HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — It’s hard to find fault in the way the Oklahoma City Thunder played offense last season. They ranked second in efficiency, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions.
|Lowest assist rate, 2011-12|
The only team that was more potent was the San Antonio Spurs (108.5). But the Thunder and Spurs were very different offensively. The Spurs’ offense was thought of as a work of hoops art, thriving on ball movement. The Thunder’s offense … not so much. In fact, OKC was the only team to assist on less than half of its field goals last season.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Historically, there’s no real correlation between assist rate and offensive efficiency. The Thunder had the talent to thrive without ball movement, as described in this post from March. Russell Westbrook (452) and Kevin Durant (334) ranked first and fourth in unassisted field goals respectively. And when they fell short in The Finals, it was more about their defense than their offense.
Still, Thunder coach Scott Brooks talked a lot about ball movement this preseason, even before his team traded James Harden. For Brooks, it was as much about the abundance of turnovers (OKC ranked 29th in turnover rate) as it was about the lack of assists, as John Rohde of The Oklahoman wrote last month …
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Brooks said. “It’s the willingness to pass, the decisions to make the correct pass, the ability to understand where the next pass (is) and also the receiver. In the past we had some spacing issues, but that picked up last season. Some of our turnovers were off of guys trying to make the pass and didn’t quite execute it the same way.
“I hope to see another step in that direction, but we have guys who get along and we have guys who play extremely hard and the next step is to try to figure out ways to get better offensively and help each other score more easily. We spend a lot of time on passing drills, just the basic fundamentals of passing.”
In the preseason, the Thunder ranked 10th in assist rate, 12th in turnover rate and second in efficiency. And through the first three quarters of Thursday’s game in San Antonio, while they weren’t scoring very efficiently, they had 17 assists on 23 field goals.
Here are a few examples of Thunder dimes in the first three quarters…
That third play, where a Westbrook post-up turned into an open 3-pointer for Kevin Martin on the opposite side, wasn’t all that dynamic, but it was a good example of how the Thunder can change things up by playing inside-out.
Then, in the fourth quarter, the Thunder ball movement just stopped. They had only one assist on their six field goals, and most of their missed shots would have been unassisted as well.
It wasn’t a straight iso-fest. There were pick and rolls with more than one player involved. But too often, the ball-handler had tunnel vision …
The second play above was OKC’s standard pin-down play, which results in an isolation for Durant. They ran the same play on their final possession of the game, executed it pretty lazily, and Kawhi Leonard stepped in and stole the pass, setting up Tony Parker‘s game-winner.
That can be the issue with a low-assist offense. While you can thrive with it over the course of 82 games, it can be easier to defend in the playoffs and in late-game situations.
Overall, Game 1 of the season was a pretty awful offensive performance for the Thunder, who scored just 84 points on 92 possessions. It would have ranked as one of their most anemic games of last season.
That could make great fodder for anyone who was critical of the Harden trade, especially since the second quarter (16 points on 22 possessions) and the fourth quarter (18 on 23), when Harden typically helped carry the offense, were particularly ugly. But it was just one game after just a couple of post-trade practices, and the Thunder will have another six months to integrate Martin.
What’s more disappointing is that, no matter who the third offensive option was, the ball movement was lacking and the OKC offense was typically predictable when the game was on the line.