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The Oklahoma City Constraint Theory

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Jordan Kahn is the newest contributor to Hickory-High. He will be stopping by sporadically to break down some NBA trends in video form. You can find more of his work at Basketball Things and follow him on Twitter @AyoitsJordan.

One of Oklahoma City’s bread and butter plays is the pick-and-roll.  Their ball handlers rank fourth in the NBA in points per possession on pick-and-rolls, according to mySynergySportsRussell Westbrook and James Harden (as previously noted) present major challenges for a defense when they have the ball in their hands.  The Thunder’s pick and roll can beat any defense that is playing straight up.  Since they lack a true inside threat, the problem is getting the defense to play them straight up.  Let’s take a look at how the Thunder keep defenses honest and create room for their playmakers.

Watching Oklahoma City run their offense reminded me of an excellent post about “constraint plays” over at Smart Football (Sidenote: If you care about football at all, visit Smart Football because it’s one of the best sports blogs on the internet and will increase your intelligence tenfold):

You have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see.  But we don’t live in a perfect world: the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.  Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat.  For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience.

Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.

So the Thunder want to let Harden and Westbrook create using on-ball screens.  On a more conventional team, the screener could punish the defense for paying too much attention to the ball handler.  However, the Thunder rarely utilize the screener in their pick and roll game, which means the defense ignores him and double teams the ball handler, as seen in the video below.

Because Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison don’t threaten a defense, Oklahoma City has to get creative when their initial option is contained.  The first thing Oklahoma City does is use the screener to set a second off-ball screen instead of the rolling to the hoop.  Normally, a simple screen for Kevin Durant could be handled with relative ease.  But because the defense is overplaying the ball handler, there is nobody to help Durant’s man when he gets screened.  The video below shows the space this second screen creates for Durant.

Another way the Thunder keep the defense honest is to use Durant as the screener.  Although he doesn’t do it much, he has the 6th best points per possession as roll man in the NBA.  On this constraint play, the defense is beaten when they overplay the ball handler because Durant has become quite adept at slipping the screen to pop out to the perimeter for an open jumper, as seen in the video below.

But even the pick and pop can be defended when the defense is overly concerned with it.  The video below shows the Spurs ignoring the ball handler to fly at Durant or switching on the screen to get a hand in Durant’s face.

To combat this, the Thunder added a constraint play to a constraint play.  After Durant slips the screen, one of their big men sets a screen on the defender recovering to Durant.  Because the player guarding Perkins, Collison, or Ibaka are usually playing so far off, they are often not in position to provide help on Durant.  The video below shows how the play works.

The Thunder may not be a conventional pick and roll team, but they remain highly successful in running it and the ensuing counters to various defenses.  As the season goes on, it will be interesting to see if defenses will be able to force Oklahoma City into using Perkins, Ibaka, and Collison as scorers instead of simply screeners.

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