OKLAHOMA CITY — 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 had the second-most efficient offense in the league, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions. And they did it with the league’s lowest assist ratio.
The Thunder were the only team in the regular season that assisted on less than half of its field goals. Even the iso-happy Kings assisted on a greater percentage of their buckets.
This wasn’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 have done most of their work without help.
Thunder assisted field goals, 2011-12 (incl. postseason)
Both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant ranked in the top five in unassisted field goals in the regular season, with Westbrook leading the league by a large margin. James Harden‘s 156 unassisted field goals ranked 55th.
Most unassisted field goals, regular season
Durant, Westbrook and Harden are three different players. And they get their points in different ways.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, 20 percent of Durant’s regular season offense came from isolations, while only 14 percent came as the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls. Only Kobe Bryant (438) and Chris Paul (346) scored more points on isolation plays than Durant (333).
Of Durant’s 334 isolation plays in the regular season, 57 percent came from the middle of the floor. And according to Synergy he’s been much more effective from there (1.04 points per possession) than from the left (0.95) or right (0.94) sides.
The Thunder have changed things up a bit in the playoffs, with 23 percent of Durant’s possessions coming on pick-and-rolls, and only 14 percent coming on isolations.
Westbrook in transition
Durant ranked sixth in the regular season with 292 fast-break points. Westbrook (337) ranked third, behind only John Wall (375) and LeBron James (364). Of Westbrook’s total points, 22 percent came on the break.
But Westbrook doesn’t taking the ball all the way to the rim as often as James and Wall do. He seems to be a fan of the pull-up 15-footer in transition, with 72 (18 percent) of his 405 fast-break points (playoffs included) coming on shots from outside the paint.
In contrast, only six percent of Wall’s and seven 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 11 percent of Harden’s regular season offense came in isolation. But 32 percent of it came on the pick-and roll. And on 86 percent of those pick-and-roll plays, Harden dribbled off the screen or split the defenders.
In the past, we’ve focused on the Thunder’s lack of ball movement when they need a bucket on a late-game possession. It seemed like they struggled to get good shots on final-minute possessions, because they usually just gave Durant the ball on the perimeter and ask him to do it by himself.
The one possession that really stuck out last season was in the final seconds of regulation in Game 5 of the conference finals vs. Dallas. Durant got the ball more than 30 feet from the basket, went nowhere, and got blocked by Shawn Marion…
This year, the Thunder have been in plenty of close games in both the regular season and postseason. Durant led the league with 145 clutch-time points in the regular season on 39 percent shooting, while Westbrook ranked fifth with 127 points on 42 percent shooting. But only 39 of the Thunder’s 103 “clutch-time” field goals (38 percent) were assisted in the regular season.
Clutch time = last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less.
Back in March, 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. In the postseaon, only 10 of the Thunder’s 28 field goals have been assisted. Still, they’ve been very good in big moments, scoring 109 points per 100 possessions in clutch time over the course of the regular season and playoffs.
Durant is 12-for-20 in clutch time in the postseason, with only two of the 12 buckets coming via assist.