Imagine a scene. The game is tied, mere seconds remain on the clock. Damian Lillard dribbles patiently in the backcourt waiting to strike. Who do you see guarding him?
Two years ago the answer would’ve been Andre Roberson (and you were probably getting that stop). Last year it would’ve been Paul George (and you would’ve had your heart broken).
Andre Roberson is still hurt. Paul George has left the OK prairie for the LA spotlight. With those two elite wing defenders gone, how are the Thunder still among the best defensive teams in the league so far this season? And who should they turn to now for crucial stops with the game on the line?
Though it’s still too early to be certain if they’ll maintain their elite play, the Thunder’s overall defense has been excellent through six games. They’ve ranked 3rd in the league in “Points per Possession” allowed (every possession they are on defense they allow an average of only .88 points) and are even 1st in opponent’s effective field goal percentage (45.9%). It is important to note that effective field goal percentage is weighted by 3-point shooting, so the Thunder’s early luck with opponents missing wide open 3s has helped boost that ranking, but still.
The Thunder’s deep rotation of wing defenders has been a crucial part of their success. There are five players that have an argument (some weaker than others) for the title of best perimeter defender on the team. Being able to utilize each of them based on their respective strengths and weaknesses in any given situation is a huge advantage for Coach Billy Donovan.
“Any of those guys on the perimeter, we feel pretty good with any of those guys matching up.” – Billy Donovan
Donovan’s go-to guy, especially early in games, has been Terrence Ferguson. Looking closely at NBA tracking data, we see that Ferguson has matched up against the other team’s best perimeter player (Mitchell, Beal, Curry, Harden, Lillard, Holiday) for over twice as many minutes of gameplay as anyone else on the Thunder. Donovan trusts him to be their primary star-stopper night in and night out.
While Ferguson has been a quality defender in most games, providing constant energy and grit, his defensive statistics are unimpressive largely due to his tough matchups. His Defensive Rating (which shows how many points he allows on defense per 100 possessions) is at a personal low. He is also last out of the Thunder’s main wing options in Defensive Win Shares (a metric that estimates how many games a team will win as a result of each player’s defensive efforts). Still, he’s the guy Donovan trusts most to slow down elite scorers over the course of a long game.
The one game Ferguson sat (after 5 minutes of play) due to flu-like symptoms, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took over Fergurson’s main defensive assignment and didn’t disappoint. Shai held Jrue Holiday to 1/5 shooting with no assists and a turnover in the 4.5 minutes of gameplay he matched up with him on defense. Though he’s not being asked to play the role yet, Shai has shown flashes on defense that hint he could be the Thunder’s go-to lock-down defender down the road. Especially when players try to get up shots at the rim past his insanely long arms (he leads the team in Field Goal % allowed at the rim and blocks a non-center team high of 28% of shots taken against him), it is easy to salivate over his defensive potential.
While it helps that they more often face fellow bench players, the backup duo of Dennis “Schroooooder” Schröder and Hami “Hami See, Hamidou” Diallo might be even better than their starting counterparts on the defensive end. Schröder is 5th in the entire league in Defensive Win Shares and is the Thunder’s top guard in Defensive Rating.
“Dennis is a pest, man… Dennis is one of those guys you hate to play against, but you love to have on your team.” – Chris Paul
At first glance, he looks like he might be OKC’s statistical best, but his deficiencies throw that into question. Dennis loves to get aggressive on the perimeter, and he has a team high 3.3 fouls per-game average to show for it. While he’s certainly a “pest” in the backcourt, he still gets dominated at the rim, allowing opponents to shoot 69% on shots at the basket, the worst rate on the team.
Now that young Hami Diallo has improved upon his own fouling troubles, his defensive ability looks incredibly well rounded. He is 2nd on the team in Points Per Possession allowed as the primary defender. He leads the team in Steal Percentage (he snatches the ball away from his matchup an impressive 15.1% of the time they dribble at him). Every game, Hami provides uncontainable effort chasing his assignment around the court and only allows 15.4% of his man’s shots to come at the rim. He’s still growing, but Diallo has been my personal favorite to watch on defense this season.
Even with all these options, when it comes down to it, Chris Paul is still the man handling Damian Lillard as time winds down. The 34-year-old is no longer the defensive menace of his prime, when he led the league in steals for four consecutive season. These days he spends most of his time hanging out on some one-dimensional shooter as his younger teammates handle the more taxing matchups. Still, when they need a stop, Paul is up for the challenge.
Out of all the defensive metrics that we looked at, last year Paul George led the team in nearly every single category (1st in Def Win Shares, Opponents FG%, Opp FG% at the rim, Steals, Steal %, Defensive Rating). The fact that a different player leads the Thunder in each of those categories this year speaks to their depth.
Still, to try and crown anyone of them as the best defender in OKC is a tricky task. When looking at the numbers, we must avoid letting any one statistic sway our opinion too greatly, especially when we don’t fully understand the context behind it.
For now, there is no clear answer. While depth is great, the lack of a true defensive star is showing. The Thunder rank 4th in overall opponents point per game, yet are 24th in points allowed in clutch time (according to NBA.com and Synergy Sports, like all the other stats in this article). When the game was on the line against Portland, Damian Lillard seemed to score with ease. Until one of the many good Thunder wing defenders becomes great, expect the close last-minute losses to continue to come.
Connor Ayubi is the newest member of The Franchise’s OKC Thunder insider coverage team. An Oklahoma native, he now studies Economics and Sport Analytics at Rice University. Connor has experience leading the analytics team for Rice Men’s and Women’s basketball, consulting for Rocnation Sports, and preparing the Phoenix Suns for the 2019 NBA Draft with his scouting and analysis. Follow him on Twitter @AyubiNBA