NEW YORK -- For a number of years now, there has been an enduring criticism of the way the Oklahoma City Thunder play. Too stagnant. Too predictable. Too isolation oriented.
In part, that criticism was echoed by the team's front office and is why the Thunder fired Scott Brooks and hired Billy Donovan as coach. The Thunder wanted to mature, to grow into a deeper offensive team that could still play to its strengths while diversifying the portfolio.
But some of that perception has been in how the San Antonio Spurs -- and now the Golden State Warriors -- have changed the way fans and media consume the game. There's less glorification of iso-oriented scorers and more appreciation for connected, kinetic team basketball. Those teams have become the envy of the league, not just because of their sensational records, but because the style equals the substance. It's the basketball version of The Beautiful Game, the ball pinging all over the court in desperate search of an open man.
At their core, the Thunder have a much different identity. And not one that fits the ball-movement revolution the league is infatuated with. They have two world-class scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and while they want to evolve to embrace aspects of that, they also don't want to overhaul.
Monday after practice in New York, a day after the Thunder lost a deflating game to the lowly Brooklyn Nets in which their ball movement took an obvious step back, Durant was asked about the adjustment to buying what Donovan is selling about movement and passing. His answer was pretty interesting.
"Look, we're not the San Antonio Spurs," Durant said. "We're not going to make 30 passes in a possession. We're not that. Of course, people want us to be that. That's great basketball, don't get me wrong. But we're not that. We've got guys that can score. We've got two guys on this team that can get a bucket. There's going to be times we gotta iso, there's going to be times we gotta be aggressive to look for our shot to make a play.
"But basketball is simple when you got a guy that can get into the paint. That's what San Antonio wants to do, but they've got guys, multiple guys that'll pass, pass, dribble, to get to the paint," he continued. "But we've got guys -- Russell, myself, Dion [Waiters], Cameron Payne -- we can get into the paint, kick out or dump down for a layup. That's ultimately what you want: get the defense off balance, drive, kick, make the right play -- simple basketball. But we just don't make five or six passes before we do it sometimes. And that's not a knock against us, I don't think. We've got dynamic guys that can play and do different things on the floor; I think that's to your advantage."
The Thunder haven't improved in raw passing numbers, averaging 263.3 passes per game, which ranks dead last in the league. The Spurs average 339.7, the Warriors 324.7, both in the top five. Last season, the Thunder averaged 276.5 (26th in the league). The season before that, 271.5 (27th). However, the Thunder have seen an uptick in assists this season, ranking 11th with 22.1 per game.
Durant seems to take exception to the idea the Thunder don't execute good offense, especially when the numbers suggest they do. He told ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz this following a win over the Los Angeles Clippers in December:
"When you have iso players and guys who can score as many points as Russ and me, you've got to live playing some iso ball," he said. "What do you want? Just pass the ball around and around and not be aggressive? If they're looking at me and Russ is open, he gets the ball. But if I've got it, I'm going to work. Iso. It's pick your poison."
The Thunder isolate 8.2 percent of the time; only seven teams do it more. (The Warriors isolate 6.3 percent of the time, the Spurs 5.1 percent.) Almost 16 percent of Durant's total plays are isolations, but here's the thing: He averages 1.05 points per play on them (only one player is better: Stephen Curry at 1.06). Almost 50 percent of the time, Durant comes away with at least one point in isolation. That's about as efficient as you can get.
Good offense requires two key components: (1) the ball needs to go in the basket with high regularity and (2) the function of it needs to make it easy to sustain in changing circumstances and situations, such as crunch time or the playoffs.
The Thunder's offense does No. 1 very well. The past six seasons, they've finished in the top six in offensive efficiency and currently rank second in the league at 109.2 points per 100 possessions and second in team true shooting percentage. The second part has been where there's inconsistency, and a reason behind the effort to develop the system into something deeper.
But what Durant is saying rings true, because unlike the Spurs, or in some ways even the Warriors, the Thunder have unique personnel that allows them to cut out the middle man. They don't necessarily have to pass the ball around with multiple actions to generate a good shot. A straight-line Westbrook drive-and-kick often produces the same thing.
The thing is, and this is what Donovan's charge is, the Thunder don't want to rely on only that. The Thunder have a great fastball, maybe the best in the league. But if you know that pitch is coming, the best hitters can take advantage of it. The Thunder want another pitch, so opposing defenses don't know which one is coming.
The Thunder's offense isn't as aesthetically pleasing as the Spurs' or Warriors' -- though there is some level of poetry in a drifting Durant jumper or a bombastic Westbrook dunk -- but the point isn't to necessarily be pretty. The Thunder aren't a basketball ballet like their Western peers, nor do they want to be. Because that's not playing to their strength. If the Spurs had Durant or Westbrook, or both, you can be sure Gregg Popovich would have them playing to theirs. In fact, that's exactly what Popovich is doing with this season's Spurs, restructuring around the midrange and post-up talents of LaMarcus Aldridge as well as Kawhi Leonard's blossoming offensive skills.
There's more than one way to skin a defense, with one not necessarily being more correct than the other. It's just the Thunder want, and need, the ability to throw something off-speed.