The team with the most efficient offense in the NBA stubbornly plays a lineup more than any other that is holding them back.
It’s common knowledge now that the best time to outscore the Oklahoma City Thunder is when their starting lineup is on the floor.
When do the Thunder become the scariest offense in the world? When Kendrick Perkins takes to the bench and Kevin Durant plays the four spot.
The Thunder starting five has played together for 698 minutes this season. They have an offensive rating of 106.8 and defensive rating of 98.6, a net rating of 8.2. That’s not bad but it’s less than the team net rating of 9.7.
When the lineup is Russell Westbrook, Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant and either Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison, the Thunder reach new heights.
With Ibaka at the five the offensive rating goes to 120.3 and defensive rating to 99.0, a net rating of 21.4. That lineup posts a true shooting percentage of 65.6.
It gets even better with Collison in at center as the offensive rating is 137.6 and defensive rating 108.4, a net rating of 29.2. That lineup has a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 68.3.
We know why this is. It’s really, really hard for teams to match up with Durant when he is playing the four. So the Thunder offense explodes when they can spread the floor with these lineups. More open 3-point shots are available and the improved floor spacing also leads to a much higher offensive rebound percentage compared to the starting five.
The defense does suffer a little but the overwhelming improvement on the offensive end clearly makes up for that.
What these stats tell are simple. Scott Brooks has a philosophy that the Thunder will win a title because of defense. That’s why Perkins is valued so much and it is true that the Thunder are better defensively with him out there.
So Brooks sees the defense deteriorate without Perkins and he feels this is more important than the fact that the offense is so much better without Perkins. Then whenever Perkins scores a few baskets, gets an offensive rebound or sets a great screen, it makes Brooks lean to the starters even more.
But the numbers don’t lie. Teams can’t keep up with the Thunder when Durant is playing the four. They’re just too good offensively and it’s by far been OKC’s best lineups.
The good news for Thunder fans is that the problem isn’t really Perkins. The Thunder are great with Perkins at the five and Durant at the four too, with a net rating of 22.3 in 40 minutes this season.
But given the way the Thunder rotation goes, it can make it hard to concentrate more minutes with Durant at the four especially when Brooks cares about having the best defensive lineups out there all the time.
This was the case yesterday against the Los Angeles Lakers. Durant hardly played the four at all and it lowered the Thunder to the Lakers’ level.
The challenge for Brooks is the decision between trying to develop a strength (becoming an elite defensive team) or taking advantage of a strength (Durant at the four makes the OKC offense unstoppable).
One reason why Brooks might be smart to not totally commit to Durant at the four is that the Miami Heat will almost undoubtedly be waiting for the Thunder in the NBA Finals again. And they are the only team in the league that have a better version of the small ball lineup right now.