Defensive Rebounding Major Focus for Thunder

Some of the best drills in Thunder training camp don’t involve a basketball at all.

For a team that prides itself on its energy, effort, intensity and effectiveness on the defensive end of the floor, it is understandable that the first few days of training camp would feature a heavy focus on defense. Whether it is denying the ball in man-to-man, communicating and rotating from the help-side or concentrating on the fundamentals of defending pick-and-rolls, Head Coach Scott Brooks’ squad has its sights set on being improved defenders.

“I think we stick with our staples, the things that we have done in the past four or five years together,” Brooks said. “Just try to add to it, add little things here and there. Our core principles have to be addressed every day and so when we go into games, we’re prepared and it becomes natural and we can play with our instincts.”

Fortunately for the Thunder, those core principles Brooks described are already imprinted in most of the players’ psyches before they step on the floor. Team leaders Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison, among numerous others, have been with the Thunder for a significant amount of time by now, meaning they can help newer players understand the most important aspects of the team’s defensive philosophy from the get-go.

“Just trying to start the right way, starting defensively,” Westbrook said. “Defense is our main focus, rebounding (too). … I think we can implement a few new things, but you don’t want to do too many new things; just kind of stick with the same program and try to get better.”

Particularly early on in training camp, the “install” period consists of the basic tenets of the team defense – strategies that those who have been with the program comprehend. The refresher course is valuable not only to reinforce the crucial ideals for team defense, but also to set the tone for the season and get the new guys, like rookie Perry Jones and center Hasheem Thabeet, up to speed.

Since there is so much continuity on the roster, it has been a quick transition for the new Thunder players, meaning Brooks and his staff has the opportunity to implement new concepts into the defense moving forward. Thunder players were expected to improve over the offseason, as was the coaching staff, who studied film and researched new ideas for the upcoming season.

“Every now and then we will add a different scheme to our defense,” Brooks said. “I think as we mature as a group, we can pick up things quicker and retain more of the things that we throw at them.”

From listening to Brooks and Westbrook speak after Thursday’s practice, it is clear that one area of emphasis for the Thunder this season will be on the defensive glass. The team was tied for fifth in the NBA last season in rebounds per game, but allowed 12.7 offensive rebounds per game – a number that Brooks, Westbrook and the Thunder want to decrease this season.

Part of the reason for that number is that the Thunder forced opponents into shooting 42.7 percent from the floor, tied for third best in the league. Regardless, Brooks and the coaching staff hope to hit the defensive glass hard now in training camp to imprint the attitude come November.

“You have to be able to rebound in this league to have success,” Brooks said. “Just look at our rebound numbers. Every time we outrebound a team, our record was really, really good. We do so many things well defensively, I think that’s the one area that we really have to get better at.”

Brooks has a point – the Thunder went 31-5 when outrebounding opponents last season, including 12-1 when outrebounding other teams by 10 or more. Conversely, the Thunder was 1-2 when rebounding numbers were equal, 15-11 when being outrebounded and 0-4 when being outrebounded by 10 or more. The evidence for the Thunder to commit to the defensive boards is out there, and according to Westbrook, it’s just up to the team – starting in training camp – to take pride in finding their man, boxing out, and securing the ball after every opponent’s miss.

“Most of it is just team rebounding,” Westbrook said. “That’s a big key for us. … Just being tougher, taking it upon yourself to stop your guy from getting the rebound, then going and get the ball.”