It’s not often that a team can have a winning percentage of nearly 70 percent and still have their season considered a failure, but that’s exactly what’s happening to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even though Oklahoma City has had a solid hold on the third spot in the Western Conference, they have to crane their necks up to look at the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. They are currently 11 games behind San Antonio and 14.5 behind Golden State.
There isn’t really another team in the league that’s expected to keep pace with the Spurs and Warriorsa��except for the Thunder. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are two of the 10 best players in the game. We know this, and advanced metrics like Real Plus-Minus from ESPN back up that intuition. So why are the Thunder still so obviously in a secondary echelon of teams?
I think the answer is as complicated to fix as it is easy to say: defense. The Thunder have an elite per-possession offensea��second to only the Warriorsa��but a totally average defense, one that’s trailing the Orlando Magic.
The issue is so complicated to fix because a great defense is a result of incredible team-building. The Spurs and Warriors not only have versatile and disciplined personnel in their starting lineups, they also have it on the bench. This allows the starters to get a few extra minutes of rest every game, compared to the Thunder’s stars, meaning that they can exert fuller energy on both ends of the floor.
Here’s what the Thunder could have done last summer to build a stronger team defensively, with the gigantic caveat that building a contender in hindsight is a significantly easier task than building one in reality:
1. Do not trade Jeremy Lamb
In June, most people figured that Lamb’s basketball career was about to shift overseas. He never established himself in the Thunder’s rotation in his first three seasons, and then Oklahoma City traded him to the Charlotte Hornets for basically nothing. (Technically, they traded him for a second-round pick and Luke Ridnour’s non-guaranteed contract.) Lamb was getting salary dumped while being scheduled to earn $3 million this season.
The Hornets seemed insane in November when they proactively signed him to a three-year, $21 million extension, but now it looks like an incredibly savvy move on Charlotte’s part. Lamb provides an exceptional boost for the playoff-bound Hornets as a sixth man.
While Lamb is not known for his defense, he still helps solve that problem by providing offense when the starters take a break. At 23 years old, and in just his second season of regular playing time (fourth overall), Lamb still has potential to explore.
2. Sign Bismack Biyombo instead of Enes Kanter
I couldn’t believe it when Biyombo sat, stagnant, in the free agent market last July, eventually signing a tiny two-year deal worth $6 million with the Toronto Raptors. Yes, Biyombo is not to be trusted on offense unless he is dunking the ball, but he is an absolute superstar on defense. Real Plus-Minus ranks him right behind Kawhi Leonard in terms of the best defenders in the league, and he plays 20 minutes per night for the second-seeded Raptors.
It’s true that Kanter is very much a mirror image of Biyombo: excellent on one side of the floor (offense), and outmatched on the other (defense). The important difference is that Biyombo costs $3 million this season while Kanter costs $16.4 million.
3. Sign Luc Mbah a Moute instead of Kyle Singler
That’s right, I’m recommending that the Thunder bring aboard yet another all-defense, no-offense player. Again, overall cost and commitment is very important here: Mbah a Moute was available to the Clippers for just the veterans’ minimum ($1.2 million), and has fought his way into the starting lineup. Mbah a Moute is a member of three of Los Angeles’ six most-used lineup combos, all of which outscore their opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions.
Meanwhile, the Thunder have committed themselves to Singler through the 2018-19 season, but without an obvious role for him to fill. Mbah a Moute gives the Thunder more flexibility for the future, plus a more obvious signature strength.
4. Use the saved money to sign Jae Crowder
So instead of Kanter ($16.4 million) and Singler ($4.5 million), I have the Thunder paying Lamb ($3 million), Biyombo (let’s say they outbid the Raptors at $4 million a season), and Mbah a Moute (let’s say they outbid the Clippers at $2 million). That’s a savings of $11.9 million, or more than enough to outbid the Boston Celtics in pursuit of Jae Crowder, who is earning $6.7 million this season in the first year of a five-year, $35 million deal. At age 25, Crowder is 20th overall in RPM and an essential part of the starting lineup for a Celtics team that is currently seeded third in the Eastern Conference.