June 4, 2012; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guards James Harden (13) and Russell Westbrook (center) and forward Kevin Durant (35) react against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half in game five of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at the AT

Where the Oklahoma City Thunder need to improve next season


Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

The Oklahoma City Thunder had a fantastic season in 2011-12 finishing with a 47-19 record and making it to the NBA Finals.

You can never stay the same though from season to season. You have to always be looking to improve to get back to where you were the season before and go beyond. Making it to the NBA Finals last season was a great accomplishment for OKC but it’s going to take even more work to get back there again.

The Thunder want to become a dynasty like the Chicago Bulls and they don’t want to be like the Dallas Mavericks in 2006, lose in the NBA Finals and then get bounced in the first round the following season.

Right now a lot of the flaws the Thunder have are forgivable. They are still such a young team and despite all of their imperfections have proven that they are very capable of winning a title with the current roster they have, playing the style that they do.

There are some obvious areas where the Thunder can improve in to become an even greater team next season.

Assists and Turnovers

The Thunder were last in the league last season in assists and also led the league in turnovers. There is obviously a ton of room for improvement here as there is no reason for them to remain this bad in both of these areas.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are the two players on OKC that have the ball the most and turn the ball over the most. Westbrook turned it over 3.6 times per game last season and Durant 3.8 times. Westbrook had a big drop off in terms of assists per game too averaging just 5.5 per game last season after averaging 8.0 and 8.2 in the two seasons prior. Durant averaged a career-high of 3.5 assists per game last season but can still improve on that number.

Despite turning the ball over more than any team in the league and having the least amount of assists in the league, the Thunder had the second most efficient offense in the NBA and led the league in true shooting percentage. That is a stunning fact and if they are able to improve in the turnover department at least somewhat next season, the potential of their offense will go through the roof.

A lot of the turnover problems for OKC seem to be a product of their lack of movement and rhythm on offense. For such an efficient offense, the Thunder don’t seem to run much and rather rely a ton on isolation play. They were great in isolation settings last season with a 0.87 PPP which was second in the league. The Thunder would still be better off getting more of their offense from the pick-and-roll, off screens or in the post which will also help cut down on their turnovers.

Post play

One of the biggest things you notice when watching the Thunder is how little of their offense comes out of the post. Only 6.71 percent of their scoring came from the post last season and they were 24th in the league with a 0.77 PPP on those plays. The Thunder were 25th in the league attempting 9.0 shots per game from 3-to-9 feet and were 16th in the league shooting just 38.3 percent on those shots.

This is because almost all of the Thunder’s offense comes from Durant, Westbrook and James Harden who do most of their work on the perimeter. The starting bigs for the Thunder, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, get almost no touches down low for the Thunder.

Increasing their scoring in the post will start with Durant who has started to post up more, but still not nearly enough. He is still relatively weak when trying to back defenders down and looks a lot less comfortable looking to score in the paint than when he is out on the perimeter. Nevertheless, Durant is still pretty effective scoring in the post with a 0.89 PPP last season. He doesn’t have many post moves yet but his fadeaway is virtually unguardable and he has a very soft touch around the rim too. The more contact for Durant, the better too. It will just mean more free throws where Durant thrives as much as anywhere.

Westbrook could start getting into the post more as well. Playing point guard Westbrook almost always has a size and strength advantage over whoever is matched up with him. Last year he posted up just over five percent of the time on offense and had a decent 0.77 PPP doing so. It’s an area where Westbrook could see his game evolve similarly to how Chauncey Billups used to do or even Dwyane Wade.

Ibaka may start getting at least some touches in the post next season too. He just signed a 4-year, $49 million contract extension and you’d think the Thunder would like to use him a little more on offense than they have been. He is also supposedly going to be working out with Hakeem Olajuwon some this offseason on his post moves which should help him at least some. Ibaka has a ton of potential and is such an elite athlete, it won’t take much for him to develop a few go-to moves where he becomes effective scoring on the low blocks.

Pick-and-roll defense

Looking at the Thunder’s defensive stats, there’s not a lot that stands out that is wrong with them. They were top 10 in opponent field goal percentage from every spot on the floor and their defense was anchored by the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in Ibaka.

One area where the Thunder were not quite up to par was their pick-and-roll defense. They were 11th in the league vs. the pick-and-roll allowing 0.84 PPP on those plays. That’s not a terrible number but considering they were 4th in the league vs. isolation plays and post-up plays shows that they are capable of improving in this area.

The Thunder were at their weakest on defense when they played small lineups, which is something they will continue to do even more in the future. Durant played the four usually when the Thunder went small and it always left their weakside help defense vulnerable against the pick-and-roll. Durant has shown a willingness to improve his help defense which was very evident in how he played in the medal round of the Olympics but he still just appears to not like having to come over and either take a charge or protect the rim.

For all of Ibaka’s worth on defense, he isn’t the greatest textbook defender either. He often is found biting on pump fakes at the rim which puts the Thunder in no-win situations.

Westbrook can improve here too as he is always gambling on defense including the way he defends the pick-and-roll. The Thunder are able to rely on their superior athleticism to make up for their imperfections on defense but some more discipline vs. the pick-and-roll could go a long way for this team.

Conclusion

It’s not that easy to nitpick the Thunder because they were so great last year. They make up for a lot of what they do wrong with incredible play in other ways. The Thunder will need to improve from last year if they want to get back to the NBA Finals soon and win a title in the near future. They are growing up more every season and making improvements each year as well. We can expect to see more of that next season again.

Tags: Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook Serge Ibaka