Ahead of schedule, the Oklahoma City Thunder has arrived on the NBA scene. The Thunder will head to the All-Star break tied for fifth in the Western Conference, and John Hollinger's playoff odds give Oklahoma City a 95.1 percent chance of making the postseason (as well as, believe it or not, a 4.1 percent chance of winning the title). Not bad for the NBA's youngest team, thought to be a year away from really making any noise.
There are two primary reasons the Thunder has played so well this season. One of them, the rise of Kevin Durant into arguably the league's best scorer, has gotten plenty of attention. The other, subtler explanation is that Oklahoma City has rapidly developed into one of the top defenses in the NBA. After holding the Portland Trail Blazers to 77 points in 91 possessions in Tuesday's first-half finale, the Thunder has moved into third place in Defensive Rating at 104.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, trailing the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic.
"I knew going into the season it was very important to establish a defensive identity," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said before the game. "I also knew that a younger team it's harder to do that, but our guys deserve a lot of credit. They work at it. They challenge each other to be a better defender. It makes it fun to be around our guys, knowing that they're seeing some success but doing it with hard work."
Defense has been a mantra for the Thunder since Sam Presti's arrival as GM prior to the 2007-08 season. In remarking Oklahoma City's roster--only Nick Collison remains from when he took over--Presti has emphasized youth and defensive ability, and the coaching staff has been on board. But things really seemed to click midway through last season with the arrival of a pair of imports from Chicago--assistant coach Ron Adams and perimeter stopper Thabo Sefolosha.
Adams, like Tom Thibodeau in Boston, has been given significant responsibility for implementing the Thunder's defense. While the team saw improvement in the second half of last season after Adams joined the coaching staff on Dec. 31, he's had a better chance to implement his philosophy with a full training camp this year. The key isn't anything exotic Oklahoma City does. In fact, it's the opposite, an approach reminiscent of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers or USC's Student Body Right: Do one thing well.
"We don't really change what we do," explained Collison. "I've been on a lot of teams where game to game we try to change how we're going to guard the pick-and-roll, whether we're going to rotate to a certain guy. We do the same thing, but we really work at it. I think a lot of teams try to win with Xs and Os instead getting good at what they do. We do fundamentals all the time - closeouts, for example. It's almost like basketball camp. I think with a young team that's a good way to go. We've been real solid."
"His segment in practice is defense," added Kevin Durant. "We go over the same things over and over again. It might get boring to us sometimes as players, wanting to do something new, but I think it's helping us. We want to be perfect at it, even though that's not possible, and have it become second nature."
Sefolosha had certainly flashed defensive potential during his first two-plus seasons with the Bulls, but he never was able to claim heavy minutes. The Thunder plugged him as the starting shooting guard opposite Durant and has been rewarded with Sefolosha emerging as one of the league's better individual defenders on the perimeter. According to Basketball Prospectus' numbers, Sefolosha has held opponents 16.8 percent below their usual productivity, backing up that burgeoning reputation. At 6'7", Sefolosha has the size and footspeed to defend any of the three positions on the perimeter.
Additionally, Sefolosha has incredible length, something that is becoming a trademark characteristic for Oklahoma City. While length can be overrated on draft day, the Thunder shows why it is so coveted by front offices. Sefolosha's wingspan wasn't measured by the league, but three other starters are in Draft Express' measurement database. Durant has 7'4" 3/4 arms, longer than those of many centers, while Jeff Green's wingspan was measured at 7'1" 1/4 and point guard Russell Westbrook's at 6'7" 3/4. That length wreaked all sorts of havoc in Portland, with the Thunder coming up with 14 steals. Over the course of the season, Oklahoma City is just seventh in steal percentage, but that's pretty good for a team that prides itself first and foremost on solid position defense and discourages risk-taking.
The latter attribute is what most stood out about the Thunder in person. Playing the kind of conservative defensive style favored in San Antonio and by the Van Gundy brothers, Oklahoma City generally shows on pick-and-rolls and tries to avoid double-teaming when possible. The result is few easy baskets and a heavy percentage of contested attempts. This translates statistically. As Hoopdata.com's Tom Haberstroh has pointed out, according to the site's breakdown of shot locations the Thunder shows no defensive weaknesses. Oklahoma City holds opponents below average from every area of the floor and is second behind Boston in overall effective field-goal percentage allowed.
Consistent rotations may have other benefits. Collison pointed out that part of his improvement in taking charges this year--the two he took Tuesday give him 37 on the year, good for third in the league per Hoopdata.com, after he drew no more than 28 in any of the last three full seasons--can be explained by knowing where opponents will be directed defensively instead of having them come free off the dribble.
In terms of personnel, the Thunder has added another quality piece to the mix this year in rookie Serge Ibaka. Drafted in 2008, the native of the Republic of the Congo is just 20 and has limited high-level basketball experience, but he has forced his way into the rotation with his active defense and gives Oklahoma City a different dimension with his shot-blocking ability. Ibaka is still very much a work in progress on the offensive end and fouls too frequently, but he's shown the potential to complete the Thunder's starting lineup down the road.
As we seek to explain Oklahoma City's improvement at the defensive end from last season, one other factor looms large: Durant's commitment to the defensive end. Even as he struggled at that end during his first two seasons, especially when asked to defend shooting guards as a rookie, Durant flashed the potential to be a quality defensive player. He's made big strides this season in terms of consistent effort and focus, which are reflected in the numbers. The Thunder defends better with Durant on the court and his counterpart stats are even better than Sefolosha's, with opposing small forwards limited an incredible 23.1 percent below their usual productivity. Some of that is cross-matching between the Oklahoma City wings, as well as the quality of the team defense, but that's a major improvement from when players were 4.3 percent more productive than average against Durant.
"Kevin's obviously one of our best players, and if one of your best players does not want to compete at the defensive end, you can't tell the other guys to do it," said Brooks. "The championship team I was on [in Houston in 1993-94]--(Hakeem) Olajuwon was just as good defensively as offensively. He was committed to that end of the floor. That's what it takes. Kevin has to be a defender for us to be good and he has. He's been really good all year long."
The same can't be said of the Thunder as a whole. Right now, it would be an understatement. Oklahoma City has been great defensively, and much more quickly than expected.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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