Is the switch faulty?
Fans may chirp about it, but coach Billy Donovan has a perfectly sound reason for why the Thunder switches so often on defense.
Billy Donovan can see it developing from the sideline as his frontcourt tracks back to defend. It’s the new normal in the NBA, the bane of Thunder fandom.
The opposition crosses midcourt and in a few actions has its matchup — Steven Adams isolated against the shifty Stephen Curry. Carmelo Anthony on an island with James Harden staring him down, The Beard running scanning over options in his head like he’s at a basketball buffet.
When defending, the Thunder switches. A lot.
Thunder fans moan and groan at OKC’s constant switching on defense. But it’s not as easy as just saying “stop” and it’s also what makes the Thunder a unique matchup for opposing offenses.
The league has evolved since isolation post play was the norm in the mid1990s. The pick-and-roll has become the bread and butter of nearly every NBA offense, which lead to more cross-positional matchups than ever before.
When hit by a screen or trying to get around one, a defending guard gets a step behind his man. In a split second, choices have to be made.
If there’s indecision, it’s over. Indecision usually means two men going to the ball, leaving the screen setter open or imbalance on the other side of the court in the offense’s favor.
“You’re switching to get two off the ball,” Donovan explained to The Oklahoman on why the Thunder switches so frequently. “The whole game (for the offense) is getting two on the ball.
“Any time you commit two to the basketball, you’re vulnerable.”
The switches may be less prevalent against Utah, as center Rudy Gobert does much of his offensive damage around the rim and the Thunder will want to get the ball out of dynamic rookie Donovan Mitchell’s hands. But then, there are teams like Houston and Golden State, teams who incorporate screen-setting big men who in an instant can pop out and become knockdown 3-point shooters.
“If you’re dealing with a Ryan Anderson,” Donovan said of sending two defenders to the ball, “… well they’re throwing the ball back to him and you’re not getting to him in space and he’s just sitting there shooting catch-and-shoot threes.”
While lacking the defensive switchability of the 2016 Western Conference finals team’s crunch-time lineups, the 2017-18 Thunder has similar versatility. Jerami Grant and Josh Huestis can defend point guards. Even with sapped athleticism, Patrick Patterson slid his feet and stayed in front of Chris Paul in the Thunder’s April 7 win in Houston. Russell Westbrook can root power forwards out of the low post, or wiggle around them and create a deflection.
Hence the switch. It’s an easier way to stay manto-man with long, disruptive defenders in a league where a sliver of space means a basket conceded.
“I think the way that the game is now, it’s just everybody is just spaced out and penetrate, kick, shoot threes and try to get the mismatches that they want,” said Anthony, the target of many defenses this season when the guard can manipulate a switch to get him one-on-one.
“But everybody is kind of small and teams that still play big with big guys, they dictate their defense to what they want to do.”
Thunder coach Billy Donovan says of switching: “Any time you commit two to the basketball, you’re vulnerable.”