Nerlens Noel calls it quarterbacking the offense, a system where guys can play off of each other and create open shots for one another.
Steven Adams is a little less analytical in his assessment; it's just letting the guards run around and making them do all the work, he says.
Either way you slice it, the Thunder offense has been difficult and chaotic to defend this season in large part because of Adams and Noel’s newfound roles not as play finishers, but playmakers.
Before Adams was even a member of the team, during his one season at the University of Pittsburgh, Thunder front office staff knew there were plenty of layers to his game. Adams has continually made strides in his skill development during his seven seasons, but there’s an underlying talent that has been there since he first stepped inside the Thunder Ion.
“He's always had a knack for passing,” Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan said.
On the first night of free agency in the summer of 2018, Donovan and Thunder players were on the phone with Noel, making him a top priority to sign. Noel was coming off an under-utilized season in Dallas where he played just 30 games as a 23-year-old.
Donovan, who had (unsuccessfully) recruited Noel out of high school, and Thunder General Manager Sam Presti both saw there was more to Noel’s game than just blocking shots and dunking lobs.
“One thing about him that I don't think people realize is he's a good passer, and we've got to figure out how we use that,” Presti said back in 2018.
‘VERSATILE AND UNPREDICTABLE'
For more than a decade, Thunder fans could expect how many possessions would play out. Ball up at the top of the key in the hands of an All-Star point guard, then either a high screen and roll in the middle of the floor or a set of screening actions off the ball to get an All-Star forward a catch on the wing in triple-threat position. When you have dynamic, once-in-a-generation-type players, that’s just what you do. You get the ball in their hands to make a play.
At the start of the 2019-20 season, the Thunder had zero returning All-Stars on the roster and an imperative to generate offense in different and more unpredictable ways.
“The strength of this team is moving the ball and transition offense, not by the isos that we get,” forward Danilo Gallinari said.
“The offense we have is going to be drives and cuts,” said Noel. “The more they naturally can instinctually find the next man, the next pass, it'll just flow.”
With a trio of point guards in Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder, there was always going to be a lot of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops, which we’ve seen this season.
The wrinkle, though, is a lot of times those screening actions at the top of the key don’t originate with a point guard standing above the arc and surveying the whole floor. Instead, it’s Adams or Noel, holding the ball at the elbows or free-throw line, watching as guards and wing players screen off ball for one another, cut backdoor to the rim or slice up around the three-point arc to come receive a hand-off.
Those periphery screens are called “split actions” and they’re a staple of NBA offenses that have multiple guards who can catch and shoot from three, cut backdoor or handle in pick and roll. Notably, the Golden State Warriors ran those sets with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on their way to three NBA championships in four seasons. Those same actions have helped the Thunder’s three point guards flourish; Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder have combined to average 56.0 points per game while all shooting 46 percent or better from the field.
Young wings like Terrance Ferguson, Darius Bazley, Abdel Nader, Hamidou Diallo and Deonte Burton have benefitted from this structure as well. They’re able to cut and move without the ball to create separation from their defender before they ever have to make a decision. In a league that often moves very quickly for a young player, having a step or two advantage before even receiving the ball can be extremely valuable.
“You can drive, shoot, pass, get it back to the bigs,” Nader said. “It's really versatile and unpredictable, and that's why Billy has incorporated so much into our offense.”
“You’re trying to create movement and cutting to get those guys to be able to play to their strengths athletically,” noted Donovan.
‘TRYING TO EXPLOIT’
More and more opposing defenses are eschewing offensive rebounds for transition defense, making the Thunder’s ability to get out into the open floor to play in space difficult.
Instead, the Thunder has to create space and carve out passing angles and driving lanes to the hoop through its movement in the half-court. As Adams quipped, it’s much better for shifty, speedy guards to do all that moving around than 7-footers.
Adams surveys up top as a sea of eight bodies constantly rotates in random patterns around him, a sentinel awaiting a sliver of space to find the right teammate like a searchlight scanning the ocean. Sometimes, a wave of motion carries the ball out of Adams’ hands towards the strong side of the floor, then a skip pass sweeps it to the opposite side. In that current, opportunities to slice through the middle of the floor open up.
“The offense is just trying to swing from side-to-side,” Adams said plainly. “The defense has to think about a lot more things, and it gives them a lot more opportunity to try and mess up. Then we can try to take advantage of that.
“You’re trying to exploit them if there’s one mistake. That’s what movement does,” he continued. “You’re trying to add up those steps that they’re behind.”
As a result of the new alignment, Adams’ assists per game are up to 2.5, a career high. His assists per-36 minutes are double what they were a season ago. While the passing highlight of the season for Adams was the heave he threw to Schröder for a buzzer-beating, game-tying layup that forced overtime, nearly every player on the team has interacted with Adams the passer this season. In fact, Adams ranks third on the Thunder in passes made at 44.5 per game.
By the numbers, the Big Kiwi’s favorite target is Schröder, whom he’s found on backdoor cuts to the rim on numerous occasions. Adams can either drop in a pass over the top using his length or slip in a perfectly-timed bounce pass for an easy bucket.
“We need to give it to (Adams), and then we need to cut and move and let him kind of dictate the pick and roll,” Donovan described. “When we do that, we get over the top and we get downhill. We generally find the next player who’s playing at an advantage because his guy is closing out to him.”
Sometimes, though, Adams’ passes don’t directly lead to a shot. Only 5.6 percent of his passes lead to scores, but the way he initiates the action often starts the sequence of slight advantages that lead to a shot or drive. Many times, the handoffs he delivers to Thunder guards and wings rushing to the top of the key in what’s called a “get action” don’t register as an assist, but Adams delivered the ball and set the screen all the same.
“He's a natural basketball player. He's so selfless,” Noel said of Adams. “He's not worried about stats. He just wants to hoop.”
Noel’s season has been eerily similar to Adams’. At 1.0 assists per game, Noel isn’t at a career high, but that figure is nearly double his average from last year as well. Also like Adams, Noel’s per-36 assists are the second highest of his career and he ranks sixth on the team in passes made, playing similarly like a conductor out on the floor.
More than anything, it’s been fun. This new style of play for Adams and Noel has been invigorating. The ball carries energy with it, and this season that energy is flowing through all five players’ hands on every possession. While Adams and Noel were used to being play finishers, they’re now starting to permeate the confidence and swagger that guards often carry with them.
"This ain't nothing new,” Noel grinned. “I always thought I was a point guard in my head, in a 6-11 body. I'm excited to keep showing how I can pass the ball. I want to get even more sauce on it, throwing some alley oops.”
“I can still get in my bag and hit a little Magic Johnson or something every now and then,” he said, chuckling.
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