Moore: A Glimpse Inside the Havoc Generator, Oklahoma City’s Voracious Defense

Feb 20, 2019 10:13 PM EST
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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Paul George and Steven Adams defending Luka Doncic

  • The Oklahoma City Thunder boast a top-five defense this year, which has been the biggest reason for their terrific 37-20 start.
  • Below, Matt Moore dives deep into the unit, what makes it elite and how it's different from years past.

It’s chaos and control. It’s turning your plan into broken pieces. It’s length, athleticism, physicality, speed, savvy and sheer determination, all given shape and form and unleashed on you, the poor sucker trying to keep the ball.

Welcome to Oklahoma City’s havoc generator, and possibly the best defense in the NBA.

The only way to play defense well in the NBA, especially in this modern, arcade-mode NBA, is to care so much about the act of defense that you thrive on the other team’s failure in the moment.

Want to build a modern elite defense in the age of offensive dominance? I’ll tell you how, using the Thunder as our model.

Defense has assuredly been compromised lately. The best Defensive Rating in the league this season (held by Milwaukee) would rank eighth-best in the NBA in 2014, five years ago. Every elite player has expressed dismay with how difficult it is to contain offenses now, not only with the rules around freedom of movement but also the spacing and execution teams bring to the table.

However, the great teams are still great. Boston, Utah, Miami and San Antonio have all regularly fielded top-10 defensive teams over the last five seasons, along with Oklahoma City. That consistency is difficult with how many shifts have occurred year-to-year.

For example, last season was defined by switching defenses; it’s how Houston climbed into the top 12 and Boston dominated. If you were able to seamlessly switch defenders 1-5, you had a huge leg up on the competition.

This season, however, you need to be able to drop your big effectively in coverage.

When we talk about defense, we get locked in on personnel — who has good defenders and who doesn’t. Foot speed, size, athleticism. We focus on individual players and not on the reality, which is that NBA defense in 2019 is almost entirely built on the system and team buy-in.

Commitment and discipline can mold almost any collection of physical attributes into a successful unit, and the lack thereof can result in a terrible defense. Look no further than the Rockets for proof of that, as they stand 27th in defense despite what they bring to the table, even with their myriad of injuries.

So if defense is, at its core, systemic, what makes that system good?

There are things you can and can’t do, but most NBA teams know them. The outlier teams that try something different — like Jason Kidd’s Bucks teams, whose gimmicky blitz scheme worked great for about six months until teams made a few simple adaptations– will get schemed out eventually.

What it really starts with is communication.


TALK SHOWS

“Just give me an extra second,” Steven Adams is telling Paul George, the same way you’d tell a colleague you’ll for sure have that memo to him. It’s not insistence or annoyance — just getting everyone on the same page. Adams and George are talking on the sideline leaving a timeout vs. the Pelicans, navigating how to manage a DHO coverage.

The Thunder are communicating at every turn, and it’s the building block of everything defensively. Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant are negotiating switches. Paul George is calling out the open shooter in the corner.

The Thunder are able to do this on the fly, because they spend so much time working on it during the in-between moments.

“Steve-O’s very receptive with communication,” Paul George told The Action Network. “We talk a lot. Me, Steve-O, Russ, JG, Ferg, we talk out coverages, we talk out matchups. At every point within a possession, when we’re clicking, we’re making things happen, and we’re making teams do what we’re forcing them to do. And the game becomes so much easier.”

Photo credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Paul George

Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do and everyone is dialed in. The effort is there, from play-to-play, possession-to-possession. Terrance Ferguson told The Action Network that the Thunder defense even goes beyond its scheme and right to trust.

“With us, we have a team strategy,” Ferguson said, “but it’s like the strategy goes away when we play. It’s just ‘bust your ass, and we’re going to have your back. If you get beat, just know we’re going to have your back. If you’re on a rotation, we’re all scrambling. If two people get there, we’re going to keep scrambling, keep running.’ It means a lot to each and every one of us to know that if we make a mistake, the whole team is going to have your back.”

What happens when a team stops talking? Ask Nuggets coach Michael Malone, whose team fell from the third-best defense in the league to one of the five worst over the past two months.

“We don’t talk,” Malone told reporters during their recent three-game losing streak. “Our lack of communication is comical at times. How hard is it to say, ‘Switch? Screen?’ We don’t do that sometimes.”

The Thunder, on the other hand, remain locked in. They know where they’re going and what they’re supposed to do. And everyone keeps moving. There’s accountability here, an expectation that you close out, that you body, that you compete on passes and shots.


THE SCHEME