I'm worried. Are you?
Despite getting Russell Westbrook back in the lineup and losing two starters that were largely considered dead weight, the Oklahoma City Thunder have lost 5 of their last 8.
It's not like the going has been tough, either. The Thunder have enjoyed an extremely generous post All-Star Break schedule, with a six game home stand and virtually no back to backs. They've endured losses to the despicably bad Cavaliers and Lakers, while also falling flat in the face of the mighty Clippers and Heat. About the only success the team has seen came against the painfully slow Grizzlies and Bobcats, along with a blowout win against the super-tanking Sixers.
People have attributed the Thunder's problems to a variety of reasons. Our own KevinHFY wrote a terrific article that laid the blame primarily on poor defensive effort. Aside from his general complaints about closing out on shooters and playing pick and rolls, he specifically keyed in on the lack of elbow grease that Durant and Westbrook were putting in. He's not alone in his criticism, as Thunder beat writer Darnell Mayberry was quick to call out Durant for stat collecting and Westbrook for simply working himself back into shape.
Personally, I believe that there are a myriad of follies, both sporting some combination of strategy and effort. But here's four specific things that I really think are yanking the Thunder's chain right now....
The Thunder are making a serious commitment to defending the rim. Generally, that strategy will work against higher end teams. Better squads have better scorers, so they're more likely to trust their player in an isolation situation. But against lower end teams that make tons of excellent passes, it leads to some really easy shots near the rim. I can't tell you how many times the Thunder's center will commit to the driver, leaving an opposing big or cutter wide open for the pass or offensive rebound.
Furthermore, the team is running very few offensive sets. I think this is as much the fault of the players and coaching staff as it is a result of the absence of Sefolosha and Perkins. You can say all you want about the pitiful offensive production that Thabo and Perk have generated over the years, but you can't deny that they're very keen on getting the ball moving. Perk almost has his own offensive set entirely. I don't know what to call it, but it's the one where he gets to run over the half court line behind Westbrook, receive a pass, and move the ball to the other side of the floor. Sefolosha, on the other hand, was really great about directing traffic and getting players in place. He's also the only player I've seen regularly challenge and butt heads with Westbrook on the floor, so there's that.
It might be hard to believe that Sefolosha and Perkins could have that big of an effect, but when you look at their replacements, the theory is a bit more plausible. In the center department, Steven Adams and Hasheem Thabeet almost never touch the ball. Their roles in offensive sets rarely stem beyond handing the ball off at the top of the key, and more often then not they're simply standing on the weak side block. Sefolosha's replacements, Perry Jones and Andre Roberson, aren't exactly ball movers either. Roberson specifically is downright allergic to offense altogether, and is frequently ignored by opposing defenses. PJIII has done a good job of getting other teams to respect his shot. But, at shooting guard, he's usually covered by someone half a foot shorter than him. So it's hard for him to do much in the way of moving the ball.
Westbrook and Butler aren't at 100%. I don't think enough people are going out of their way to point this out. I'm hearing lots of questions about Russell Westbrook's awareness and intentions, but I'm not hearing any questions about his ability to simply play at a high level. His game against the Lakers was the worst game I can remember ever seeing him play. I was 17 when I watched his rookie season, so I'm not SUPER well-versed on his entire career, but I can't ever remember him making such garishly bad mistakes. Passes were arriving five feet off target. Shots were consistently slipping out of his hand. Defensively, there will be plays where he simply gets beaten around his defender. A lot of people like to attribute this to a lack of awareness, lack of mental toughness, or as a simple choice of how to spend his energy. I think that all of those are possibilities, but I do think that his energy level is still definitely limited. The effort is always there, but it's tough for him to put in a full game right now, even with his minute restrictions. I'm not going to speculate as to what exactly is still wrong with him, but if he's using games as part of his recovery process, that's okay with me.
Meanwhile, Caron Butler really doesn't look like the player that he should be. His shooting percentages have been low, and he's struggled to find any sort of rhythm. At this point, he's not very involved in running offensive sets for the team, and he hasn't been very aggressive about finding ways to score the ball. The Thunder seem to be satisfied to use him as a shoot and cut player for now, and that's all well and good, but I'd like to see him get a little bit more involved. Players of Caron Butler's age aren't going to be able to produce every single night, but he will have the odd performance where he's able to create his own shot a few times and score 20. I'm willing to take a few missed shots every night if there's some serious potential of that happening.
Lastly, I'd just like to point out that the Thunder are huge. Like massive. I can't stress this enough. People used to criticize P.J. Carlesimo for starting Kevin Durant at Shooting Guard, but his lineups look like Playskool compared to what Scott Brooks is trotting out on the floor right now. Hasheem Thabeet has five inches on Kendrick Perkins, and an even more massive 7'9" wingspan. Perry Jones III, who now gets minutes at shooting guard, is 6'11", has a 7'2" wingspan, and is four inches taller than Thabo Sefolosha. When you add those guys to a rotation that already includes these dudes....
In case you didn't catch that, we've got a point guard with the same wingspan as some average sized centers! Steven Adams is literally half an inch short of having the wingspan of Yao Ming. YAO MING. Even recent 10 day contract signee Reggie Williams makes you want to stretch your limbs, clocking in with a wingspan of 6'9" despite a height of only 6'3".
Our team is chalk full of long arms of the law, and those that don't belong to the club are rather advanced in age. Nick Collison is long in the tooth at 33, and Derek Fisher is still going strong at the incredible age of 39.
What does all of this mean? Sometimes, we're not going to be able to cover shooters. The Thunder defense can look fearsome when they switch and try to protect the rim, and they're always going to be good at using their length to get steals. But there aren't very many quick players on the roster. Furthermore, it's hard for our team to get back on defense and cover all of our bases immediately. This is especially true when you've got already unnaturally huge players trying to defend the wrong position, and you've got fearless players on offense that like to attack the rim.
I know that a lot of people like to attribute the covering of shooters to a lack of effort, and I won't deny that the Thunder's hustle has been lacking over the past few games. But I also think that it's a weakness the Thunder must accept and account for, because it's not going to go away any time soon. No matter how determined you are, you're going to give up cheap points to teams like the Suns, and you've got to figure out other ways to adjust your gameplan so that you can abuse their weaknesses.
In the end, I think that's what the Thunder don't do enough of. Scott Brooks has this really old school mentality, giving players minutes based on seniority with the team and work in practice. It's rare to see the rotation change unless it absolutely has to, and Brooks had been using virtually the same formula to determine minutes for three straight years, from 2011-2013. I think that's a good thing for getting the best out of Brooks' players, and a great contrast to the moneyball style with which Sam Presti manages the team. But I think that it can have a negative effect when the Thunder play uniquely styled teams, particularly ones that have natural advantages against OKC.
What do you think has been plaguing the Thunder recently? Let us know in the comments!