Chris Paul waves away his teammates. The play has fallen apart. Time to save the day. One dribble, then another five, then one more for good measure. He makes a move left then crosses back right. He tries to accelerate past his defender but gets bottled up. He wishes he were young again. One retreat dribble, then another. He fades away and launches a rainbow just over the fingertips of his opponent. His teammates continue to stand still and watch the ball.
“A person is a person only through other persons; you can’t be a human in isolation.” – Desmond Tutu
For the last decade, Oklahoma City Thunder basketball has lived in isolation. Almost every year since they moved from Seattle they’ve been top five in the NBA in “iso” play-type usage. The last two seasons they’ve ranked second in that category behind only the Houston Rockets. This year was supposed to be different.
With the superstars of old shipped out of town, a new era of sharing and caring seemed to be inevitable. Surely the Thunder would have to move the ball around now to have any chance at scoring without Russell Westbrook and Paul George to fall back on.
This has been only partly the case.
Last season OKC ranked dead last in passes made per game with 242.4. They’ve turned that around big time through their first 12 games this season, upping their average to 305.3 passes, good for 5th most in the league. While this is an encouraging trend, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Of those passes, only 7.1% end up leading to assists. That rate is 29th in the NBA ahead of only the dumpster fire that is the New York Knicks.
Players are moving the ball, but not always productively. While there normally isn’t one player just holding onto the ball until he feels like shooting (*cough* Russ *cough*), plays still often end with a single guy having to create for himself. Uncoincidentally, the Thunder find themselves in the top five in isolation usage yet again.
Now to be clear, this is not an inherently bad thing. Plenty of winning teams and all-time great players have thrived by mastering the art of the iso. Just look at James Harden. He’s averaging an insane 39 points per game by putting up 13 isolation field goal attempts per contest, the most in the league by far (LeBron is second with 5 per game).
But is this playtype right for this version of the Thunder? I asked Coach Billy Donovan about his squad’s isolation heavy tendencies. He explained that he doesn’t view the trend as entirely negative, stating that “some of the things that we’re trying to do that are being labeled as isos – we want our guys to do.”
He’s right. Not all isos are created equal. Luckily Donovan seems to be encouraging the right looks. He noted specifically that he lets his guards know: “when there’s a closeout situation, we want them attacking, we want them playing downhill trying to get to the basket.”
This is a sound strategy for some Thunder players. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander attacks the rim on most (76%) of his isos and converts a respectable 50% of the time. Unfortunately, others just aren’t equipped to succeed with that style of play anymore.
Chris Paul has lost a step. Two years ago he was second in league in iso usage (trailing only his then teammate, James Harden) and was still one of the very best in the league at it, scoring 1.1 points per possession (PPP) every time he decided to take his man one-on-one.
Now at age 34, Paul still uses isos on 18.4% of his possessions, 5th most in league. He is completely average at it, scoring only 0.9 PPP. Watch any Thunder game and the difference is clear. Paul’s age has caught up to him. His first step is gone, so he can’t beat anyone off the dribble. He’s still a lethal shooter but defenders know he can’t beat them with his speed, so he’s forced to take way more of his signature stepback mid-range jumpers. Sure it’s fun when they go in, but upon release they always make me cringe.
The numbers back up this observation. So far this year, Paul has had 48 iso possessions. Of those, he has been able to get to the rim and score exactly ONE (1) time.
It’s not a surprise that one make came against the slow-footed 7-footer, Thomas Bryant. When Paul attacks a big-man who was forced to switch onto him, he is far more effective than trying to beat speedier defenders. When attacking a mismatch one-on-one, he shoots has a field goal percentage of 52.4%, 3rd best in the NBA in those situations. In every other isolation attempt, he shoots an abysmal 18.2% FG%, 2nd worst in the NBA.
What does this tell us? Chris needs to pick his spots more. He should try to exploit more bigs like Thomas Bryant and get to the rim so defenses have to respect his drive.
If the Thunder can’t create a mismatch on the perimeter, there are better isolation options available. Danilo Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander have been getting buckets in isolation no matter who guards them.. They each rank in the top ten in isolation efficiency against straight man defense and Gallinari is in the top 20 in iso efficiency overall.
Though using isolations in moderation is certainly a good idea, the Thunder simply win more games when they pass the ball. In their 5 wins this season they made 331.6 passes per contest. In their 7 losses they made only 286.6 passes. While Chris Paul can still get you a possession saving bucket every once in awhile, this team would be best served by focusing more on moving the ball and moving without the ball, especially when the game is on the line. The superstars are gone, it’s time to spread the wealth.
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