It’s not entirely the Oklahoma City Thunder’s fault. Let’s start with that. Of course, the Thunder do bear some responsibly. But what I mean is that it’s not entirely fair to hold the franchise fully responsible for the torturous few months it’s about to endure.
Sure, there have been some hiccups along the way. Dealing away James Harden was, obviously, not a particularly smart decision. And perhaps they rode with coach Scott Brooks and his stale offense a bit too long.
That said, the Thunder have gotten so much right over the past half-decade or so. They managed to acquire not one, but two transcendent stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the types of talents teams spend years trying to unearth. They allowed those two players to grow together and also built a solid core around them. And they did a lot of winning, too. They made the NBA Finals once and went on a few impressive playoff runs and always seemed to be just one year or one move or one break away from capturing that elusive title.
Thing is, that stroke of luck never came. Take their current standing, a 54-25 team with two of the five best players in the league and the NBA’s second-most potent offense. It’s hard to look better entering the postseason. Hard for mortal teams, that is.
But the Warriors and Spurs are not mortal. They’re superteams, two of the best units to ever step foot on a basketball court. You know that playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers saying? That’s what we’re seeing with the Warriors and Spurs.
Team Work + Perfect Ball Movement = Golden State Warriors pic.twitter.com/tXDLyiApUy
— Basketball Vines (@HoopVine) November 10, 2015
Both have essentially perfected team basketball. Both have stars but have also built dynamic team-oriented offenses. Both squads play defense. Both can go big or small.
Think of it like this: the Warriors might set the record for most regular season wins — and yet they’re second in the league in point differential, thanks to the awesomeness of the Spurs. It’s going to take perfection to knock off one of these teams in a seven-game series, and perfect the Thunder are not.
For one, OKC’s offense remains stagnant. It still looks too much like the one Brooks was supposed to take with him out the door. The Thunder are last in the NBA in passes made per game, according to NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data. They run more isolation plays than any other team in the league. Only two teams turn the ball over more frequently.
Their supporting cast is full of one-dimensional players. Enes Kanter is a beast on the block but would struggle guarding a chair. Anthony Roberson is a wonderful wing defender but shoots like he just learned how. Steven Adams clogs the lane.
The Thunder’s best defensive lineups make it too easy for opponents to shade towards Westbrook and Durant and their best scoring lineups are inept defensively, which is why OKC’s overall defensive rating (103.1) ranks in the middle of the pack. It’s no fluke that the Thunder have blown more fourth quarter leads than any team in the league this season.
Thunder scoring margin this season: 1st Quarter +232 2nd Quarter +107 3rd Quarter +208 4th Quarter -6 — ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 4, 2016
In fourth quarters, their offensive rating plummets from 110.1 to 106.4. That’s what happens when you rely so heavily on one-on-one play. You make yourself predictable and easy to defend. Durant and Westbrook are good enough to overcome and overpower even the stingiest of defenses. But forcing them to do so by always creating for themselves isn’t making life any easier.
Nor, for that matter, is OKC’s porous crunch-time defense. The Thunder are surrendering an obscene 116 points per 100 possessions in the last five minutes of games within five points, according to NBA.com.
All this is a roundabout way of saying the Thunder are strong but incredibly flawed. Yes, it’s possible that Durant and Westbrook both catch fire and combine for something like 80 points per game in the playoffs and lead OKC past the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs. More likely, though, is that OKC winds up heading home early once again — only this time around, the promise of next year is no sure thing.
After all, Kevin Durant wouldn’t be the first modern-age superstar to bolt one successful, but ringless franchise for greener pastures elsewhere. And we already know the Warriors are in play, and that he’s open to the possibility of leaving, and that there are going to be a plethora of franchises with loads of cap space begging Durant to come play for them, including the one in his hometown.
Things are different in the NBA now. Just 10 years ago, Westbrook and Durant would have been all the Thunder needed to succeed. But nowadays things like balance, efficiency and versatility count, too. Those are the areas where the Spurs and Warriors excel, areas that the Thunder never figured out. Instead, they decided to place everything on their two stars. Doing so was a mistake that could end up pushing one of them out the door.