The Thunder knows it has rebounding issues, but it’s too soon to call it an unsolvable problem. OKC is built to excel in other ways.
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder and Warriors played a regular-season classic on Friday. OKC came up short, losing 141-139, despite shooting over 60% from the field and nearly 52% from deep.
In a game packed with thrills and adventure, the loss could be attributed to any number of things. The one singled out after the game was the Thunder’s rebounding disadvantage. Golden State outrebounded OKC 38-32 and snagged 13 offensive rebounds, which led to 23 second-chance points.
“Well, you guys keep asking about it. And now it’s clearly in our heads so we can’t even grab the ball now,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said afterward, tongue placed firmly in cheek.
On Monday night the Thunder allowed the Atlanta Hawks to inhale 25 offensive rebounds, the most surrendered in OKC team history, but came away with a 126-119 victory. The Hawks lost despite snagging 10 more rebounds.
In each of OKC’s three losses, it has been outrebounded by at least six or more. Last season, the Thunder had a similar rebounding deficit 32 times. OKC was 5-27 in those contests. Notably, the Thunder beat the Pelicans in a play-in game despite a minus-10 rebounding margin
It’s obviously possible to win games despite losing the rebounding battle, but it’s not common.
NBA teams that lost the rebounding battle by six or more last season lost 73% of the time.
It’s an interesting statistic that leaves out a ton of context. For example, OKC’s record was 25-16 last season when it notched at least two more steals than its opponent.
Should the Thunder use that stat to double down on acquiring defensive thieves? Probably not. Only one stat is truly ironclad: wins happen by scoring more points than the other guys. While that’s a Captain Obvious statement, a whole lot of things are designed to help make that happen.
Rebounding is an important part of that formula and the Thunder is still growing in that area. OKC currently ranks 28th in defensive rebounding percentage — a measure of a team’s ability to get defensive rebounds. It’s a stat that is notable, yet it’s far too early in the season to render judgment on. Daigneault is aware of OKC’s current standing.
“I think a lot of it is just understanding that our margin for error on it is not great,” Daigneault said Sunday. “So we have to be incredibly detailed with block-outs, and we have to be incredibly detailed with our defense and not put ourselves in unnecessary rotations.”
There are legitimate reasons why the Thunder has lost the rebound battle in certain games this season.
Getting Chet Holmgren back on the floor has been helpful in many ways, particularly on the glass. The rookie big man is averaging eight rebounds per game in his first seven NBA games.
The Thunder has also been without Kenrich Williams, one of the team’s better rebounders, all season. Center Jaylin “JWill” Williams, the team’s best defensive rebounder by percentage last season, played only his second game of the season Monday after recovering from a hamstring injury.
Their absences have forced OKC to use downsized lineups with Ousmane Dieng or Jalen Williams as the backup big in several games. Olivier Sarr, one of the Thunder’s two-way contract players, has done yeoman’s work in spot duty, averaging 4.5 rebounds in 11 minutes.
OKC’s early schedule also lined them it against sizable foes, such as Chicago, Denver, and New Orleans. The Thunder outrebounded the Pistons, a team obsessed with acquiring and playing traditional big men, so the capability is there.
“In the Detroit game we were pretty good there,” Daigneualt said. “I thought our effort against Golden State was where it needed to be. We, as you mentioned, didn’t come up with a couple of plays that we could have had. Got two guys going for the ball. But that’s better than the other team rebounding it cleanly, obviously.”
The team is also built to emphasize other areas of the game. Offensive sets are spaced out to give the Thunder room to drive relentlessly. OKC leaned on speed, quickness, and versatility to rank fourth in the NBA in steals and third in pace last season. OKC has maintained its pace so far this season, but steals are down by almost 20%.
An initial fan urge is to look for solutions via trade. Yet if OKC attempted an overcorrection in response to rebounding, it would likely come at a cost in other areas. To maintain its identity, the Thunder will seek to improve its rebounding from within.
“A lot of offensive rebounds happen after a breakdown,” Daigneault added, “so some of it is your defense and some of it’s just man-on-man block-outs. If we could just clean both of those up, then we can be better.”