The Oklahoma City Thunder are by far the best team in the Western Conference. That much has become very clear over the first part of this NBA season. The San Antonio Spurs may be surging, the Los Angeles Clippers may have the star power, and the Dallas Mavericks may be hanging around, but they're all a major step down from the Thunder. Wins over the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic on consecutive nights on the road only drove home the point.
And yet, for a team that's far and away the best in their conference, the Thunder have several lingering issues that haven't been solved. Abstractly, the Thunder have a team featuring two superstars, two other young players who are pushing towards that level, a host of role players that fill in the gaps and a coach that's starting to become even more comfortable at fixing his weaknesses. But a deeper look reveals a couple of potentially fatal flaws that could torpedo the hopes of a championship season. Compared to the problems of most teams, these issues are unbelievably minor, but if the Thunder fall short, these will be the reasons why.
They're a bad rebounding team
Pat Riley's famous "No rebounding, no rings" quote rings very true in this situation. The Thunder are currently 21st in the league in defensive rebound rate, which measures the percentage of available defensive rebounds that they secure. Since the three-point shot came into the NBA in 1980, only one other NBA champion, the Houston Rockets in 1995, were in the bottom third of the NBA in defensive rebound percentage, and only five other champions -- the San Antonio Spurs in 2003 and 1999, the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982 and 1987 and the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983 -- were even in the bottom half of the league.
The Thunder have what many who follow the game believe to be an elite defensive front line, so why can't they rebound well? It's the defensive scheme. The Thunder rely so heavily on Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison to contest shots, but in doing so, they surrender pivotal defensive rebounding position. As Rob Mahoney wrote in the New York Times:
The Thunder are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, and by default the blame rests with the front line. The Thunder lean on their bigs not only to contest shots, but also to finish defensive plays with boards and yet Ibaka ranks 98th in the league in defensive rebounding rate, with Kendrick Perkins not far behind at 103rd and Collison all the way down at 174th. They may give the Thunder impressive depth at positions of great defensive import, but Oklahoma City's top three bigs rebound at roughly the same rate as an above-average small forward.
Mahoney doesn't come out and say it, so I will: the Thunder's over-reliance on their big men to help stop dribble penetration and contest shots kills them on the glass. It forces a perimeter player to rotate down onto a big man once the shot goes up, and that's why they have trouble securing defensive rebounds. It's why, even in this era of pseudo-zone defenses with big men helping guards, coaches hate allowing dribble penetration.
The scheme issue is why Thunder fans should be especially concerned about their poor rebounding numbers. If this was simply a matter of not having enough rebounders, then the easy fix is to trade for one or play the rebounders they do have more. But Ibaka, Collison and Perkins have been good rebounders in the past, and all of them have career-low defensive rebound percentages this year. When that happens, there's something larger at play.
They commit way too many turnovers
Oklahoma City is currently dead last in the NBA in turnover rate, a fact that gets repeated over and over by broadcasters. This actually is something that can be overcome; the Boston Celtics were dead last in turnover rate when they won the title in 2008. But it does speak to a larger concern about the Thunder that will crop up during the playoffs: valuing possession. Many of their turnovers are sloppy errors that aren't caused by aggressive defense, and there are also all those possessions where Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant take bad, contested shots that don't technically count as turnovers. During the regular season, they can get away with those wasted possessions. In the playoffs, when the tempo inevitably slows down, they probably won't.
They're a bit weak at a couple key spots
The Thunder's roster is the envy of the NBA, but there are still a couple spots where I'm a little bit concerned. The first is at backup point guard. While concerns that Westbrook can't manage a game well as a point guard are a little overblown, there are still one or two games where it'd be nice to have a steady alternative in case Westbrook's shot selection proves to be problematic. The Thunder had that last year in Eric Maynor, but Maynor suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the season. The only other backup point guards on the roster are rookie Reggie Jackson and journeyman Royal Ivey. Jackson has talent and Ivey can defend a bit, but neither player can be trusted to calm things down in a tight spot. Even if Westbrook is playing well, those 6-8 minutes where he'll need rest are critical minutes that I don't think either Jackson or Ivey can handle.
We'll get to the other concern with this next header.
Can the Thunder keep relying on that small lineup?
In Thursday's comeback win over the Orlando Magic, the Thunder went to a small lineup, putting Durant at power forward and spreading the floor. It worked beautifully and saved them from what seemed like a sure defeat. Overall, the Thunder's four most-used lineups involving Durant at power forward all have high plus/minus figures, so it's something they can use as another weapon in tight spots.
But is that lineup a legitimate solution in a playoff game? If the Thunder want to improve their rebounding, can they really roll out a small lineup like that in a tight spot? It can work as a change of pace, but for it to be truly successful, I think they need one more swing forward who can rebound and space the floor. The return of Thabo Sefolosha from injury should help, but Sefolosha is such an offensive zero that it almost defeats the purpose of going small.
Ironically, it'd be nice for the Thunder to have a veteran, better-rebounding version of Jeff Green, a player they correctly traded away for Perkins. That would allow them to use a small lineup and have a better chance of competing on the glass. As it stands, the Thunder likely have to play Daequan Cook in one of these lineups, and Cook brings very little to the table besides being a deep shooter.
Compared to the rest of the league, these are small problems, but they are potentially fatal if the Thunder get the wrong matchup. A team like the Dallas Mavericks could capitalize on their turnover issues. A team like the Los Angeles Clippers, who are fourth in the league in offensive rebound rate, or the Los Angeles Lakers, who still have an elite front line, could beat them on the glass. A team like the San Antonio Spurs, who have an excellent second unit and can go small as effectively as the Thunder can, could eliminate one of the Thunder's trump cards.
The Thunder could very well win any of those series anyway because their roster is just that good. But if not, the Thunder don't have the same luxury of time that they did two years ago. Harden and Ibaka are up for big contract extensions after the 2012-13 year, and that's also when the stiffer luxury tax penalties kick in. These next two years are when the Thunder must pounce.
If they can't fix these flaws, they may fall victim to being upset before they even get out of the West.