The Oklahoma City Thunder were on the wrong side of history on July 4, 2016 when superstar Kevin Durant decided to leave the team to join an already established superstar team, the Golden State Warriors. The question after that was, “What’s next?” Well, the Thunder didn’t do much in the summer of 2016 after losing Durant. They traded Serge Ibaka about a week or so prior to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo and the 11th overall pick of the 2016 NBA draft (Domantas Sabonis) leaving an offensive juggernaut and star studded player in Russell Westbrook all by himself with not much help.
The starting lineup for most of the year for the Thunder was Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Sabonis and Steven Adams. This left Westbrook with the green light to do anything he wanted at any given time on the court. And man did he take advantage of being the only star on the court. Westbrook finished the season with the MVP award averaging 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, and 10.4 apg while carrying his team to a 47-35 record and losing in the first round of the playoffs 4-1 against the Houston Rockets.
After a disappointing ending to the 2016-2017 season, the Thunder had the same question, “What’s next?” It, again, was a hard question. Before the previous season had ended, the Thunder’s main focus point was to lock up Westbrook in a huge contract but the talks never seemed to get too serious throughout the summer and it kind of led the fan base, and rest of the NBA, to think that Westbrook might want out of OKC too. But June 30, 2016 came around and the tweet heard around the world was said by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “Paul George has been traded to OKC, per sources”. Paul George was traded from the Pacers to OKC for Victor Oladipo and Domantis Sabonis. Weeks before this, news had broke that the Indiana Pacers star no longer wanted to be in Indianapolis, even showing heavy interest in joining the Los Angeles Lakers. This gave many fans hope in having a team that could make a push in the playoffs and wanting to make Westbrook resign with the Thunder. But was it going to put them over the top of the defending champion Warriors. Most likely, no.
But, nonetheless, it was still exciting to hear that the Thunder had another star besides Westbrook on their team and how it would work out. But the Thunder were not done making moves yet. During most of the 2016-2017 season, another offensive star, Carmelo Anthony, was being heard about in the trade rumor department after having a feud with the, then, President of Basketball Operations of the New York Knicks, Phil Jackson, It was surprising Anthony finished the entire season without being traded but finally got his wish on September 23 when Anthony was traded to OKC for Doug McDermott, Enes Kanter, and a future pick.
The NBA and its fanbase exploded again after hearing yet again that the Thunder acquired another star. Even Westbrook was excited about this because six days after Anthony joined the team, he signed a 5 year $205 million dollar extension to stay with the squad. Many people believed this put them right under, if not, even, with the Warriors to compete for a title and put them in position to have a fantastic season.
But it has been the opposite.
It is December 1 and we are 20 games into the 2017-2018 NBA season and the Thunder have shown flashes of what they can be if they figure it out, but on most nights, they have looked like an average team having just 8 wins and 12 losses ranking 9th in the western conference. It is worth noting that with only one superstar last year, the Thunder went 12-8 through the first 20 games. A scary stat about the month of November for the Thunder is that they finished with 4 wins and 9 losses in the month which was the worst record the Thunder had in a month since 2009. The Thunder finished 23-59 that season. The record alone should leave people wondering, “What’s Wrong?”. Well, there are many things wrong with the Thunder just 20 games into this anticipated season.
Here are some reasons why I think the Thunder have gotten off to a slow start.
Their Bench- Besides the very solid lineup of, Westbrook, Roberson, George, Anthony, and Adams, the Thunder have Raymond Felton, Alex Abrines, Kyle Singler, Patrick Patterson, Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson, and Dakari Johnson as the main backups for their starting lineup. These are names that don’t really pop out, let alone be talked about on the scouting report. This bench is what leaves a huge gap between the Thunder and the Warriors if they want to be able to beat them in a 7 game playoff series. Having such an abysmal bench has to have the Thunder play their superstars more minutes.
Westbrook is averaging 35.3 minutes per game (while only averaging 34.6 in his MVP season), George is averaging 36.9 mpg, while the oldest of the big 3 at age 33 Anthony is averaging 32.5 minutes per game leaving their stars tired at the end of games and, like we have seen many times
this season, unable to finish close games. The Thunder’s highest scorer off the bench is Jerami Grant, who is averaging 8.6 points in 22.5 minutes per game. This is not going to cut it, especially since besides the big 3 in the starting lineup are 2 heavy defensive men in Roberson and Adams who perspectively average 4.7 and 12.0 ppg.
A player I would like to see the Thunder go after is Lou Williams, the shooting guard on the Los Angeles Clippers. Lou Williams would be an instant bonus for any team, let alone the Thunder. Williams won the 6th man of the year award back in 2015 and is an excellent ball handler, free throw shooter (89.7% this year), shooter in general from close range, mid range, and 3 point range, and can also create his own shot with ease.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Clippers make him available because of the chances he might want to leave the because of the Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, and Milos Teodosic injuries and how the team is most likely going to take a hard it in the win column.
Efficiency- The Thunder are shooting a terrible 43.7 field goal percentage this year, which is 28th out of 30 teams in the association only head of the Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls. Their 3 point percentage is also not good which is at 34.6%, 25th in the league. The Thunder also aren’t great at free throw shooting which they are 25th in the league in that category at 73.2%. These offensive numbers need to make a huge turn around, but their defensive numbers have been very good. The Thunder are 10th in the league at defending opponents at the 3 point line holding their opponents to 35.6% from beyond the arc. And from overall field goal percentage, the Thunder are 7th in the league holding opposing teams to an average of shooting 44.7% per
game. It is very odd that the Thunder have very good defensive stats but still are only looking from the outside of a playoff spot. If the team is able to change their offense, which is my next point on why they are struggling, then they should be looking like the team everybody expected them to be.
Offensive Flow- With a big 3 of offensive minded stars, it was very predictable, and very easy to see a lot of iso/hero ball type of plays set up for each of the stars. And the numbers show it. The Thunder are 1st in the league in pull up 2 point jumpers, which is high regarded as one of , if not the, worst shot you can take in a basketball game. Most of the time, these pull up jumpers come off of no ball movement, and pure isolation which leads teammates to just standing around, having little to no ball movement, and having players with no rhythm.
The Thunder also rank 29th in passes per possession, which backs up the 2 point pull up jumpers theory. Another stat that proves the pull up jumper theory is that the Thunder rank in the bottom 25 in distance traveled per game. There are barely any passes, leaving player standing around, barely and screen and, in general, plays be drawn up from the coach.
And a final stat is that the Thunder rank 27th in the NBA in drives per game, which makes it easier for teams to just sit with them and guard the perimeter, leaving the opponents with a lot of energy.
Russell Westbrook- In no way am I saying Westbrook is the cause of these troubles or the worst of the big 3, because I think Anthony is, but I think Westbrook needs to go back to that
killer MVP instinct. Just because he has two other stars on his team does not mean he has to put less pressure on the gas. It means he has to put more because more teams are now coming after them. Westbrook averaged 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, and 10.4 apg last season. He is still putting up very good numbers averaging 22.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg, and 9.5 apg. I have no problem with the rebounding and the assisting, but he needs to bring that dog back in him and be that scorer on his team. It is understandable that he would want to share the ball more with his other star teammates to make them feel comfortable and have them want to stay for the future, but he needs to show he is the leader of the team and also bring out the killer instinct in all of his teammates.
Although this team seems to have many things wrong with it, these problems are fixable in many ways. I just think most of their problems are in their heads and they need some tweaking from the coaching staff on their players.
Personally, I don’t think the Thunder will continue to do poorly and I expect the team to go to the Western Conference Finals, unless they are matched up with the Rockets or Warriors in a previous round.