Film Study: Thunder Stars Do It Alone

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

Player FGM Assisted % Assisted
Kevin Durant 468 220 47.0%
Russell Westbrook 438 97 22.1%
James Harden 239 119 49.8%
Others 653 450 68.9%

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

Player FGM Assisted Unassisted % Unassisted
Russell Westbrook 438 97 341 77.9%
Kobe Bryant 485 205 280 57.7%
LeBron James 447 179 268 60.0%
Tony Parker 316 67 249 78.8%
Kevin Durant 468 220 248 53.0%
Chris Paul 295 50 245 83.1%
John Wall 282 53 229 81.2%
Derrick Rose 276 67 209 75.7%
Brandon Jennings 325 117 208 64.0%
Deron Williams 325 119 206 63.4%

Durant, Westbrook and Harden are three different players. And they get their points in different ways.

Isolating Durant

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.

Still clutch

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.

Playoff problems?

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.


  1. Thunder Fan says:

    Thunder will sweep through the playoffs only west team wil lgive them fits is the spurs, but time is catching up to them, Heat lol dwayne wade gets into foul issues when he is stuck iso on westbrook lebron i didnt see him at the thunder heat game so who knows what hes doing lol, Thunder have a deep bench harden and everyone can score even Ibaka so Unless Spurs beat the thunder in the playoffs, I see them winning it all

  2. Steve says:

    Lambo – huh? Durant essentially shut Lebron down last night.

    The west is so much stronger than the east this year, it’ll be the Spurs or the Thunder coming out of the west and either of those teams will steamroll the east representative

    • brice says:

      Theres no way the thunder beat Miami in a 7 game series .. Miami is extremely hungry this season..playoffs are completely different from reg season

  3. lambo says:

    when kevin duratn starts playing defense and rebounding better…then his mvp material but until that day lebron has it because he can do it all and guard all positions…who can do that? But kd is a pure scorer and that wont cut it in the playoffs unless he plays defense but i see the east taking home the championship this year. lets go heat

  4. Jay says:

    Miami has a high school coach. He’ll be fired in a couple of months after the Heat get eliminated in the playoffs. How can you have this much talent on a team and all you could figure out for your offense is one on five plays. Spo is such a looser…But it’s ultimately Pat’s fault for not firing him last year.

  5. Durant deserves MVP no to lebron!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Alinsocal says:

    Playoffs are a whole different animal. The west has too many crafty veterans and coaches to let OKC impose their will come May & June.

  7. honesty says:

    Do you honestly think Wade can guard Westbrook in iso situations for an entire series, there is no player in the league that can do that. And im not worried about Durant vs Lebron unless we are talking about Lebron on offense because he is just top strong for Durant, maybe Durant can use his length but most likely he would be dominated in the paint, I guess we will see tonight

  8. TS says:

    All that stuff you said is fine and dandy. But,…. WE NEED RAPTORS GAMES ON TV! Seriously now, we know every Thunder and Clipper player by heart, but when was the last time the NBA helped out Toronto, and put them on TV? Years?!? I’m sorry, that’s just wrong ya’ll.

    • Amitpal says:

      When was the last time raptors were actually good. Fans want to see teams like clippers and thunder because they r exciting to watch but besides people in Toronto no one wants to see the raptors. Fan don’t like watching blow out games and that’s what u get with Toronto.

  9. lukten says:

    Just keep dreaming!!!
    Thunders would never beat SPURS or MAVS in a seven series tie

    And Lakers got revitalized!!

  10. Not Applicable says:

    Yes they will win the championship but not now maybe the next year or two and they have one

  11. Thunder fan says:

    Obviously you don’t watch the thunder much or even know much about basketball. Russell is shooting a career high 47.5 percent from field, the 5th leading scorer in league, and has a player eff rating of 18.82. By contrast D rose is at 45 percent and isn’t even in top 10 leading scorers.

    • BIGMatta23 says:

      D Rose is the 7th Leading scorer my friend.
      R Westbrook is 5th in scoring and his efficiency is 21.10….which is actually less than D Rose.
      You were saying something about basketball knowledge….looks like you screwed that one up royally!!!! hahahaha

  12. BullsFan22 says:

    Typical NBA basketball. Long gone are the days of teamwork, defense, high bball IQ, and hard work. Oh yeah, and bring back the Sonics, in Seattle!!!

  13. Thunder fan says:

    Lebron didn’t have another all star on is team or he may have!

  14. flip says:

    This type of offense is the exact reason why they will not win a championship. i mean its a great plan to isolate your best player but lets say they do make it to the finals, which i doubt, and they face the miami heat, if they iso durant against lebron durant will not be that effective with lebron on him, i mean as much as i hate lebron, that guy can defend and with the isolation durant will be contained every single night the same goes for westbrook. im pretty sure if they do face miami in the finals wade will be guarding him a lot, and wade as well is a stellar defender, so in my opinion this type of offense will give them problems with teams with great individual defenders.

  15. Westbook0 says:

    KD is way too overrated. He is a great player but Westbrook should also be given credit to the Thunder’s success. KD should also rebound the ball better.

    • Miami Heats says:

      KD is rebounding the ball better than last year… he is not overrated. if you pick one to build for your team… westbrook or kd..people would pick KD…. and htat comes from a heat fan 😛

  16. Non-ignorant Fan says:

    This is also why they will not win any championship soon. Teams suffer from isolation offense in playoffs; one proof is that team LeBron left a couple of years back. They need to find better offense and more consistent on D.

  17. Mark says:

    This is good and all for the regular season, but they’re not winning a championship with the so-called “dynamic” duo of Durant and Westbrick, I mean Westbrook.

  18. SecondEmotion says:

    Is it just me that sees Derrick Rose and Russel Westbrook are the Steve Francis and Stephon Marburys of this time?

  19. txemacasanueva says:

    Overwhelming piece of work; I think this ballclub, alongside Collins’ Sixers are shaping the way basketball is gonna be played in the next few years. Until we have a strong stock of true centers, this will be the winning formula. I would also like to know the impact of Collison and Harden playing toghether, which I suspect is pretty high for a pair coming out the bench.

  20. I’m surprised that the Heat dont isolate more. I mean i know that’s not really the offence they want, but surely if they need points, isolating Bron or Wade up at the top of the floor would five them points when they need it. And if the double team comes, you have another star in Bosh or Wade/James to toss the ball too. But I still think Melo is the best scorer in the league and best isolator, just in horrible form and, suprising of Melo, down on confidence. All the same, maybe the Thunder could find success with more iso but I doubt that this is really a sustainable playoff strategy

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  21. bob says:

    great article

  22. Susan says:

    I swear Okc is going to win the Nba finals

    • OKC Guy says:

      OKC won’t have lots of competition in the West, but in the East the Heat and Bulls will have a terrifically intense Conference Finals, leading to an even more exciting Finals with OKC.

      • Breezy says:

        No competition in the West?. OKC cannot beat Spurs. Has not beaten the Lakers in the playoffs yet. Keep dreamimg !