How do the Thunder Keep Durant? Move the Ball

When his team was in the midst of their greatness, and battling the Celtics for NBA supremacy, Pat Riley would write on the board before every game, No Rebounds, No Rings. It was pretty simplistic as strategies go. If you rebound the ball, you win. If you don’t, you lose. Of course, it was easy for Riley to say because staring across from him was seven footer Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and maniacal workaholic on the boards Kurt Rambis, and relentless Mychal Thompson. The era was center dominant, not guard happy.

That type of game has slowly faded away, enough so that when Pat Riley was running the Miami Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in tow, no rebounds, no rings wasn’t even a murmur. In LeBron’s first Miami title, the Heat finished 21st in rebounding. The next year (2013) they were dead last in rebounding.

The year the Spurs obliterated the Heat and won the Finals (2014), eleven teams were better rebounders and 23 teams were better offensive rebounders.

Last year, the Warriors were 6th in rebounding, 23rd in offensive rebounding. The offensive rebounding makes sense. Three point shooting doesn’t incentivize a lot of grab your own misses. The ball usually bounces long to the other team. Besides, the Warriors shoot the ball well enough not to miss that many shots.

Being the 6th best rebounding team as the Warriors were in their title year seems formulaic and a shout out to how the old timers believe you win a title. But consider that last year the top (5) rebounding teams did not advance anything. Three of the top five rebounding teams didn’t make the playoffs (OKC, Detroit, Indiana). The other two (Portland, Chicago) couldn’t make it to their conference final. The game has changed enough where scoring, particular perimeter scoring because of ball movement and player movement, is the rebounding equalizer. You have to rebound and you have to pass the ball from side to side.

Top Rebounding Teams 2014-15 Playoff Results Assists 3-Point FG%
OKC missed playoffs 25th 33.9%
Portland lost in first round 12th 36.2%
Chicago lost in second round 14th 35.3%
Detroit missed playoffs 16th 34.4%
Indiana missed playoffs 18th 35.2%


Which brings us to Oklahoma City. Once again they are leading the league in rebounding. But unlike last year, this year they have upped their assist quotient to 10th in the league. The top three teams in the west, the Thunder, the Warriors and Spurs, are top 10 rebounders and ball movers.

Though the Thunder have a problem that the Spurs and Warriors don’t have. The Thunder are overly dependent on Russell Westbrook. They don’t have a Westbrook 1(a) on the roster. So when he’s not creating points, no one else is. Not so in Oakland. Steph Curry doesn’t lead the Warriors in assists. Draymond Green does. Although Tony Parker leads the Spurs in assists, his assists are half of Westbrook’s. The rest of the Spurs fill in the gap, passing and moving the ball to open shooters. 4 of the 5 Spurs starters equal Westbrook’s assist numbers. More importantly, 4 out of 5 bench players for the Spurs equal Westbrook’s assists.

Assists (per 36 min) Assist %
Tony Parker 6.9 28.7%
Steph Curry 6.9 33.1%
Russell Westbrook 10.8 49.3%

The Thunder’s issue, or rather Billy Donovan’s problem, is to try to get more ball movement from players not named Westbrook. In the fourth quarter, the strategy is pretty simple. Double up on Westbrook so he’s forced into making the pass he doesn’t want to make. It leads to a missed shot, and another missed shot, and another missed shot. There goes the lead. Anxiety sets in. Shot selection is bad. And the Thunder lose. Same old movie.

The Warriors score the most points in the 4th quarter. The Spurs score the 6th most points. The Thunder score less 4th quarter points than the Timberwoves. With that as a constant, it doesn’t really matter how great a rebounding team they are.

The Thunder bench scores the same amount of points as the Warriors bench. They just do it harder. 5.7 assists vs. 9.7 assists. The Thunder bench doesn’t create as many steals as the Warriors and Spurs bench, nor do they block shots. It’s the recipe for failing in games in the 4th quarter when the starters create a lead the bench cannot hold.

In any other organization, Donovan would have time. But the clock is ticking and loudly. To be fair, Donovan entered this year with a set of circumstances working against him. He didn’t choose his assistants. Mid-season he lost his defensive go-to coaching guy to tragedy. Unless he was perfect, he would be compared to Durant favorite Scott Brooks. Add to the drama, this may be Kevin Durant’s OKC swan song if the Thunder don’t make the Finals or don’t compete hard in the Conference Finals. It is the elephant in the room.

Truthfully, Donovan’s offense doesn’t look that much different from Scott Brooks. It’s hard to tell what his imprint is.

Yes, the Thunder rebound. Yes, you need to rebound the ball. But they didn’t lose on the road to the Warriors and the Clippers and the Spurs because they didn’t rebound. They outrebounded all three. They lost because they didn’t move the ball. They had 17 assists against the Spurs. They had 11 fewer assists than the Warriors and 4 fewer than the Clippers in a 63 rebound game.

How do the Thunder keep Durant. Move the ball. Please.


photo via llananba