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Healthy Durant provides tonic to improve Thunder

POSTED: Oct 8, 2015 11:44 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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Thunder vs. Timberwolves

Russell Westbrook scored 14 points to go with 13 assists as the Thunder beat the Timberwolves 122-99 on Wednesday night.

A year ago, it wasn't hard to predict what team would team would be most improved offensively. LeBron James' teams had ranked in the top six in offensive efficiency for six straight years and he was going back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had ranked 23rd in 2013-14.

And indeed, the Cavs were the most improved offensive team last season, scoring 6.4 more points per 100 possessions than they did the season before. The Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, who got Derrick Rose and Al Horford back from injury, were also among the five most improved teams in offensive efficiency in '14-15. Talent, when healthy, is kind of an important thing in this league.

Most improved OffRtg 2014-15
Team 2013-14 Rank 2014-15 Rank Diff.
Cleveland 101.3 23 107.7 4 6.4
Chicago 99.7 28 104.7 10 5.0
Golden State 105.3 12 109.7 2 4.4
Atlanta 103.4 15 106.2 6 2.9
Toronto 105.8 9 108.1 3 2.2
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

Statistically, the most common theme among the five teams above was better shooting, which has always been the most important aspect to offense. All five saw an increase in effective field goal percentage, with the Cavs going from the fourth worst shooting team to the fourth best.

But just as important as shooting better was shooting from better spots. All five teams increased the percentage of their shots that came from the restricted area and from 3-point range, while reducing the percentage that came from in between.

Change in percentage of shots from each area 1314 to 1415
Team Rest. area Other 2PT 3PT
Cleveland +2.3% -12.2% +9.9%
Chicago +1.1% -5.7% +4.7%
Golden State +1.5% -3.5% +2.0%
Atlanta +2.2% -2.7% +0.5%
Toronto +1.9% -3.5% +1.6%

League-wide, restricted area shots were worth 1.20 points per attempt last season and 3-pointers were worth 1.05, while other 2-pointers were worth just 0.79. Reducing the amount of mid-range shots you take can increase your efficiency, even if you don't shoot better from any particular area.

Four of the five above teams also saw a reduction in turnover rate, which was a particularly important factor for both Chicago and Toronto. Both committed 1.4 fewer turnovers per 100 possessions than they did in '13-14.

So what teams will climb the rankings in offensive efficiency this season? Here are the leading candidates:

Oklahoma City

2014-15: 104.5 (11th)

The Thunder ranked in the top five in offensive efficiency in 2010-11, '11-12 and '12-13. Russell Westbrook missed 36 games in '13-14 and they ranked seventh. Kevin Durant missed 55 games last year and they ranked 11th.

Nothing too complicated here. If Durant can go from playing 27 games to playing 65 or more, it's safe to say that the Thunder will be a much better team ... on both ends of the floor.

What's interesting is that the Thunder were better offensively with only Westbrook on the floor last season (109.8 points per 100 possessions) than they were with Westbrook and Durant on the floor together (107.6). The fact that Durant never played more than 12 games in a row certainly played a part in that.

Still, something to look for is how much Billy Donovan staggers Durant's and Westbrook's minutes. Scott Brooks typically subbed them in and out together. Over those last three seasons in which both players were healthy, Westbrook played a total of just 559 minutes (2.4 per game) without Durant.

Either way, a healthy Durant puts OKC at the top of this list.

Miami

2014-15: 101.5 (22nd)

Despite the loss of Chris Bosh, the Heat scored the same number of points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break as they did before it. Goran Dragic arrived in a deadline trade, pushed the pace (no team increased its pace after the All-Star break more than the Heat), and gave the offense a lift. Dragic scored more fast-break points in 26 games with the Heat (115) than Mario Chalmers scored in 80 games (94).

Now, Bosh and Dragic get to play together for the first time. Two seasons ago, the Suns scored 1.25 points per possession when Dragic and Channing Frye ran a pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop), the best mark among high-volume pick-and-roll combinations that season. Bosh isn't the shooter that Frye is, but good luck trying to defend Dragic-Bosh pick-and-pops on the side of the floor.

If Dragic can also help Dwyane Wade recover some of the scoring efficiency that he lost last season, the Heat could be a top-10 offensive team.

Detroit

2014-15: 102.3 (17th)

Before last year's Warriors, the last team to rank in the top two in both offensive and defensive efficiency was Stan Van Gundy's Orlando Magic in 2009-10. This year's Pistons won't be nearly that good, but they'll look a lot more like those Magic than last year's Pistons, because they now have floor spacing at the four.

