HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Coach Norman Dale demanded that his Hickory Huskers pass the ball four times before taking a shot. And most of us have been led to believe that ball movement is the key to a good offense.
But this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the most efficient offense in the league, scoring 107.5 points per 100 possessions. And they’re doing it with the league’s lowest assist ratio.
The Thunder are the only team that has assisted on less than half of its field goals. Even the iso-happy Kings are assisting on a greater percentage of their buckets.
This isn’t unprecedented. The 2005-06 Mavs had the second-most efficient offense in the league with an assist rate of slightly less than 50 percent. And over the last 15 seasons, there’s been no real correlation between assist rate and offensive efficiency.
The Thunder’s top three scorers all do most of their work without help.
Thunder percent of field goals assisted, 2011-12
Both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant rank in the top five in unassisted field goals, with Westbrook leading the league by a large margin. James Harden‘s 120 unassisted field goals rank 49th.
Most unassisted field goals, 2011-12
Durant, Westbrook and Harden are three different players. And they get their points in different ways.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, 23 percent of Durant’s offense comes from isolations, while only 13 percent has come as the ball-handler on pick and rolls. Only Kobe Bryant has scored more points (369) on isolation plays than Durant (283).
Of Durant’s 286 isolation plays, 56 percent have come from the middle of the floor. And according to Synergy he’s been much more effective from there (1.10 points per possession) than from the left (0.94) or right (0.96) sides.
Durant also ranks fifth in the league with 210 fast-break points.
Westbrook in transition
Westbrook (243) ranks third in fast-break points, behind only LeBron James (292) and John Wall (283). Of Westbrook’s total points, 21 percent have come on the break. But Westbrook isn’t taking the ball all the way to the rim as often as James and Wall are. He seems to be a fan of the pull-up 15-footer in transition, with 39 of his 243 fast-break points (16 percent) coming on shots from outside the paint.
In contrast, only six percent of Wall’s and nine percent of James’ fast-break points have come from outside the paint.
Harden off the screen
Now, a low assist rate doesn’t mean a team’s offense is iso-heavy. According to Synergy, less than 12 percent of Harden’s offense comes in isolation. But 30 percent of it comes on the pick and roll. And on 88 percent of those pick-and-roll plays, Harden dribbles off the screen or splits the defenders.
We tend to focus on the Thunder’s lack of ball movement when they need a bucket on a late-game possession. It seems like they struggle to get good shots on final-minute possessions because they usually just give Durant the ball on the perimeter and ask him to do it by himself.
The one possession that really sticks out was in the final seconds of regulation in Game 5 of last year’s conference finals. Durant got the ball more than 30 feet from the basket, went nowhere, and got blocked by Shawn Marion…
The Thunder have been in plenty of close games this season, and overall, they’ve been excellent in “clutch time” (last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less), scoring 112 points per 100 possessions.
Durant leads the league with 126 clutch-time points on 41 percent shooting, while Westbrook ranks third with 102 points on 49 percent shooting. But only 31 of the Thunder’s 86 clutch-time field goals (36 percent) have been assisted.
At the end of the first overtime on Friday, we saw OKC actually run a final-possession play that went beyond a simple down-screen to get Durant the ball on the perimeter. Harden got the ball at the top of the key this time, and he got the ball to Durant, who was open in the corner, thanks to a back-screen from Nick Collison…
But plays like that have been few and far between. And OKC is just 8-for-26 in the final minute, with a tie game or a deficit of 1-3 points, shooting and scoring just below the league-average rate in that situation.
Now, is there a problem with a low-assist offense in the postseason? Maybe…
All offense drops off in the playoffs. The average playoff team over the last 15 years has scored 1.8 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did in the regular season. And overall, there’s no correlation between a team’s regular season assist rate and the amount their offense regresses in the postseason.
But the 24 playoff teams who had a regular season assist rate of less than 55 percent saw their offense drop-off slightly more (2.4 points per 100 possessions) than the average. Three of those 24 teams made The Finals: the 2005-06 Mavericks, the 2008-09 Magic, and the 2010-11 Heat. All three lost when they got there.
Last year’s Thunder had a regular season assist rate of 54.5 percent, and their offense dropped off by 1.7 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, slightly more than the league did overall last year (1.5). In those playoffs, they were 1-for-11 from the field in the final minute with a tie game or a deficit of 1-3 points.