It's the "Oklahoma Paradox."
The Oklahoma City Thunder are better off going small, but they don't actually have the roster to do it consistently. Play Kevin Durant at power forward and the Thunder offense adds lightning. But without a versatile defender to pair next to him, OKC is limited in its options.
Durant's production at the 4 last year was striking actually. The Thunder averaged 116.8 points per 100 possessions with KD at power forward, according to 82games.com, a figure that would easily lead the league if stretched over a full season.
Actually, that would be the best offensive rating since 1973-74, when the NBA first started tracking possessions—maybe the best ever, topping the 1986-87 Showtime Los Angeles Lakers' current record of 115.6.
Of course, that's a somewhat misleading projection. There would be obvious regression as long as KD's minutes at power forward increased, considering he hasn't played much there at all, about a quarter of his time on the floor over the past three seasons, according to Basketball-Reference.com's play-by-play data.
It makes sense that the Thunder offense would jump so dramatically with Durant playing one spot bigger. They struggled with spacing for stretches last season, so it would stand to reason that throwing the best shooter in the league at a big-man spot would help, and the Thunder's three-point shooting became significantly better with KD at the 4 last season, as outlined by NBA.com (login required).
With Anthony Morrow around, spacing in OKC should be better, but heavy minutes for Kendrick Perkins (we all know they're coming, right?) is never a helpful ploy for an offense.
So, there's your offensive solution. Throw Durant at the 4 and you're all good, except for one flaw with that logic...
Durant couldn't play the 4 against everyone. This isn't a LeBron-James-on-the-Miami Heat situation, and defensively, there could be repercussions if coach Scott Brooks were to string out small ball.
One of the reasons the Heat could play small so comfortably with LeBron at the 4 was because he was still able to guard on the wings for most of the game. You don't want your best player getting bruised and battered by bigger guys for 34 to 40 minutes a night.
So, Shane Battier routinely guarded power forwards, took the brunt of the blows and let LeBron do his thing on offense, where he could facilitate, shoot, stretch the floor and create mismatches against conventional big men.
The Thunder don't have a guy who can do that, though, and like with James, you're not going to want Durant to get knocked around by 250-pounders every single night. It's not realistic, and it's not going to help anyone in an 82-game season plus playoffs—except for the Thunder's postseason opponents.
The defense isn't quite as strong because of all those reasons. Oklahoma City allowed 101.0 points per 100 possessions last season, per NBA.com.
When Durant played the 4, that figure rocketed to a whopping 105.5, according to 82games.com. But sporadically, small-ball Thunder lineups have worked and probably will continue to do so in larger doses. After all, whatever gets Perkins a little less playing time is probably for the better.
The Thunder outscored their opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions more when Perk was off the floor last year...7.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com (login required).
That was the difference between the Los Angeles Clippers' No. 1-ranked offense, and the Lakers' No. 21 attack. And Perkins plays mostly with the starters, as well.
His presence stunts scoring, and for a defensive specialist, he doesn't possess the agility to help in enough types of plays to offset how much he hurts the OKC attack.
Starting Durant at power forward wouldn't really make much sense, because of the aforementioned "who would he guard?" theory. If OKC were going to go that route, it'd need to get its own version of Battier, someone who could defend bigs, take a beating on the inside and provide spacing off the ball as a 3 in concept.
Right now, Oklahoma City doesn't have that guy—unless Perry Jones III starts hanging out with the Monstars and steals Battier's talent (lamest plot line ever, by the way). But still, that doesn't mean playing KD more at the 4 isn't possible.
The Thunder could go small against similarly small teams, something they don't always adapt to doing. They could use the strategy to run the floor against slower squads with defensive-minded bigs.
Durant can defend a big on occasion—and he can surely do it if he's guarding a defense-first forward who he doesn't have to bang with down low and who can give him some well-deserved rest on the defensive end.
That's really the issue—keeping KD healthy and energized. But if the Thunder can manage to play Durant at the 4 just a little more this season, picking their spots so he doesn't have to guard the Blake Griffins and Kevin Loves of the world, they could have a chance to transform their offense.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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