For Thunder, out with Sefolosha, in with Morrow

On May 31, 2014, in a thrilling overtime game, the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games, as the Spurs would march forward toward the NBA Finals, where they would eventually be crowned the 2014 NBA Champions. That night on May 31, Thunder guard/forward Thabo Sefolosha logged a “Did Not Play” in the final game, and in game five, where the Spurs blew out the Thunder 117-89, Sefolosha only logged five seconds of playing time.

When the offseason came on July 1, the writing was on the wall, Sefolosha was out of the Thunder’s future. Sefolosha would eventually sign with the Atlanta Hawks, and the Thunder would sign 6’5” guard Anthony Morrow, who played with the New Orleans Pelicans. From the eye test, one can automatically tell the Thunder gained more shooting from the outside with the addition of Morrow, but on the defensive end, the eye test might make one think the Thunder defense could get worse in losing Sefolosha.

Using different metrics from and Synergy Sports, the data shows that Morrow can do a little bit more than just shoot 3-pointers, and defensively, he’s not too shabby of a defender compared to Sefolosha. First, let’s take a look at the base statistics from both players in the regular season.

Category Morrow Sefolosha
Points 8.4 6.3
3PT% 45.1% 31.6%
Rebounds 1.8 3.6
Steals 0.5 1.3
Turnovers 0.7 0.9
Fouls 1.3 1.5
Offensive Rating 104.8 105.8
Defensive Rating 105.2 101.0
On/Off Court -0.4/ -3.8 +4.8/ +8.6

Offensively, Morrow’s numbers show he can score and shoot a whole lot better than Sefolosha. Though the Offensive and Defensive Rating numbers give the edge to Sefolosha, you also have to keep in mind that Sefolosha was on a far better team in the Thunder. The Thunder as a team had an Offensive Rating of 108.1 points per 100 possessions, while their Defense held teams to 101.0 points per 100 possessions. For Morrow, the Pelicans scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions, while their defense gave up 107.3 points per 100 possessions.

Difference in Offensive Skill Sets

The two charts below show each players most used scoring possessions in the regular season and playoffs per Synergy, based on how often they used the possession over 10% of the time.

Screenshot (126)

For Morrow, he’s not a guy who just waits for Spot-Up shots or shots in transition, as he can score by moving off the ball and running around screens to get open looks both from 3-point, and mid-range. Morrow also has a limited ability to put the ball on the floor, whether it’s in an isolation situation, or by catching the ball on a close out by his defender, and driving to the rim. Morrow’s ability to put the ball on the floor will only help Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant that much more, because he’ll add another element to their offense Sefolosha didn’t bring. As for his 3-point shooting, if Morrow shot the percentages below with the Pelicans last season, you can imagine the types of opportunities he’s going to get with Durant and Westbrook providing shooting opportunities for him.

Player Spot-Up 3PT% Transition 3PT%
Morrow 43.4% 47.4%
Sefolosha 28.1% 31.8%

On the defensive end

While some assume Sefolosha is a better defender based on his past defensive performances, the numbers by Synergy tell a slightly different story. The chart below shows how Morrow, Sefolosha, Westbrook, and Reggie Jackson held their opponents on a points per possession (PPP) basis, in both the regular season and playoffs combined.

Screenshot (127)

Overall defensively, Morrow held opponents lower than Jackson and Sefolosha, and Westrbook was just three points better. In defending the Spot-Up, Morrow again, was second best of the four, as was the case in guarding isolations. One of the main areas where the Thunder will miss Sefolosha’s defense is in guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler, where Thabo was the best of the four, but Morrow was still just six points shy of Westbrook at guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler.

The next chart below shows how opponents shot from the field in each type of scoring possession, and I’ve also added how opponents shot from 3-point range on the Spot-Up possessions.

Screenshot (128)

By shooting percentage, Morrow’s defense was the best overall of the four players. The Thunder are getting a major upgrade defensively in defending 3-point shooters, as Morrow kept opponents from shooting nearly 10% worse on Spot-Up shots than Sefolosha, as was the same case with 3-point Spot-Up shots. Morrow also had the best isolation percentage of the four, while his pick-and-roll defense was in the range of Westbrook and Jackson.

The last table below shows where each player ranked defensively by Synergy based on opponent points per possessions in the entire league. Morrow will give the Thunder two Top-50 defenders in guarding isolations in adding him, and still having Wesbrook, but they’ll be losing a Top-50 pick-and-roll defender in Sefolosha.

Shot Type Morrow Sefolosha Westbrook Jackson
Total 190 344 133 221
Iso 46 70 10 238
P&R Ball Handler 209 50 164 151
Spot-Up 127 353 12 165

Per, the Thunder signed Morrow to a 3-year, $10 million dollar deal. By Basketball-Reference’s Win-Shares category, Morrow tallied 2.4 win shares for the Pelicans last season, which put his market in the $2-4 million range annually. The Thunder signed him at roughly $3.3 million, which means they didn’t have to overpay for a player who will bring consistent 3-point shooting, but also quantitatively, a defender who can bring different elements defensively, since the team lost an element in Sefolosha.

While data can be a good indicator of what a player can bring to a team, the game still has to be played. What if Morrow has trouble with the schemes on both sides of the ball? There’s still a lot of what-ifs that will become known once the season begins, and the Thunder players have their 82-games to learn to input Morrow into their system.

On May 31, it took six games and an overtime period for the Spurs to eliminate the Thunder in the playoffs. If Morrow can bring what his numbers show, it’s going to mean facing the Thunder for the Spurs, or any other playoff team, might be that much more difficult.

Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.