OKC Thunder: Rotation Changes Could Help Defensive Woes

Nov 16, 2015; Memphis, TN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts to a call in the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Memphis defeated Oklahoma City 122-114. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 16, 2015; Memphis, TN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts to a call in the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Memphis defeated Oklahoma City 122-114. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

Scoring points has rarely been an issue for the Oklahoma City Thunder this season. They’ve had some noticeable struggles but at the end of the day remain the second-most efficient offense in the league behind only the Golden State Warriors.

Defense is another story.

Less than a week ago, the Thunder’s defense appeared to be trending upward and into the top 10. Kevin Durant got hurt and we’re still early in the season, so the hope was when everyone figured out playing together a little better and the team was fully healthy, they could become a top 10 or close to a top five defense.

Defensive issues look more like serious problems when you give up 122 points to the Memphis Grizzlies.

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Last night’s results do come with some excuses. Thunder were on the road for the second night of a back-to-back and without their two best perimeter defenders in Durant and Andre Roberson. The Grizzlies also made 12 of 17 threes, a very good percentage even in an open gym.

But it still feels like this Thunder defense is getting exposed a little too much to take their championship aspirations seriously yet. So what have been the biggest problems on that end?

First, let’s take a look at some of the splits. The Thunder are currently 16th in the NBA with a 101.4 defensive efficiency. In their six home games, their defensive efficiency is really good at 95.8, which would rank them fifth in the league. On the road, that number becomes 107.8, which would rank second to last. Worse defense on the road makes sense and we’re still very early in the season, but that kind of disparity is pretty huge. It’s almost like we’re getting two completely different Thunder teams depending on where they’re playing.

The next thing to look at is the individual defensive ratings. Generally, the starters have good numbers here while the bench players have been pretty poor.

Andre Roberson leads the way with a 92.5 rating, followed by Steven Adams (95.7), Kyle Singler (97.0), Russell Westbrook (99.1), Serge Ibaka (100.7) and Durant (100.8).

Anthony Morrow has the worst rating among the players getting double-digit minutes per night at 110.3. This looks good on Billy Donovan who has practically relegated Morrow to the bench when the team is healthy. Enes Kanter is next at 106.8 then you’ve got Dion Waiters (105.3) and DJ Augustin (104.9).

It’s pretty clear, the Thunder’s bench is really not getting it done on the defensive side of the floor.

That starts with the difference at the point of attack where Augustin is trying to stay in front of defenders rather than Westbrook, and then at the rim where you have Kanter trying to protect instead of Adams and Ibaka. It should also be noted, especially early in the season, that the Thunder went small a lot with their bench unit, often using Durant as the four.

When Kanter and Augustin are off the floor, the Thunder have had a defense giving up less than 100 points per 100 possessions. When they’re out there, that number skyrockets to above 105 points.

There are some obvious personnel issues when it comes to defense for the Thunder. It is the job of a coach to figure out how to hide some of those downfalls. One option that is becoming more clear is starting Kanter instead of Adams.

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The thinking behind this is obvious. You start playing your worst interior defender with the best defenders on the team. It will make Kanter’s job easier and give him a chance to contribute more in general.

In the three games without Durant, Kanter has failed to crack 20 minutes. Donovan’s thinking here is that with the margin for error slimmer, Adams becomes more valuable than Kanter. While that may be true, that same logic can be applied by starting Kanter so that you get the most out of both players.

You can use this same logic and apply it to Waiters/Morrow starting over Roberson, too. Waiters is actually a good defender at times so you would lose much on that end downgrading from Roberson. Morrow may be a more significant defensive downgrade, but being surrounded by the stars means he’ll get more open looks and have a better chance to break out of his shooting slump.

Now, you would be sacrificing offense with the bench unit by starting Kanter and Waiters/Morrow. But it really wouldn’t be hard to find ways to plug a starter or two with bench guys to bolster the offensive attack. It takes a less traditional substitution pattern and a more Spurs/Warriors approach.

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It’s all about getting the most out of every player in the rotation. Donovan has done some different things than Scott Brooks, but 11 games in we still are seeing some of the same problems that have always lingered in OKC. The issues this season go beyond what the rotation is, but some changes there could go a long way. If these same problems persist for much longer, not trying different lineup combinations becomes more and more unacceptable.