooting at the rim over the same span (5th). They squeeze offenses to only 27.1% of all shots coming within four feet of the basket. 

OKC's mission every possession is to shrink the floor, slow drives, take away the open lanes, and chew the clock.

This is the defense before the first action.

This is the defense after the first action hits.

All five Thunder defenders shrink the floor; Aaron Wiggins cheats off Nikola Vucevic in help for Lu Dort if LaVine chooses to drive. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander high tags off of Ayo Dosunmu to speed bumpo a Vucevic roll (below average above the break shooter), and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl pre-rotates as the low-man, another added line of defense.

They almost operate like a slinky, capable of consistently compressing and stretching to adapt to the action presented to them.

Preventing quick rolls and neutralizing pick-and-rolls before they can fully develop puts out those fires before they can spread. The Thunder are willing to just stay solid and concede a contested pull-up two (2nd most allowed in 2022 per Cleaning the Glass), where they get torched in all fairness as opponents shoot an undgodly 53.3%, but part of that is shot luck/variance, and that's still a more difficult shot than anything at the rim.

"Nobody's invincible, no plan is foolproof."

You'd think a team that routinely plays without a true defensive five would switch a great deal, but that's not the Thunder's motive! 

They can and do switch fairly often, but they're adept at late-switching with backend rotations in tandem to stem the tide. The communication and team trust is apparent.

Dort gets stonewalled by an immaculate Bruce Brown screen. Wiggins is normally going to show high and recover to Brown on his slowed roll as JRE high tags with SGA pre-rotating backline.

However, Wiggins switches with Dort out of the picture, Dort recovers to take Day'Ron Sharpe under the rim as SGA closes back out to Kessler Edwards. A fantastic defensive possession all-around.

Opposing teams will mix-in different screening angles to try and force switches, and the Thunder again are adept at switching actively, but also under control. 

They time their switches well, they don't bite too hard, and they know their length, making it hard for opposition to take any sort of advantage out of the ballscreen.

So yes, no plan is foolproof, but the Thunder almost revel in that. Dort is an exceptional man to man defender, but their money is made working as one, holding a sort of defensive battle line in what they are and aren't willing to concede, and utilizing their strengths (length and communication) to ward off drives. 

They rarely close-out hard to the perimeter, choosing instead to instill choppin feet out to shooters. There's no right or wrong way to close-out in my opinion, but the Thunder choose this seemingly to further embody their ethos of staying solid without allowing drives to the heart of the court. Some shooting luck has benefitted them from above the break misses (2nd in non-corner 3-point percentage allowed in 2022), but the plan is executed well.

"Actions have reactions, don't be quick to judge."

One of the other aspects I love about the Thunder defense is their willingness to differentiate looks based on personnel. 

They'll often play back-up five Mike Muscala in a short drop, but call quick blitzes based on the shot clock and ball-handler. 

They're selective with pressure, but when they do it, they're 100% committed.

If an offense starts to throw in Spain actions (pick and roll with a backscreen and replacement to the arc) or similar differentiations to throw off the regular defense, that's fine! The Thunder call out their screens incredibly well. They normally stick Dort on star players and fight to not give up the match-up, but they won't do it at the expense of jeopardizing a deep drive

It seems simple, but that's part of the point. OKC makes the small things a point of emphasis. Consistent communication and five players all engaged, they can combat more complex actions that could throw off a less together group.

"Sometimes you gotta dig deep when problems come near. Don't fear, things get severe for everybody everywhere."

The Thunder are long, they're athletic, and man they seem irritating to play against. Again, they don't go out of their way to turn the ball over, but their length and ability to bother anything on the interior is hard to deny.

SGA has some draw-backs and shortcomings as an on-ball defender, but he has really sharp hands in passing lanes and many unsuspecting ball-handlers have had their pocket picked or shot tipped by him.

The Thunder in general lack true lockdown ball-stoppers outside of Dort and Kenrich Williams.

Navigating screens isn't the strength of the Thunder, but they're tremendous at defending screens. It sounds like a paradoxical equation, but it comes back to communication.

Dort is caught getting back still and the Hornets flow into some early offense. But, here comes JRE, calling out the play at first for Dort, but also operating as a middle linebacker, filling the gap and blowing it up before damage can be caused. Dort reconnects, and it's all settled down. It seems minute in the moment, but I can't speak highly enough of what JRE has done for Oklahoma City's defense.

His positioning and court-mapping as a defender are impressive. He knows how to get the most out of his length (or lack thereof) and size. He directs the defense with guile. If I'd never watched him or the Thunder, you could easily convince me he was already a 2nd or 3rd contract player.

That is such an easy bucket for the Hornets if the communication isn't there.

The Thunder actively have all players involved playing both sides of the screen. So often, defenders are strictly doing their sole purpose, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but the Thunder FIGHT those screens like a ship fighting an ocean storm. Some defenses will let screens happen and react, OKC attacks them.

Dort and JRE are absolutely swarming that screen on the first possession, almost like an Oklahoma drill in football with two players actively defending Harden. They actively prevent the chance to roll from Griffin by interchangeably attacking the screen, while also negating Harden a chance to drive.

Consequently, they can be susceptible to screen slips, particularly from bouncy screeners. Playing this aggressively on screening action leaves you open to trickery.

It is tough to stop a slipping Miles Bridges in open space without a top-notch rim protector.

"You got no hand skills, there's no security to save ya."

No defense is perfect, and OKC is no exception, with two vices that are extremely hard to understate.

Part of the difficulty in routinely not playing a traditional five: their rebounding is atrocious. It's not always for lack of trying, but they're not great at boxing out, often are just outmatched on the interior, and they give up a decent amount of long rebounds because of how willing they are to shrink the floor.

They're 18th in defensive rebounding percentage on the season, but a paltry 28th in 2022, and it is painstakingly obvious when watching. They sometimes make 3 or 4 stops in a row, but more possessions means more opportunities for the offense. 

To say that the Thunder have a "bad" offense would be unkind to the other teams that are below average. They're 30th on the season in offensive efficiency, scoring 14.4 points per 100 possessions less than the league leading Utah Jazz. You've likely seen the Lakers play a few times this year and how rough their offense can be. They score 6.8 points per 100 possessions more than OKC, yeah it's that rough! 

They turn the ball over a great deal, miss a lot (30th in rim shooting percentage), and thus give up a ton of transition opportunities.

That makes the growing defense all the more impressive.

This team isn't good, but they're growing. There have been real flashes of potential. The roster is bought in and committed to the scheme, and while it doesn't gloss over the offensive shortcomings, it's something to hang their hat on.

There's a defensive backbone that could form the foundation of the next great era of Thunder basketball, not unlike the early Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka squads that sported numerous top 10 defenses.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are on track for another top five pick during a clear tanking year, but don't be fooled by the record, a real identity is growing in Oklahoma.

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