History says the Thunder can win big by playing small

History says the Thunder can win big by playing small

Worries about the Thunder’s size and rebounding persist, but this season’s team shares similarities with the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and the LeBron-led Miami Heat.

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

| Jan 23, 2024, 9:00am CST

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

Jan 23, 2024, 9:00am CST

The Thunder defeated Minnesota on Saturday night for the second time this season. Every win like this should ease concerns about the Thunder’s designed lack of size.

The Wolves, you may recall, start two traditional big men in 7-foot-2 Rudy Gobert and 6-foot-10 Karl-Anthony Towns. Backup big man Naz Reid — who tends to play his best basketball against the Thunder — measures 6-foot-9. All play a role in making Minnesota the league’s seventh-best rebounding team by percentage — a measure of how effective a team is at securing rebounds after missed shots or free throws.

Over the last several weeks, OKC has defeated other opponents that secure rebounds at a high rate. New York. Golden State. Boston. Denver. Orlando. The Utah Jazz rotates four players 6-foot-10 and taller.

The Thunder, meanwhile, continue to post rebounding numbers at the opposite end of the charts. Through 42 games, OKC is 28th in the league in rebounding percentage. That puts Oklahoma City in the company of Charlotte, San Antonio, and Washington, all among the worst teams in the NBA. Oddly or coincidentally, the 24-18 Dallas Mavericks also rebound at a similar rate.

In terms of raw rebounding numbers, the Thunder is 18th in defensive rebounds per game at 32.6, right behind the Kings, Clippers, and 76ers. OKC is also tied with the LA Lakers for the fewest offensive rebounds (8.4). But the Thunder ranks as one of the best shooting teams in the league. There aren’t a ton of missed shots to track down, and the juice might not be worth the squeeze to collect more of them.

The topic of rebounding can be a bit hot within the Thunder fan base. Or, sometimes the concern is directed toward rebounding’s nearest sibling: sheer size.

Yet OKC, as evidenced Saturday night and elsewhere this season, has held its own against teams that roll out more “traditional” lineups with a “true” center and power forward. Not many teams in the league feature a 6-foot-5 player like Jalen Williams at the four spot, which could also be Josh Giddey’s position depending on the opponent or the possession of a game.

What is a basketball position these days anyway?

The Thunder is designed to maximize other areas. OKC is second in steals at 8.3 per game, first in deflections, and second in opponent’s field goal percentage. Watching JDub defend bigger players like Towns evokes memories of Kevin Durant having major fits with the likes of Chris Paul and Tony Allen — much shorter opponents who irritate the shoulders, not above them.

Those concerned about OKC’s ability — or inability — to rebound have a fair point. Looking at teams that made the conference finals over the past 20 years, you will find plenty of teams that rebounded well. Last season’s Nuggets, the 2007-08 Celtics, the Kobe/Pau Lakers and others finished in the top 5 in total rebound percentage in their respective seasons. But many others finished outside of the top 10. Some even finished toward the bottom, where the Thunder now resides.

Two teams over that span have some similarities to the Thunder: The Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns from 2004 to 2006, and the Miami Heatles headlined by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.

Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” era of Suns basketball revolutionized the sport. To play at the frantic pace required to make it work, the Suns had to downsize. Phoenix slid 6-foot-9 forward Amare Stoudemire to center, shifted 6-foot-7 Shawn Marion to power forward, and minimized the use of a traditional big man. The Suns racked up regular season wins and made back-to-back Western Conference Finals appearances, all while ranking 27th and 28th in total rebounding rate.

The Big Three era in Miami began in 2011 with the Heat deploying lumbering bigs Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier, and Joel Anthony in the middle. But Miami eventually clicked by moving Bosh to center late in the 2012 playoffs, a move that became permanent. The Heat chose to play to its strengths rather than its weaknesses. 

Miami’s rebounding rate plunged toward the bottom of the league after the change, but it didn’t keep them from making multiple runs to the NBA Finals. The Heat had to get past bigger teams in the process such as Chicago (Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer) and Indiana (Roy Hibbert and David West) before facing San Antonio (Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter).

The Thunder would be thrilled to have that kind of success. And teams like the Suns and Heat overcame a lot of obstacles with NBA MVPs on the payroll. Fortunately, the Thunder may have one of its own.

If OKC can continue to excel in other aspects of the game, then rebounding may not be its Achilles heel after all.

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