Expectations were sky high for the Thunder entering this season, but with their 5-4 record through 9 games the mood in Oklahoma City has shifted from unbridled optimism to legitimate concern (and wild celebration in some neighborhoods of Seattle.) Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated’s The Point Forward, and Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don’t Lie, both shared some thoughts on the Thunder today and hit several points right on the nose.
Dwyer pointed out that this was a 50 win team last season, largely based on the improvement of several key players and the team’s unbelievable lack of injuries. Adding no significant pieces over the summer, the expectations for this team competing for a one seed in the Western Conference or even an NBA Championship were again pinned to the development of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, which may have been unfair and unrealistic. Dwyer notes that several players have been struggling early and the team has been average offensively and underperforming terrificly at the defensive end.
Lowe makes similar points, focusing on some specific offensive and defensive difficulties. The Thunder are defending the rim and the three point line at abyssmal rates and shooting the ball very poorly on offensive.
A really important factor, mentioned by both writers in passing, is the absence of Nick Collison through the Thunder’s first 8 games. I respect both Dwyer and Lowe’s analysis tremendously but I think they have missed the boat in glossing over how much Collison means to the Thunder at both ends of the floor.
Last season the Thunder had a Defensive Rating of 101.6 and this year it has risen to 107.7. Their Offensive Rating has declined from 105.8 to 104.8. To examine Collison’s impact I started by pulling together some +/- data from Basketball Value’s 5-man unit stats. Specifically, I looked through the Thunder’s different lineups last season and calculated the team’s Offensive and Defensive Ratings with Collison on the floor and off the floor. The spreadsheet with all my calculations can be found here.
The lineups featuring Collison accounted for roughly 40% of the minutes played for the Thunder last season. Those lineups posted a Defensive Rating 99.5, which is roughly 8 points better than the 107.6 they put up without Collison. The improvement wasn’t just at the defensive end either. The Thunder posted an Offensive Rating of 109.8 with Collison on the floor, a full point better than the 108.8 they posted without him.
Collison’s importance hasn’t just showed up in the change in Offensive and Defensive Ratings. The Thunder’s Rebounding Rates have fallen off since last season as well. Their Defensive Rebound Rate has fallen from 73.6% last season to 72.4% this season. Their Offensive Rebound Rate has fallen from 28.6% last season to 27.6% this season. These are small percentage changes to be sure, but each percentage point equates to a handful of possessions over the last 8 games possibly enough to have made a difference in a few tight ones. Last year the Thunder’s Offensive Rebound Rate was 4.7 percentage points higher with Collison on the floor than off it. Their Defensive Rebound Rate was 1.7 percentage points higher with Collison on the floor than off it. In addition to his defensive presence the team is clearly missing his 9.8 Reb/40 as well.
Looking at his individual stats you can see some small contributions Collison made last season which the Thunder are also missing. Collison led the league in charges drawn last season with 57 or 0.76 per game. He also had 37 steals over the course of the season, or 0.49 per game. In addition he had 49 blocks last season or 0.65 per game. I took a conservative estimate of one third of his blocks actually resulting in a change of possession to the Thunder. Factoring that in with his steals and charges drawn I came up with 1.47 possessions per game that he personally kept the other team from scoring, not counting forcing his man into a bad shot or just generally strong team defense. The Thunder are giving up roughly 1.07 points per possession. By this one rudimentary estimate, not having Collison on the floor is causing the Thunder to give up an extra 1.6 points a game, over half their negative per game point differential of 3.0. Obviously this is an over simplification as it doesn’t take into account the contributions of Collison’s replacements, but we’re talking about Nenad Kristic, so I think these numbers are in the ballpark. As I pointed out before all the defense comes while making the Thunder slightly better at the offensive end as well.
Now I am not saying Collison is the only reason the Thunder have been struggling. There are clearly other problems at both ends of the floor that Collison can’t help solve, opponents’ extremely high 3PT% for example. But Collison is a defensive difference maker for the Thunder and takes nothing off the table at the other end of the floor. Collison played 11 minutes against the Spurs last night, posting a -4 during that time. As he works his way back into shape, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Thunder go on a run making improvements to their efficiency both offensively and defensively. If that happens I sure hope Collison gets the credit he deserves.
I included this clip as it was my first time seeing Collison on a basketball court. It’s from the Slam Dunk Contest at the 1999 McDonald’s All American Game in his hometown of Ames, Iowa. He’s competing against the likes of Jonathan Bender, Carlos Boozer, Donell Harvey and Jay Williams. Collison wears #44 and yeah, that’s him with the cartwheel dunk. I know, I hadn’t seen that one before either.