The Oklahoma City Thunder Stumble While Following the Oklahoma City Thunder Plan

(Photo: Keith Allison)

Much has been made of the plan the Oklahoma City Thunder followed in building a title contender.  Here are the basic steps the Thunder supposedly followed:

  1. Lose a bunch of games across a few seasons, which allows a team to accumulate lottery picks
  2. Draft “stars” with lottery picks
  3. Sign “stars” to long-term contracts
  4. Win a title (or more)

The Thunder did well with step one.  Starting with their last two seasons in Seattle in 2006-07, this franchise had three seasons where it won 31 games, 20 games, and 23 games. 

These performances primarily led to the following four high picks in the draft:

  • 2007: Kevin Durant (2nd pick overall), Jeff Green (5th pick overall, a pick acquired in the trade of Ray Allen)
  • 2008: Russell Westbrook (4th pick overall)
  • 2009: James Harden (3rd pick overall)

The next step was to sign each “productive” player to a long-term contract. 

And then this past week… Harden wasn’t offered a maximum contract. And Harden refused to sign the offer the Thunder made.  So now Harden has been traded to the Rockets. 

Oops!  Apparently the Thunder didn’t have the money to sign all three “productive” players to maximum contract.  And given this constraint, the Thunder had to make a choice. 

The choice the Thunder made was to sign Durant and Westbrook to maximum contracts and to try and get Harden with something less. One might argue this was a good choice, afterall…

  • Durant appeared in the All-Star game in 2010, 2011, and 2012 and was a First Team All-NBA selection in each of these seasons as well.
  • Westbrook appeared in the All-Star game in 2011 and 2012 and was a Second Team All-NBA selection in these seasons as well.
  • Harden has never been an All-Star and has never been voted to the All-NBA team.

Beyond awards, we also see:

  • Durant has averaged 26.3 points per game in his career and led the NBA in scoring per game the past three seasons.
  • Westbrook has averaged 19.0 points per game in his career and finished 5th in the NBA in scoring per game this past season.
  • Harden has only averaged 12.7 points per game in his career.  And this past season he only averaged 16.8 points per game this past season.

So given the Thunder’s budget constraint, it makes sense to pay Durant and Westbrook and let Harden depart.

Then again, awards in the NBA are driven by scoring totals.  And unfortunately, a player’s contribution to wins is about more than how many points a player scores.

To see this, let’s look at the Thunder’s Wins Produced (calculation) in 2011-12 (numbers from The NBA Geek). 

Thunder 2011-12






Wins Produced

per 48 minutes (WP48)



Kevin Durant





James Harden





Serge Ibaka





Russell Westbrook





Nick Collison





Thabo Sefolosha





Daequan Cook





Kendrick Perkins





Cole Aldrich





Nazr Mohammed





Ryan Reid





Eric Maynor





Royal Ivey





Reggie Jackson





Lazar Hayward





Derek Fisher








Team Wins Produced


The Thunder won 47 games last season. And about 32 of these wins can be linked to the play of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka.  Yes, Westbrook – who produced less than five wins last season – was not ranked in the top three on the Thunder last season. Westbrook was in the top three in 2010-11, but his Wins Produced per 48 minutes of 0.153 that season could be thought of as good (average WP48 is 0.100) but not outstanding (a 0.200 mark is consider the level of a “star”). 

So what makes Harden so much more productive than Westbrook? The key is shooting efficiency.  Scoring totals are driven by how many shots a player takes and how often those shots go in the basket.  Players – like Glenn Robinson and Stephon Marbury (and yes, this observation is classified as “factorial” – have understood for a very long time that scoring gets a player paid and wins a player awards. So it literally pays for a player to look for his shot. Last season, Westbrook finished 3rd in the NBA in field goal attempts per game. But when we turn to shooting efficiency – and we can consider effective field goal percentage or true shooting percentage – we see a player that was only average last year.  And across his entire career he is below average for a point guard. 

Meanwhile, Harden is well above average with respect to shooting efficiency (and this is what drives his lofty Wins Produced mark). 

So why does Westbrook shoot so much?  Well one obvious explanation is that Westbrook is the Thunder’s point guard.  So many possessions require Westbrook to decide who gets to shoot.  Given the incentives facing NBA players, Westbrook seems to make the same decision that was often made by players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson.  Yes, Westbrook has often decided that it would be a good idea that he shoot. 

This decision had certainly helped Westbrook get a maximum contract.  But it has also resulted in Harden moving to Houston.

