Tap into Potential and Win on the Margins

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

Game 76, at home, against a non-playoff team. On the surface, that contest is a classic trap game. For a team that is pushing for playoff seeding, building habits and trying to advance in the postseason, however, it’s a must-win.

In that example, the young 2016-17 Thunder, a group assembled on the fly, fell to the Charlotte Hornets in part because of 24 turnovers and 20 fewer free throw attempts than its foe. In a way, it’s a perfect lesson for the team heading into the summer, after competing in five postseason games as the youngest team in the 2017 playoffs.

There’s individual experience and collective experience in the NBA, and as the Thunder embarks into the offseason, it has a chance to take a breath and take stock of its team and capitalize on some quality time to work together. For the most part, there’s a vision for how a Billy Donovan and Russell Westbrook-led team needs to play, and players in appropriate roles to create a strong framework for the 2017-18 club.

With the franchise stabilized, there’s an opportunity for the Thunder to make strides forward, inside of what already exists on the roster. Internal improvement has always been one of the engines of growth under General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti. It will be again this offseason.

“There's some things on the margins that can help make us a better basketball team going forward,” Presti said. “If we make marginal gains in those areas, I think that would really help put us in a better position to maximize the group.”

The three areas that Presti mentioned as he closed out the Thunder’s 2016-17 season were turnovers, fouling and defensive rebounding. In the regular season, the Thunder ranked 24th in turnovers per 48 minutes with 14.9 per game and 24th in free throw attempts allowed with 24.2. The Thunder mostly did a great job of limiting second chance points and finished amongst the league leaders in defensive rebounding over the course of 82 games. In the postseason, though, that problem flared up as the Thunder allowed 18.4 points after offensive rebounds per game on 10.6 offensive rebounds.

Presti’s conclusion was that if the Thunder can climb up into the middle of the pack in those categories instead of the bottom of the league, its chances of being more efficient on both ends could rise dramatically. With that efficiency comes a better opportunity to achieve a higher playoff seed and chance to advance in the postseason.

“We have to really map out and help our players put into context their season individually, our season collectively as a whole. How to get better, where the avenues are to do that, the things that they learned and the things that we learned about them,” Donovan listed before asking a rhetorical question of himself and his staff. “How do you come together as a group and collaboratively work together to make those kind of improvements?”

At its best, the Thunder can put high level athletes on the floor at every position, get defensive stops then burst out in transition. According to Victor Oladipo, it looks like a “Tasmanian Devil” when the Thunder gets its quick, rangy, springy players out on the break together.

“It's just like, ‘my goodness’,” Oladipo chuckled.

The challenge is how the Thunder can be at its best more often.

During the 2016-17 season, the Thunder ranked third in the NBA in fast break points per game with 16.9 per contest, yet only scored 15.6 points off turnovers, a number that ranked in the bottom half of the league. If the Thunder can be more disruptive on the defensive end and force more turnovers (it forced just 13.7 turnovers per 48 minutes last season, 18th in the NBA), it’ll have even more chances to get Westbrook, Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Steven Adams and Jerami Grant in the open floor.

The Thunder also has shooters and playmakers that can be huge assets in the half court, which is another area where the team can improve this offseason. Just 53.2 percent of the Thunder’s baskets came off assists during the 2016-17 season, but the team is confident that with more continuity next season and the more fully formed roster that Presti has been able to assemble over the past 10 months, the more offensive flow there will be.

Between the massive exodus of three veteran players that the Thunder faced in the summer of 2016, extended injuries Oladipo and Enes Kanter and two in-season trades, there weren’t enough chances to put in specific actions and options for each player. With a full offseason and training camp together, shooters like Doug McDermott believe that the offense can continue to evolve.

Doug McDermott with the floater. Thunder leads Rockets 77-73 headed to Q4.

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“We have the personnel where we can do a lot more movement. We have a lot of shooters out there that can spread the floor. We just need to do some more to make the defense work a little more,” McDermott said. “It can open up more things for everyone out there. I'm excited after talking with Coach Donovan. He's excited for the summer just to be around us more and be able to apply some new stuff out there and get together, watch film, and just improve.”

From a 30,000-foot standpoint, the Thunder is in a good spot. Yes, there are corrections to be made and some tactical decisions that will be evaluated, as they are each summer. Players will need to refine certain skills to elevate themselves to help the team. But with Presti, Donovan and Westbrook at the helm, the Thunder is in strong position to embark forward in its next chapter of basketball, and 10th season, in Oklahoma City.

“We feel really good about the momentum that's been created. We feel really good about the fact that we have navigated to get to this point in time.” Presti concluded. “We've got a young, aspiring growing team to work with that was able to get valuable playoff experience; that's unusual for a group that young. We have obviously an MVP-caliber player in Russell that had an exciting and historical season.”

“I'm excited about it, to be able to go through a summer and hopefully a summer full of guys improving on their games,” Westbrook said.