As talented as Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe are, they didn't fit well together. The Pistons weren't awful when the two shared the floor, but they were much better when one of them was on the bench.

In fact, in 409 minutes in which Drummond and Reggie Jackson were on the floor without Monroe last season, the Pistons scored an amazing 116.2 points per 100 possessions. It's a small sample size but a clear indication that Jackson/Drummond pick-and-rolls need better floor spacing.

Jackson averaged 8.3 drives per 36 minutes in his 50 games with the Thunder last season. In his 27 games with the Pistons, he averaged 14.6 drives per 36 minutes. But that number was 9.7 with both Drummond and Monroe on the floor and 16.9 with one or both on the bench.

This season, there's never going to be two interior bigs on the floor at the same time for Detroit. And that could result in a big jump in offensive efficiency.

Indiana

2014-15: 100.8 (24th)

Some fun trivia: Six offenses have been at least one point per 100 possessions worse than the league average in each of the last three seasons. All six are in the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers, of course, are one of those six teams. They've been the best defensive team over the last three years, but have been rather anemic offensively, with shooting and turnovers both being major issues.

Now, it's time to turn the page. Paul George has been moved to the four to spread the floor and Monta Ellis has been added to attack the basket. And with George Hill and C.J. Miles, the Pacers have a couple of solid 3-point shooters to punish defenses when the other two are making plays.

Success isn't going to come overnight and the Pacers are still a couple of pieces away from being a great offensive team. But they should take a significant step forward on that end of the floor.

Philadelphia

2014-15: 93.0 (30th)

The Sixers could improve as much as the Cavs did last season and still rank in the bottom five in offensive efficiency. That's how bad they were in '14-15. In fact, scoring 10 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, they were the worst offensive team of the last 12 years.

Brett Brown's team takes the right kinds of shots. Only the Rockets (74 percent) took a greater percentage of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range than the Sixers (68 percent) last year. But there's a difference between taking shots and making shots.

There were 37 players in the league that shot less than 32 percent on at least 125 threes last season. Six of the 37 played for the Sixers. Six!

The Sixers also ranked last in turnover rate, coughing the ball up almost 18 times per 100 possessions. Reducing that number by one or two could go a long way.

They still lack a real starting point guard, but Isaiah Canaan is probably an offensive upgrade from Michael Carter-Williams. While MCW shot 27 percent from outside the paint last season, Canaan (51-for-118, 43.2 percent) was the only player to shoot better than Stephen Curry (147-for-346, 42.5 percent) on at least 100 pull-up 3-pointers. Canaan also had a much lower turnover rate than Carter-Williams.

Rookie Jahlil Okafor gives the offense a focal point and some of the Sixers' young guys should see improvement. There's no safer prediction in this league than Philly being a bottom five offensive team again. And a couple of teams below will probably be more improved offensively than this one. But given how bad they were last year, the Sixers can do nothing but get better.

Other possibilities

Charlotte (97.6 -- 28th) -- Lance Stephenson was the league's worst shooter (effective field goal percentage of 31.1 percent) from outside the paint last season, so trading him to L.A. was an addition-by-subtraction move. Nicolas Batum had a down year from the perimeter, but ranks seventh in field goal percentage in the restricted area among players who have attempted at least 300 shots there over the last two seasons.

Houston (104.2 -- 12th) -- Last year's Rockets set an NBA record with 2,680 3-point attempts and took only 11 percent -- the lowest rate we've ever seen -- of their shots from mid-range. But turnovers (only Philly committed more per 100 possessions) kept them out of the top 10 in offensive efficiency. The hope is that Ty Lawson can ease some of the burden on James Harden and help the Rockets take care of the ball better.

Milwaukee (100.5 -- 25th) -- Monroe will be a much better fit here than he was in Detroit. The problem is that the Bucks have two perimeter starters -- Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo -- who shot worse than 25 percent from 3-point range last season. So a jump in the offensive rankings will depend upon internal improvement as much as it does upon the additions of Monroe and (a healthy) Jabari Parker.

New York (97.1 -- 29th) -- Carmelo Anthony is healthy and the Knicks added some talent around him. But there remains a question of what kinds of shots they'll get out of the Triangle offense. It's not a good sign that 29 (37 percent) of their 78 shots in their first preseason game came from mid-range. That's right in line with last year's number (35 percent), which was the highest in the league.

Washington (101.8 -- 19th) -- The Wizards are still starting two bigs together, but they've added more flexibility at the forward positions and, when they start going to their bench, will space the floor for John Wall and Bradley Beal like they did in the playoffs. #PlayoffWittman could be here to stay.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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