And this means the Thunder’s path to a title (i.e. step #4 above) has been derailed.  Yes, the Thunder are still an above average team.  But Harden’s production of wins will be very difficult to replace.  So for the 2012-13 season, it doesn’t look like the Thunder will be favored to get back to the NBA Finals.

All of this should serve a cautionary tale for those franchises who seek to follow the Thunder’s path.  Losing NBA games – as the Charlotte Bobcats demonstrated last year – doesn’t appear to be difficult.  The rest of the Thunder’s game plan, though, is not so easy.  It is difficult to:

  • draft top talent in the lottery:  Most lottery picks aren’t stars.  We can see this in Oklahoma City, who spent high draft picks on Green and Westbrook (and again, Westbrook doesn’t produce enough to be considere a “star”). 
  • know which players to sign to long tersm contracts: Since all lottery picks aren’t equal, teams need to know which players to sign to long-term contracts. Maximum contracts are a great deal for any team – whether in small or large markets – when the player produces wins in large quantities. But these are not great deals for pseudo-stars like Westbrook.

Oklahoma City has experienced both pitfalls.  But with both Durant and Harden, they had the talent to compete for a title.  But their inability to recognize that Harden – not Westbrook – was the key to the team’s future has probably led the Thunder off their path to a title. 

All of that suggests the Oklahoma City model may not be the best plan for teams to follow.  Yes, the losing part is easy.  But turning all the losing into productive players is difficult.  And since teams – as the Spurs have demonstrated – can find productive players outside the lottery, maybe teams should focus less on step #1 (i.e. losing a bunch of games) and more on locating and keeping the productive players that can help a team contend for a championship.

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  1. Seminymous Coward says:

    So the Thunder Plan is great so long as they assign contracts according to your metric? By your own standards, the rest went fine.

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  2. Evan says:

    But productivity isn’t the only consideration. More important is what the next best player at that position can produce. Wins Produced per 48 is hardly a perfect measure, but that imperfection could be somewhat controlled for if you compared Harden to his replacement (Kevin Martin) and then looked at the Thunder’s options in acquiring another PG of Westbrook’s caliber. Almost certain that any possible replacement of Westbrook would be much worse than the replacement of Harden by Kevin Martin, not to mention the platoon of Martin, Maynor and Lamb that Thunder will employ. Add to that the salary consideration of a player who could replace Westbrook vs. salary required to closely replace Harden and I think this move is much more defensible.

    Also, did we all forget Harden’s stink bomb in the Finals?

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    • Basketball Jesus says:

      Evan you make some good points. I think the stink bomb in the finals, however, is a bad example. A lot of other players would have struggled against Miami’s defense in their first finals experience. Let’s also not forget Harden had to guard Lebron James, something that the other two max players on the Thunder didn’t do. Let’s also not discount how good he was in the previous 3 series based off of the finals.

      And yes statistically, Kevin Martin looks not far off from Harden in terms of points scored. But there’s more to it than that as we know. I would almost argue that having a pass first PG with Harden and Durant is a better option than Westbrook taking so many shots away from more efficient scorers like KD and Harden.

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    • Chuck says:

      “Almost any possible replacement of Russell Westbrook would be worse than than replacement of Harden by Kevin Martin?”

      I completely disagree. Russell Westbrook is viewed by most NBA GMs as one of the 3 best point guards in the league. The Celtics attempted to trade Rajon Rondo for Westbrook earlier this season, straight up, which would have certainly improved both the Thunder’s chances in the playoffs and finals (Rondo is a better point guard AND a better fit for the Thunder, given that Westbrook takes shots from KD), and from a salary cap perspective (given that he is paid less money than Westbrook). That’s just one example. The Thunder could have swapped Westbrook for DWIGHT HOWARD, whom Orlando traded for pennies on the dollar! These are just two examples.

      Harden is also a shooting guard. There are 2 “superstar” shooting guards in the league by conventional metrics (Wade and Bryant), and 3 by WoW metrics (Harden, Ginobili, and Harden). Shooting guard is the hardest position to fill, and trading a shooting guard of Harden’s caliber and age is just a travesty. Great shooting guards are rare in the current league. The Thunder would have a positional advantage against, essentially, every team but Miami. They just weakened themselves at the last position (Other than center) you would want to be weak at.

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  3. Kazzy says:

    “Well one obvious explanation is that Westbrook is the Thunder’s point guard. So many possessions require Westbrook to decide who gets to shoot. Given the incentives facing NBA players, Westbrook seems to make the same decision that was often made by players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson.”

