Oklahoma City had its annual exit interviews this past Sunday and Monday. The usual talk of improvement and being disappointed about how the season ended were rampant, but the biggest revelation—to me at least—came from a pair of quotes from Reggie Jackson and Thabo Sefolosha.
The Thunder doesn't have an offensive system; that much is a well-known fact. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook use their amazing offensive skill sets and carry the team to wins, opening up opportunities for teammates in the process.
What isn't talked about is how that affects those players—as well as other offensively capable players like Jackson—in other areas of their game, mainly defense. It's no mystery Durant and Westbrook are inconsistent defenders and Jackson appears more like a matador at times than a defender. When asked why, Jackson gave a compelling reason.
"We probably get lost in thinking about the things we have to do offensively for the team," Jackson said. "There are times we don't necessarily pay as much attention to detail on the defensive end because we know we can go fill up the stat sheet on the offensive end."
Jackson says the burden on him and the Thunder's two superstars to produce on the offensive end is immense enough for them to neglect giving 100 percent on the defensive end. You may think that's a lame excuse from Jackson, but I think it has legitimate grounds. Jackson, Westbrook and Durant are elite athletes. There's no reason they shouldn't be able to play well on defense.
So, we see the Thunder's lack of an offensive system causes those whom the Thunder rely on the most to score points to loaf on the defensive end because they're too focused on how they're going to score enough points for their team to win.
The other telling quote came from Sefolosha, who is on his way out of Oklahoma City judging by his responses to questions and how the season ended for him: on the bench. Sefolosha was asked if it was difficult to regain a shooting rhythm when he came back from his calf injury and if that is what led to his struggles the second half of the year.
"The rhythm was a little bit off," Sefolosha admitted. "Looking back, it's kind of hard to get in a rhythm when you get in and then have to sit there for extended minutes and not really know if you're going to get any shots or any kind of rhythm. The system and the way we play didn't favor for me to get the opportunity to get into any sort of groove.
"Confidence is a big part of shooting the ball well. Especially when you're injured and you have to sit and then you come back and try to find your groove again. It was a little bit different."
Whoa. That's some rare—and much appreciated—honesty from Sefolosha. Basically, it's hard to be good when you don't know when—or if—you're going to get the opportunity to shoot the ball. Durant and Westbrook command the ball most of the time, and since everyone else on the court and in the stands knows they need the ball in order for the offense to function, the rest of the team naturally becomes a bit wary of shooting and trying to help themselves establish some sort of rhythm.
Serge Ibaka is the only players besides Jackson becoming bold enough to take shots no matter what. That's progress for the Thunder, but that also needs to extend to those who make less than $12 million a year.
Maybe this is why free agents don't come to Oklahoma City, at least those that are more offensively inclined. Last year, the Thunder seriously entertained Dorell Wright and Mike Miller, but the two players went elsewhere. Maybe this is why. Maybe those players talked to the role players on the Thunder like Sefolosha and heard for themselves how difficult it is to establish shooting rhythm or even get shots up. They probably did their research. I know I would have.
Teams like the Spurs are successful because everyone participates in the offense thanks to the system the coach has created. Specific players don't need to carry the load. Are all the players equal in offensive ability? Of course not, but those that are better are willing to sacrifice self-glory to buy into a system that makes their teammates better and therefore, the team better.
Could LeBron James average 40 points per game if he wanted to? Probably. But even as the greatest player on the planet, he understands he is unable to win a game by himself. Even Michael Jordan understood this.
People who say an offensive system would greatly hinder Durant and Westbrook's abilities aren't thinking clearly. Being a star doesn't mean you have to carry the team all the time. It means you can always be counted on to carry the team when it needs you. If Durant and Westbrook want to win as badly as they say they do, they should understand their need for an offensive system, even if it means sacrificing a bit of time with the ball in their hands.
Oklahoma City isn't far away from a title, but the final step the Thunder has to take is to stop this immature style of basketball and adopt some sort of offensive system that will enhance the talents of the talented supporting cast around Durant and Westbrook. That enhancement will be enough to propel the Thunder to the top of the NBA.