Oklahoma City Thunder: The Case for More Ball Movement in the Playoffs

The Oklahoma City Thunder don't share the ball as much as their competition. The playoffs could be an opportunity to rejuvenate their offense.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are going into the playoffs with home-court advantage in the first round and set to face off against the Utah Jazz. They're also one of the only playoff teams to have one of the 10 worst offenses in the league (by points per possession), per Synergy. At 0.964, they are joined only by the San Antonio Spurs, who are just below them at exactly 0.96. Every other team in the bottom ten is either blatantly tanking, or the Detroit Pistons.

Russell Westbrook leads the NBA in assists, and is seventh in points per game. Plenty has been said about his efficiency, the lack thereof, and shot selection. While I don't claim to have the magic cure to the Thunder's offense woes, I would like to propose the following as part of the solution: Other players need to touch the ball more, and it's Westbrook's job to make it happen. 

Why is it Westbrook's job? 

Because I am making an assumption that I think is reasonable: No matter what system Billy Donovan implements, Westbrook is going to have the ball in his hands a lot

But isn't he their best player? Why shouldn't he have the ball all the time?

The offense should be initiated by Westbrook most of the time. But there's a way to have the ball more than everybody else without isolating your teammates. Getting teammates more touches will keep them involved and allow the offense to come from more than just one or two players each game. 

Alright. Who needs the ball more? 

Everybody. Seriously. Get the ball to everybody else at least a little bit more. Per nba.com's stats site, Westbrook touches the ball far more than any of his teammates, by a huge margin you won't find on other teams. 

Player Avg touches/game
R. Westbrook 96
P. George 56
C. Anthony 53
S. Adams 40
R. Felton 35
J. Grant 30

The gap between Westbrook and Paul George is staggering. Steven Adams' efficiency should warrant him more opportunities. Let's look at some comparisons to other teams to better understand the scope of Westbrook's ball dominance. 

Team: Houston Rockets 

Player Avg touches
J. Harden 83
C. Paul 71
C. Capela 51
E. Gordon 40
T. Ariza 38

Houston is 2nd overall in points per possession at 1.042. Harden, also known as a ball-dominant guard, only touches the ball 12 more times than Chris Paul, compared to the gap of 40 between Westbrook and George. Also, note that Capela is third on the list despite Houston's reputation as a purely three-point shooting team. 

Team: Portland Trail Blazers

Player Avg touches
D. Lillard 82
C. McCollum 59
J. Nurkic 57
E. Turner 38
S. Napier 36

Portland finished the season at 15th in PPP at 0.971. Once again, we see two star guards, a center, and a sixth man as the top four. This is also an example to show that ball movement isn't exclusive to the highest echelon of teams. 

Team: Toronto Raptors

Player Avg touches
K. Lowry 76
D. DeRozan 63
Valanciunas 47
Wright 42
Ibaka 42

Toronto is fourth in PPP at 1.022. Full disclosure: I only picked them as a comparison because they're fun to watch, and once again we see a center in third place after two guards. Post-ups aren't as common as they used to be, but are still going to be a valuable skill so long as centers are holding the ball as often as they do. Toronto's ball movement has been spectacular this year, so it's not surprising to see all five of their most involved players getting the ball more than 40 times per game. 

Team: Cleveland Cavaliers (this list is longer because the Cavaliers have basically had two different teams this season)

Player Avg touches
L. James 87 
I. Thomas 60
K. Love 52
G. Hill 48
D. Wade 47
D. Rose 36
L. Nance Jr. 34
J. Clarkson 34

Cleveland is third in PPP at 1.027. LeBron James an extremely ball dominant player, and yet his teammates still get plenty of touches. Historically, it's made sense to surround James with shooters as he's one of the most threatening slashers all time, but with the passing ability of an all-time great point guard. Even as the focal point of any line up he's in, James has always made an effort to get his teammates open shots from outside rather than try to do everything himself (except for that one time in the Finals where he did everything himself and it was amazing). 

Westbrook's usage percentage, per Cleaning the Glass, is 37.9 percent this season while LeBron sits exactly at 35 percent. As I was saying before, it is possible to have the ball the most without having the ball all the time. This very idea is why people have a renewed faith in the Toronto Raptors, as Lowry and DeRozan have found a way to dictate their team's offense without falling back on forced isolation plays in crunch time. It's also why the two biggest shots in LeBron's career weren't made by LeBron himself. He may have done the heavy lifting to get his team in a position to win championships, but Ray Allen and Kyrie Irving hit the most crucial shots in two of his three titles. The Thunder might not have a reliable shooter off the bench, but it wouldn't hurt to move the ball around and try to find one. 

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