Thunder uses potential assists to measure ball movement
MINNEAPOLIS – Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s eyes first scan for the opponent’s 3-pointers and his team’s assists when he picks up a stat sheet.
Over the course of the Thunder’s 3-game winning streak, he must have been pleased with what he saw. OKC averaged 30 assists per game.
“Generally when you see a high number of assists, that’s usually a good thing,” Donovan said. “But for me, I think that generating good shots is really critical, and in essence it comes down to every game who can generate the better shots. The team that can generate the better shots is generally going to have the better offensive night.”
When it comes to ball movement, the Thunder (241.9 passes per game) averages the fewest passes of any team in the league. Houston (246.2) ranks next to last. On Tuesday the two teams meet for their last regular-season clash.
The Rockets’ isolation-heavy offense is the second-most efficient offense in the NBA thanks to James Harden. That isn’t, however, the Thunder’s style of play. OKC continuously assesses its ball movement, and Donovan finds potential assists to be the most useful statistic to do so.
As an offense that relies on fast breaks, the Thunder’s style naturally cuts down on the number of passes in a possession. Of course, pace and passes aren’t perfectly correlated. The Hawks average over a possession per 48 minutes more than the Thunder, and they make 35 more passes per game. OKC could increase its passes per game without hurting its pace. But more passes doesn’t necessarily mean more good shots.
That, for Donovan, is where potential assists come in. For a team whose field goal percentage dipped below 40 percent against Dallas a week ago and surpassed 50 percent at Minnesota on Sunday, potential assists remove the Thunder’s inconsistent shooting from the equation.
With 23.3 assists per game, OKC sits in the bottom 10, but when it comes to potential assists, the Thunder (44.7) moves up to No. 18.
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That isn't, however, how the Thunder analytics department breaks it down for the team.
“It’s not necessarily us comparing to the rest of the league,” Donovan said, “it’s more gauging us over (the season). You can look at what’s a high percentage, what’s a low percentage, what’s a middle percentage, and we can kind of gauge how good we’re trying to move the basketball. “
The Thunder’s 52.7 potential assists per game during the Thunder’s latest winning streak was well above its season average.
Even missed shots aside, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook’s ball distribution was especially effective. He logged 21 assists against the Lakers, and 15 against both the Pistons and Timberwolves.
Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said before Sunday's game that he expected the Thunder to run its first play to center Steven Adams. But Westbrook was predictably unpredictable. Instead, he threw a pass to Thunder guard Terrance Ferguson in the right corner to start the OKC’s scoring on catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Westbrook went to Ferguson again for his next assist, getting the 20-year-old into a rhythm early.
“That’s my job,” Westbrook said. “My job is to make sure everybody’s rolling. No matter what’s going on, make sure my guys have confidence and get the shots that they want.”