    Frankly, this is silly logic. The aforementioned players didn’t shoot because they made a calculated decision each possession that a shot for them increased their odds of a high payday. That is such a simplistic view as to be unserious.

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  4. JT says:

    Harden is awesome, no doubt, but aren’t there two caveats here?

    1. Harden was coming off the bench, so he did log solid time against team’s second units, which boosted his numbers upwards, no?

    2. When Harden was on the floor with the starters, isn’t there an interaction effect with Westbrook and Durant? He likely rarely got the opponent’s best wing defender, because that person took Durant, or the opponent’s best guard defender, who took Westbrook? I’m curious to see what his efficiency looks like in Houston, where now he will be going up against guys like Iguodala and Allen on the wing.

    Even with those caveats, Harden will still probably be pretty darn good in Houston.

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    • dynamo.joe says:

      1. Harden averaged 31.4 minutes per game last year, so unless your arguement is that opposing teams used their starters for 16.6 minutes per game, no, that’s not explaining his high production.

      2. I think we both agree the best opposing defender takes Durant. So that leaves also rans guarding both Harden and Westbrook. Harden produced like a superstar. Westbrook produced like an above average nba player. They maxed Westbrook and shipped out Harden.

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    • Chuck says:

      1. Presumably, one could continue to pay Harden to “log minutes against second units” and keep getting 10 wins? 10 wins a year are certainly worth a max contract. This is assuming Harden plateaus and doesn’t further improve, which, considering he’s 23, is unlikely.

      2. Yes. With Harden on the floor, the Thunder outscored opponents by 9 pts per possession, good for best in the league. With Harden off the floor, it was 1.5, the equivalent of roughly a .500. Westbrook also did not always guard the best guard. Harden was, for example, primarily guarding Kobe Bryant in the playoffs, at which he excelled, and Lebron James, at which he did not excel (but I mean, no one does).

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    • Dwight K Schrute says:

      harden goes on floor against other team rotation players in the 2nd quarter so part of his stats are certainly biased high.
      but he’s also on floor at end of game when the best 5 are out there on both teams and in general he deserves to be out there. Same can be said about Manu
      Agree that it will be fun to watch Houston now.
      It would be an interesting freakonomics study to see when you should really play your best players in basketball. I tried that on one team I coached and a parent complained why his son wasn’t starting (a lawyer not an economist:).

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  5. Max says:

    I doubt that managing an NBA team is as easy as giving contracts in line with NBAGeek site data. Otherwise why isn’t everyone doing it?!?

    It’s also easy to notice the stats of yours favour decent players that make sure shots (good scoring percentage). This may be good enough to win a regaluar season, but definitely not enough to win a title. Taking no responsibility for tough decisions can hardly be a champion’s metric. Moreover someone has to create these easy shots for you – albeit with his unpredictablity and scorer’s image.
    I don’t claim Harden is not a great player and every OCT fan will miss The Beard – I am just not sure one should produce so many NBA-related posts out of NBAGeek stats :-)

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    • Erik Jensen says:

      People are perfectly capable of making stupid decisions, even in a competitive environment with millions of dollars at stake. For example, every football stat head has known for many years that NFL coaches are way too conservative on fourth down, yet these coaches (generally) persist in their ways. Why don’t NFL owners and GMs insist that their coaches be more aggressive and win more games? Are you saying millionaires can’t possibly be wrong?

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  6. Phil says:

    I’ve rarely seen a more misleading stat. If you watched all or even most of the 82 Thunder games, you wouldn’t think Westbrook was less valuable than Ibaka and Harden. This stat does nothing to account for _which_ minutes one plays and which shots one takes in a game, and it’s entirely possible Harden and Ibaka factored more in the third quarter of the 20-25 easiest wins than the fourth of the 20-25 hardest.

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  7. Rick says:

    This type of analysis comes straight from Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. In fact, the movie, ‘Moneyball’, profiles Mr. Beane’s statistically driven system designed to take advantage undervalued but productive players and win games.

    To paraphrase the movie, team owners should not be paying players for points / rebounds / assists / turnovers / shooting percentage, etc, but for wins. While not a Thunder fan, intuitively, I have been a fan of Hardin’s. Based on the data in this article, I now understand why.

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  8. Basketball Jesus says:

    Interesting piece. I was never sold on Westbrook as a max player for whatever reason, and this article put the stats behind why his ballhogging hurts them. Something tells me the numbers provided were the same numbers Daryl Morey was looking at when making the trade.

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