Thabo Sefolosha is an essential part of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting 5, doing wonders for this team’s efficiency.
I often wonder whether the Thunder would be better served by placing James Harden, now rounding out his second year in the league, in his stead. Harden packs quite an offensive punch (16.4 points per 36 minutes of play), and with Russell Westbrook’s recent ball-hogging woes (see: Joe Johnson), a more prominent role for Harden might be able to incite ball movement. But Sefolosha exemplifies the “Intangible Defensive Player” that championship teams need in order to survive in the playoffs.
There are a few examples of this type of player within the surviving contenders, and the grit of these players is more beneficial than their stat lines show. The Dallas Mavericks often use DeShawn Stevenson to guard opposing guards, and Tony Allen has demonstrated that determination can lift a middle-of-the-pack team like the Memphis Grizzlies shockingly deep into the postseason.
Sefolosha’s numbers aren’t impressive in the slightest, but as any baseball fan can tell you, it’s very hard to quantify defense. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging the lowest in points for his career, and this season his usage rate dropped to under 10% for the first time since entering the NBA. But watching the Thunder on Saturday in their 101-93 loss to the Grizzlies, I was able to note a few ways that Sefolosha is paramount to the success of his team. Some examples:
10:24- Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka fight hard against taller Grizzlies players for a defensive rebound underneath the basket. Thabo secures the ball and takes it coast-to-coast for an uncontested layup. With defenses occupied with preventing offensive production from Kevin Durant and Westbrook, Scott Brooks should bring Sefolosha into the offense in much the same manner as he has Ibaka.
8:42- On a cut from Durant under the hoop to the corner, Sefolosha sets a hard screen that knocks Tony Allen to the ground. The pick is set well, his feet planted firmly, and Allen goes down like he hit a brick wall. With his defender incapacitated, Durant knocks down a three. Sefolosha’s become incredibly adept at creating contact, yet only fouling when it’s beneficial to do so.
6:26- With a chase-down block, Sefolosha prevents a fastbreak layup from Sam Young, creating incidental contact that throws Young to the ground. At the same time, the Thunder gains possession after the ball goes out-of-bounds off of the Grizzlies. This play was all heart, and indicative of the positive play Sefolosha can provide, though the stat sheets will only show a block.
11:09- Sefolosha prevents an easy tip-in from Zach Randolph, leaping across the paint, over four players. At this moment, I truly begin to realize how athletic this player is; his speed and jumping ability is rarely lauded in the way that they are with Westbrook and Ibaka, but they should be.
Always the first to get set on defense, Sefolosha can pose problems when guarding opposing stars. Against Sefolosha, Kobe Bryant’s points per 36 minutes drop to 20.4 from 30.7 when he’s on the bench. His FG% is 40% against Thabo, and 57% against the rest of the Thunder. Dwyane Wade’s FG% plummets from 53% to 27% against him, and his defense causes NBA MVP Derrick Rose’s +/- to dive from a +49.7 to a -12.8. Across the league, stars are drastically affected by his play.
Never again will I doubt his skill set, no matter how many times I see Westbrook wave him off. He’s a perimeter defender in the vein of Ron Artest and Bruce Bowen, and as the Thunder become an increasingly more dangerous opponent, his play will be likewise respected.