2019 Summer Feature Series: Focus on the Fundamentals
For 29 NBA teams, when a season ends there is a swirl of emotion. An appreciation for the experience, regardless of the ultimate result. A yearning for another chance at competition. A frustration at the mistakes and a feeling of satisfaction of jobs well done. Yet still, they’re all emotions, fleeting and fickle.
For an NBA front office, all that must be stripped away in order to make the proper judgment about the steps ahead. Stepping back, debriefing with key stakeholders in the organization and taking stock of all of the different factors in play is how the Thunder will tackle its offseason.
“Our job isn't to just sit here and react to things,” Thunder General Manager and Vice President Sam Presti noted. “It's to be methodical as we go through things, understand how we can get better, what the plan is for that.”
More than likely based on where the Thunder is strategically, the team’s greatest path for improvement is going to be the development and growth of its current core group. That means adding elements to each players’ games, another summer of physical maturation and more continuity with the main rotation players.
“Internal development is a lot of creativity, imagination, and you've got to stick with that through the years,” said Presti. “We've seen that with different players in the league, regardless of age.”
Part of that improvement doesn’t necessarily come in the weight room or in pick up ball over the summer. It comes in between the lines on the court during the 82 games in 2019-20. It comes in the form of focus, commitment to principles and concentration on small details that truly matter. That switch doesn’t get turned on once the season begins. That has to be a part of not just the physical but more importantly the mental regimen over the offseason.
In the toughest moments of the season and in games, when fatigue sets in and the competitive nature of those demanding 48 minutes reaches its apex, the Thunder must rely on fundamental principles like spacing, ball movement and making the extra pass.
“When the ball is moving, we generate pretty good shots, open shots, and when the ball is stagnant, we take tougher shots,” Presti said. “If you've watched the Thunder over 10 years, you pretty much know that.”
There is another crucial fundamental that the Thunder must improve upon this upcoming offseason, and that is free throw shooting. Center Steven Adams mentioned it immediately in his end of season press conference that his 50 percent mark at the free throw line this past year wasn’t good enough. For the season, the Thunder got to the free throw line the sixth-most times per game, but shot just 71.3 percent from the stripe, 28th in the NBA. Getting to the line is one of the most efficient ways high-level NBA offenses produce points, but the Thunder didn’t convert.
“We've talked to a lot of people about that, and one thing is we'll have a plan on that,” Presti said about the free throw shooting.
“It's like leading the league in walks and pickoffs,” Presti added, making a baseball analogy. “We're there, we're doing the hardest thing, but we're not capitalizing.”
In the flow of a game, particularly in the first half, a free throw here or there might not seem like a life-or-death proposition. Yet in looking at the numbers, those points make a massive difference in the outcome of a season. The Thunder finished 5.3 percentage points below the NBA league average from the free throw line. The difference in points based on the Thunder’s 25.0 free throw attempts per game was 1.35 per game. The Thunder’s point differential during the season was plus-3.4 per game, 9th in the NBA. Add an extra 1.35 points to that and the Thunder would have ranked 6th in that department, above Boston, Portland and Denver.
“Our free-throw shooting, if it just gets to league average, would have a significant impact on our offensive rating and our net rating as a result,” Presti noted.
Watch: Focus on the Fundamentals
Across the league, there’s much consternation amongst fans of all teams about not their team’s free throw shooting, but one of the lowest percentage shots on the floor - three-pointers. During the regular season, the Thunder attempted the 7th-most corner three-pointers and was less than one percentage point behind the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets in overall three-point percentage. High-level NBA three-point shooting is challenging, and is surely something every team is focused on, but where the Thunder has a chance to improve next season are in some of the most easy, fundamental aspects of shooting in other areas of the floor.
“Much has been made about our shooting in general, and we're probably more focused on efficiency than we are just going up and shooting, but shooting happens all over the floor,” said Presti.
As evidence, look no further than Presti's walks and pick-offs analogy. There are many examples from the 2019-20 season.
Shooting on Putbacks: 1st in offensive rebounds, 27th in putback field goal percentage (50.9%)
Shooting in Transition: 3rd in field goals attempted, 21st in field goal percentage (51.4%)
Shooting within 5 Feet: 7th in field goals attempted, 21st in field goal percentage (60.4%)
If the Thunder converted those chances around the rim and out in the open floor at the middle of the pack instead of the bottom 10 in the league, that’s even more loose change to add to the team’s nightly point differential.
“It's all these little games within the game that you have to be really good at,” said Presti.
In the scope of one game, these areas – free throw shooting, finishing at the rim and scoring in second chances and in transition – might comprise of only 3-to-4 points within those 48 minutes. However, most NBA games come down to one or two possessions, and that 3-to-4 points can prove absolutely vital in terms of time, score and situation to ignite or prevent a last-second comeback.
“It's like leading the league in walks and pickoffs. We're there, we're doing the hardest thing."
-GM Sam Presti
Over the course of the season, however, those marginal gains make an incredible difference. A team’s net rating often correlates cleanly with wins, and a jump of 3-4 points in net rating can be the difference between 45 and 50 wins or 50 and 55 wins, and all of the seeding and postseason ramifications that can ensue.
“The margins for error are small, in the Western Conference for sure, but to me that's one of the things about competition that doesn't bother me,” said Presti. “Sometimes you lose. Competing doesn't mean you only compete when the wind is at your back. We're not entitled to anything. We don't come into the year expecting to just automatically be served up opportunities to play in the Playoffs. You've got to earn those.”
The Thunder has to go out and put it all on the line and of course have some things go their way. Setting up the pins is half the battle, but that means being able to do the basic things as well or better than everybody else, with the hope that talent and a little luck win out in vital moments.
“You've also got to perform when you get (to the playoffs), and we haven't done that, so we've got to figure out what that is,” Presti stated. “We've never been shy about the fact that like we've got to go out and do the work.”