Last month, the Thunder traveled to Oracle Arena to face the Warriors. After coming back from a huge deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Thunder ended up losing 116-108.
Oklahoma City’s starting lineup, consisting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, and Steven Adams, had a point differential of +4 over the 20.6 minutes it played together.
The lineup containing Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Cameron Payne, Kyle Singler, and Dion Waiters wasn’t able to convert a field goal across the 2.6 minutes it played together. Even when Durant was switched in for Waiters, the lineup was only able to make a single shot over the 2.2 minutes it played together. Across the 4.7 (due to rounding) minutes that the Kanter/Adams combo played, it managed to score only four points on eight shots, and had a point differential of -5.
Why is this combo so awful?
Adams is a center in the mold of Tyson Chandler. He has little offensive skill and often scores off of lobs. Kanter is a post-up behemoth, ranking in the top sixth of the NBA in post-up attempts (among qualified players) with 139 despite playing only 20.6 minutes per game off the bench.
Having a pair of centers who operate best close to the basket isn’t conducive to good spacing and without proper spacing, it’s nearly impossible to create an adequate offense. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at a couple of plays from their time together during the game.
Here, we see Dion Waiters drive down the middle of the floor, looking for a layup. He’s unable to get a shot off, so he passes it to Cameron Payne. The rookie point guard then drives down the right side of the court. In a properly functioning offense, Payne would have space to drive to the basket for a shot at the rim. However, in this muddled mess, Payne has to stop short and let loose an awful floater that hits the side of the backboard.
Here, Waiters drives down the middle of the court. He’s met with a wall of bodies, and wildly chucks the ball out to Payne. The rookie immediately drives towards the rim, but yet again, he has to release an ugly floater in traffic.
Kanter is an offensive rebounding monster (he’s tied for 17th in offensive rebounds per game among players who have played in at least twenty games with an average of 2.8, overcoming his disadvantage in minutes) and he manages to corral the ball after Payne’s miss. However, he’s swamped by four or five Warriors at once. At one point, seven of the ten players on the floor are all in that tangled jumble of arms and legs. Kanter tries a couple of times to get a shot off, but the ball is ripped away, and the Warriors immediately launch a fast-break.
You might be wondering why this combination is a problem worth worrying about. After all, it’s impactful for only a few minutes every game.
In the regular season, the Adams/Kanter combo +0.3 per 3.5 minutes per game over 19 games.. However, what happens when the Thunder make the playoffs and need to beat both the Spurs and the Warriors, two historically great teams, to make the Finals? How’s that gonna work out?
In the playoffs, defenses are amped up and specific players are game-planned for. If Adams and Kanter are still playing together for a few minutes a game, then that’s time that the Thunder’s opponent will have a big advantage. In the regular season, against average teams, it’s often not a problem. However, against the Spurs and Warriors the deficit might be insurmountable.
I wrote most of this article before February 27th, when the Warriors overcame the Thunder in overtime to win the most exciting game of the season. I paid close attention to when Kanter and Adams played together, but they didn’t share the court for a single second. Similarly, last week, when the two teams faced off again, Kanter and Adams were never on the court at the same time. Perhaps Billy Donovan hacked into my account and read my draft of this article, or, more probably, finally decided to use common sense.
Not only did Donovan scrap the Kanter-Adams pairing against the Warriors, but he’s also done well to excise them from the rotation. Since the All-Star break, Kanter and Adams have played a mere 6.4 minutes together over two games. Amusingly enough, over those minutes, the Thunder were -5 and made only two shots on eleven attempts.
Now that Kanter and Adams are no longer playing together, Oklahoma City is poised to pose a serious threat to San Antonio and Golden State in the playoffs.
I remember, when there were still Twin Towers in NYC, when more than one team had the idea of having their own twin towers on the court. Presumably it must have worked. Perhaps OKC needs to change its spacing with the two big men on offense, rather than change the rotation. You would think that by having one big man stay on the outside, that might solve the problem unless, of course, his defender can then ignore him.
I also wonder if there are situations/combinations other than two big men that lead to spacing issues. Comments?
That NYC combo may have worked fifteen to twenty years ago, but the NBA is different now, with more emphasis on spacing and three-point shooting.
Indeed, that’s the problem: Kanter and Adams can both be ignored if they move away from the basket, keeping the spacing clogged.
Wings players who can’t shoot also create problems with spacing because their defenders can simply sag closer to the paint, cramping the offense.