It used to be so simple. Every possession you knew what to expect. Russell Westbrook would take up the ball. Russell Westbrook would dribble the ball until he got tired of dribbling. Russell Westbrook would shoot the ball (or he would fly to the rim and attempt an alley-oop pass or cross-court fling that resulted in a turnover about 1/3 of the time). No matter the score, no matter the quarter: Oklahoma City’s offense ran through Russ.
In his 2016-17 MVP campaign, Westbrook set the NBA’s all-time record for usage rate. When he was on the court he shot the ball, got to the free throw line, or committed a turnover on 41.7% of his Thunder’s possessions (according to NBA.com, as all other statistics in this article are).
That number is already absurdly high. But down the stretch of games, things became even more Russ-centric. In fourth quarters during 2016-17, Westbrook’s usage rate jumped to 50.9%. Only a handful of players have ever topped 40% in that stat, and no one else has even approached 50%. Kobe Bryant’s third best teammate in 2005-06 was f—ing Smush Parker and the notorious volume shooter only hit 45% (the second highest mark ever).
Usage Rate = 100*((Player’s Field Goal Attempts)+0.44*(Player’s Free Throw Attempts)+(Player’s Turnovers))*(Team’s Total Minutes) / ((Team’s Total Field Goal Attempts)+0.44*(Team’s Total Free Throw Attempts)+Team’s Total Turnovers))*5*(Player’s Minutes)
It’s hard to justify any player dominating that much of his team’s action. But reminiscing on Russell’s reign as ruler of the prairie does provide shocking contrast with this year’s Thunder team. A contrast that makes one of their biggest deficiencies even more clear: Oklahoma City is missing a go-to guy.
Almost a quarter of the way into the season, Oklahoma City sits at 6 wins and 11 losses. Of those defeats, 7 have been by less than 5 points. That’s more than any other team in the league. We haven’t seen this many competitive Ls since Jack “Fifle the Rifle” Fife took on Texas back in 2017.
It’s an exciting trend for the tank supporters, but a frustrating one for the players. Every night they come so close, only to fall just short.
Many point to third quarter struggles as a reason for the Thunder’s repeated fate. They consistently dig themselves into holes they don’t quite have the talent to climb out of. Over the course of the season they’ve been outscored by an average margin of 5.2 points every third quarter. That’s the second worst margin for any team… in any quarter.
But this team is scrappy and full of fight. Even though they often go down big in the second half, they always push back into a position to win… and then most often blow it anyways.
What the Thunder need is a true closer.
Sometimes it looks like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is ready to be that guy. The 21-year-old budding star is already ahead of developmental schedule and has proven he can handle being OKC’s top scoring option, at least to start off games.
He leads the team in points with 19 per game on quality efficiency from all over the court (see: What Makes Shai a Walking Bucket). But when the Thunder’s offense stalls and another third quarter starts to fall apart, or the Thunder need a string of buckets to close out a close match, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is still not ready to be the closer.
He has his moments, no doubt, but overall the Thunder actually do better when he isn’t the focal point of the offense to finish games. In their 11 losses, Shai leads the team in both fourth quarter usage rate with 27.4% and shot attempts per minute with .53. But OKC’s 6 wins have come when he takes a backseat. In those victories he has a usage of only 14.3% and attempts less than half as many shots per minute, .24, both only sixth on the team.
It’s good to see the Thunder trusting in their talented youth core, of which Shai is the most talented and almost the most youthful. Getting in-game opportunities to perform is key for their development and OKC’s front office is well aware of that. But when the game is on the line, the focus shifts from the future to winning right now. And that means letting the veterans take control.
Coach Billy Donovan has been pushing that strategy…but perhaps in favor of the wrong veteran.
Although it is dwarfed and nearly doubled by Russell Westbrook’s ridiculous record rate, Chris Paul is still the man leading the Thunder with a fourth quarter usage of 26.5%. He used to be the guy, but his scoring edge has dulled with age. He’s still an elite playmaker for others, so the ball is in his hands often down the stretch. His mental impulses seem to be unaffected by his physical limitations though, so when he has an opening to get off a shot, he’s not shy to take it. He puts up just as many as Shai in the fourth (on similar efficiency).
Paul has been solid overall, but he’s still not at the level necessary to be considered a true closer for the Thunder. There’s a reason that even as OKC’s top man, his fourth quarter usage rate is only the 38th highest rate in the league. All but two other teams have at least one player ahead of Paul in that statistic. He’s a closer by default, but the Thunder have to wish they had a another choice. At this point in his career, he’s better off deferring to a more polished scorer down the stretch, someone who you can consistently rely on to step up in big moments.
When Sam Presti made the trade for Danilo Gallinari, he at least had hope that the 6’10” Italian marksman would be their man. Gallinari has quickly proven to be the most consistently effective offensive weapon on the Oklahoma City Thunder, and as an 11 year NBA veteran is well equipped to step up to any moment against any matchup.
Out of Isolation, Pick and Roll, Post-Up, doesn’t matter, Gallo ranks in the top 10% of all NBA players in Points Per Possession in all of them. That dynamic scoring doesn’t disappear in fourth quarters either. He’s led OKC in Offensive Rating (120.9) in the final period all season, yet only has a usage of 20%, lower than bench guys like Dennis Schröder and Hamidou Diallo.
Danilo has proven capable of both creating for himself and scoring off-ball with help from OKC’s two higher usage guards. Let him run the pick and roll with Stevan Adams, have him run off screens in half court sets. With the diversity of his skill-set, there’s no one right way to use Gallinari. But when the third quarter is falling apart or they need a late bucket, he should be the go-to guy for the Thunder every night.
No need to force-feed him to the degree that Russ force-fed himself, but if OKC can start moving the ball down the stretch with the primary intent of getting Gallo a shot, a few more of those tight losses might swing the other way. And the pro-tankers will be forced to suffer through another win.
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