The Oklahoma City Thunder have the second-best record in the NBA this season at 39-12. They are the favorite to come out of the Western Conference and play in the NBA Finals. They are doing this despite their four best players being 23 or 22 years old.
The Thunder have been one of the more impressive teams to watch in the NBA this season. Every game they play in is filled with athletic highlights and incredible shot making. It is hard not to love this team and how they are put together.
But are the Thunder built for winning a title? Do the pieces really fit?
The criticism when it comes to the Thunder is usually directed at point guard Russell Westbrook and how he is not a point guard and how he shoots too much. I’ve made the argument that he is of course not a true point guard and is called on to do much more for the Thunder as a scorer as well, resulting in his high shot totals.
The real thing to note about the Thunder is how top heavy they are when it comes to usage rate. Usage percentage rates how much a player uses his team’s possessions counting field goal, free throw attempts and turnovers. This is a good way to help see how efficient a player really is.
I went back to 1980 and took a look at every team that won the title and what each of their player’s usage rates were in the playoffs for that championship run.
In the 1980’s, the teams that won were much more balanced and didn’t really on one star to carry much of the load. In 1985 the Lakers actually had five players with a usage rate of 20.0 or higher. Larry Bird had usage rates of 23.2, 25.9 and 23.3 in his championship years.
Things changed in the 1990’s and mainly because of Michael Jordan. Jordan has the highest usage rate of all-time in the NBA and his playoff usage rates were no exception. He recorded the highest playoff usage rate in 1993 at 38.0. During the Bulls’ title run from 1996-98, Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc averaged usage rates around 35-23-19, respectively.
When the Lakers started winning titles in the 2000’s, the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal duo became probably the best duo ever and their usage rates represented this for how close they were and how high too. Kobe averaged a 28.9 usage rate from 2000-02 and Shaq a 31.6. In 2001 they were the only teammates ever to both have usage rates above 30.0.
In fact, not that many players have usage rates over 30 on championship teams. Take a look at the players that did: Dirk, Kobe, Wade, Duncan, Shaq, Jordan, Olajuwon, Vinnie Johnson and Andrew Toney. So if you are going to shoot a lot, you better be one of the best players ever.
This is where the Thunder come in. Westbrook and Durant both have usage rates over 30.0 this season. Westbrook has a higher usage rate than any point guard to ever start on a championship team. Not only that, but the trio of Durant-Westbrook-Harden’s combined usage rate this season is 85.2, higher than any other trio ever.
Last season in the playoffs when Westbrook received all of the heat for shooting too much, he had a usage rate of 34.4 while Durant was at only 29.0 and Harden 17.1. Again, not all of the blame should go to Westbrook here but that formula definitely isn’t going to work.
This regular season has Westbrook leading the Thunder at 32.7 with Durant at 31.0, Harden 21.5 and Serge Ibaka just 15.3.
I’ve said before that the sort of model the Thunder will need to follow to win a championship is that of the San Antonio Spurs’. They had a high-volume point guard in Tony Parker along with Manu Ginobili who is so similar to James Harden and Tim Duncan who had similar usage rates to Durant’s.
Parker had the highest usage rate ever by a point guard in 2007 at 29.2 when the Spurs won the title. Westbrook would probably need to get around that number for the Thunder to improve their title chances. If he does that it will mean more balance for the Thunder and probably a rise in production from Harden and Ibaka.
The more you look at this Thunder the more you think they probably are one year away still. For Westbrook to get his usage rate down, it’s really just going to take Harden upping his and he is only in his third season this year and if he continues improving next season, this may very well happen. We have already seen instances this season when Harden becomes the primary ball-handler even with Westbrook on the floor.
The other thing that will probably start to happen next year is a growing of Westbrook as a playmaker. His assists are way down this season and that may be because he has become such a dominant athlete and scorer this year. Next year he should learn to better balance that with playmaking helping get Ibaka better involved as well as more looks for Durant and Harden off his passes.
The one thing the Thunder have working for them in terms of winning this season is that their biggest competition in the Eastern Conference, Miami and Chicago, also have issues with their usage rates.
The Heat have a similar top heavy big three in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh who are combining for 87.3 usage rate, even higher than Oklahoma City’s big three. James and Wade are both over 30.0 which is something that only happened once in a playoff run with Kobe and Shaq. The highest usage rates for Jordan-Pippen was in 1993 when Jordan was 38.0 and Pippen 26.2.
An interesting thing happened for the Heat last year in the playoffs with James’ usage rate decreasing from his 2011 regular season mark of 31.5 to 26.9 with Wade’s remaining about the same over 30.0. This is the whole alpha dog issue with the Heat and what LeBron should do in the playoffs. You wouldn’t expect his usage to drop below 30 this postseason and really it should be higher than Wade’s. But we’ve never seen a team win a title with two perimeter players having such high usage rates.
As for the Chicago Bulls, it is no secret that they may rely too heavily on Derrick Rose to make every play on offense. Rose had a usage rate of 35.2 in the playoffs last season, higher than any other player and will likely have to carry a similar load this season, although Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer have improved some.
The toughest test for the Thunder may be the Spurs though. They haven’t shown any signs that they will be able to beat them in a playoff series and the Spurs added some pieces in Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw that will improve their team even more come playoff time. This may not be the year the Thunder win it all but that really isn’t the end of the world. Next year should be their prime time but they still may be able to steal a title this season.
Topics: Chicago Bulls, Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Manu Ginobili, Miami Heat, Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook, San Antonio Spurs, Scottie Pippen, Serge Ibaka, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker