When Kevin Durant, a former MVP still in the heart of his prime, left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Bay Area this past offseason, many out there understandably expected a huge tumble down the standings for the Thunder. Most pundits predicted a No. 7 or 8 seed finish, if not a freefall out of the playoff picture entirely in a loaded Western Conference.
But two weeks into the season, Oklahoma City finds itself in first place in the conference at 6-1, the best start in franchise history through seven games. While it’s obviously still too early in the marathon NBA season, the early success raises the question: How have the Thunder found success thus far?
Contrary to what many may believe, Oklahoma City’s 6-1 surge to begin the year hasn’t been due to Russell Westbrook going full-on John Wick and blasting his way through the opposition on a nightly basis. Sure, revenge tour Russ’s averages of 30.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 9.9 assists are otherworldy numbers reminiscent of a gamer playing as himself in NBA 2K’s MyPlayer mode, but the Thunder are still currently rated as the seventh-worst offense in the league, with a paltry 97.1 offensive rating.
So while Westbrook making like Teddy Flood behind a Gatling gun is incredibly impressive and often makes for must-see TV, we have to look elsewhere to unearth the team’s secret sauce.
As you might have guessed, it’s the other end of the floor where Oklahoma City has excelled; entering play Tuesday, the Thunder rank as the fourth-best defense in the NBA, allowing just 94.6 points per 100 possessions.
They have excelled at what are essentially the two most fundamental components of defense, taking the ball away before the opposition can get a shot off and ensuring they miss even when they do.
At the heart of the team’s new defensive identity is the two players from the 2013 draft class who the Thunder just signed to long-term extensions. Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo each have defensive ratings below 90, the two best marks on the club among anyone who has appeared in more than one game.
Adams is among an elite group of big men becoming increasingly invaluable in the modern NBA, guys who can defend the rim while also defending in the pick-and-roll and harassing opposing guards for short periods along the perimeter. Now in his fourth season, Adams is fully comfortable knowing where to be defensively and directing his teammates as the last line of defense.
This year, opponents are shooting just 45.0 percent when Adams is defending the rim, the sixth-best mark in the NBA among players who defend at least seven shots per game. Overall, Adams is forcing the opposition to shoot 5.1 percent worse from the field than they normally do.
Meanwhile, Oladipo is averaging a career-low 0.6 steals per game, and his tracking numbers aren’t anything to write home about, but his strong defensive rating I think shows the hidden value his defense brings to the table.
By having the size and athleticism to take whichever is the toughest backcourt assignment on a nightly basis, it frees Westbrook up to gamble for steals without having to worry about leaving as dangerous an opposing player, while also allowing him to conserve some energy for everything he does offensively.
Plus, upgrading from Dion Waiters to Oladipo this year defensively is like the Three Little Pigs progressing from straw to brick in their building materials.
Even beyond those two players, though, you see evidence of the new identity throughout the Thunder roster. Defensive specialist Andre Roberson is receiving a career-high 28.4 minutes per game, rather than the team trying to give even more minutes to offense-only players like Kyle Singler and Anthony Morrow just to get shooting on the floor.
Meanwhile, defensive sieve Enes Kanter is playing just 18.1 minutes per game, easily his lowest amount of court time since his second year in Utah. Thunder management even continued to steer the club that way by trading Ersan Ilyasova for Jerami Grant last week.
In the end, no one is going to argue that Oklahoma City is still a true contender. However, by acknowledging that they were losing a ton of offensive efficiency with Durant leaving, the Thunder recognized what they could still be good at, and doubled down on their defensive strength.
By making it hell for opponents to score each trip down the floor, they are ensuring they’ll be in each and every game. From there, it will be up to Westbrook to work his magic and bring them home. Almost 10 percent of the way through the season, the Thunder’s new blueprint is working to perfection.