Welcome to "Plus/Minus," a weekly series that will run throughout the season, focusing on trends among players, topics, and ideas related to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The scores are similar to those found in the box score of an NBA game, with a higher number representing a better performance. For example, "+3" represents a better performance than "+2," and "-3" is worse than "-2." A score of "0" is completely neutral.
Week 1 of the 2015-16 NBA season has come and gone for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The good news? They’re either better than ever or the same as ever. Even better news? Even if they’re the same, they’re still really good. Week 1 had it all: flashes of the Kevin Durant we know and love, flashes of the Dion Waiters we hate and love, and flashes of the Russell Westbrook who hates and loves us. There was a huge win over a Western Conference rival that could have easily been a loss, and a huge loss to a Western Conference rival that could have easily been a win. There was a 38-foot desperation jump shot by a point guard who probably would’ve preferred it come from 48 feet.
Week 1 was epic.
Week 1 Plus/Minus
+3 Russell Westbrook
Where should we start? The 34.1 PER? The 30.3/9.3/7.5 averages on 52% shooting? Or how about a full season’s worth of highlight-reel plays crammed into four games? Russell Westbrook has played just 142 minutes this year, and he’s already blown up any pre-existing rankings of his top career plays:
When you watch the Thunder, this season feels a little different. For the first time, it sure does seem like Russell Westbrook is leading a team featuring a healthy Kevin Durant. Whether Durant, great and unstoppable as he can be, is still working his way back (probably) or this is a permanent shift (possibly) remains to be seen. Whether this shift would be a positive development for the Thunder has been the subject of much debate going back at least five years. Either way, anyone looking for Westbrook to emerge as "1" instead of "1B" can point to Monday night’s loss against the Rockets as Exhibit A. The fact that Houston’s game-changing run coincided with Westbrook sitting down wasn’t as surprising as how Russell took charge when he came back in. In years past, we would have seen a barrage of 19-foot jumpers and out-of-control drives. On Monday, Westbrook didn’t exactly shy away from pulling the trigger, but he carved up the Houston defense with a variety of drives and timely, accurate, unselfish dishes, generally looking as unstoppable and playoff-ready as he ever has.
Russell Westbrook has never been afraid to take charge. This season, though, he is doing so in the most dominating form of his career, shooting at a high percentage while getting easier buckets for teammates more often than ever.
+2 Enes Kanter’s Defensive Effort
First things first: we are at least several weeks away from any Bill Russell comparisons. That said, Enes Kanter clearly has started the season off making a more concerted effort on the defensive end. Through four games, he is averaging 11 rebounds, but it has never really been about the numbers. Kanter looks far more aware and disciplined defending against the pick and roll than he did a season ago. His advanced defensive statistics still paint a pretty startling picture – his Defensive Box Plus/Minus* is at -4.4, though to be fair, the entire Thunder roster is playing appalling defense right now (Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison own the only positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus ratings, at only 0.3 and 0.2, respectively).
Again, this is not to say that Enes Kanter is suddenly trending towards Hakeem territory, but he has been surprisingly adequate at times in the post, while also blocking 1.8% of opponents’ 2-point shots while he is on the floor. If he keeps that up, it would be the highest percentage he has blocked in the past 3 seasons.
Many would argue that a $70 million player should not be applauded for simply playing worse-than-average defense, and these people are probably right. But with all that Kanter offers on offense, knowing that he is at least capable of making strides – tiny as they may be – on defense is enough to get Enes to +2 for the first week of the season.
+1 Billy Donovan
If the Thunder go 3-1 every week, Billy Donovan’s first year will end with an NBA Title capping off a 61 win season. There is nothing wrong with 3-1, especially when you factor in an opening night win against the Spurs, a dominating blowout against the Nuggets, and a grinding victory against the Magic on a night where the Thunder played three very poor quarters. Donovan’s first week wasn’t perfect (which we will get to later) but it bears repeating – even if the team let a winnable game slip away against the Rockets, stacking together consistent 3-1 weeks will put OKC in a great position come playoff time.
0 Dion Waiters
Week 1 saw Dion Waiters going Full Waiters, which is to say that he demonstrated exactly why he is fast becoming the most frustrating player in franchise history. After a very good preseason, opening night saw him string together two massive buckets to beat the Spurs. Five nights later, he appeared to be playing with a medicine ball against the Rockets, shooting 3-8 and, alongside D.J. Augustin, forming a duo that was nothing short of devastating (for the Thunder).
This is who Dion Waiters is. This is why he will almost single-handedly win and lose multiple games this season. It is why the Thunder were more than happy to talk long-term contract with him, and it’s why they were more than happy to ultimately hold off. When it comes to gauging Dion Waiters, a weekly recap is insufficient. Before Week 2’s Plus/Minus goes to press, Dion will be assigned to every spot on the list at one time or another. Week 3 probably won’t be much different.
-1 Billy Donovan
I am not disparaging a 3-1 start. But as I wrote in a previous column, Donovan was always going to get wins here. His real task is to get wins using with a playoff-scalable, motion-heavy offense and a defense recalling the 2012-13 team that finished with the fourth best defensive rating in the NBA. Four games into 2015-16, Donovan has failed to implement either of these things.
The sample size is small, and the Thunder are still finding their rhythm, but the ghosts of seasons past were howling as Durant and Westbrook took turns playing iso ball down the stretch against Houston. Donovan shouldn’t be blamed for Durant’s final desperation shot to tie the game, as the rookie coach showed good poise in trying to call a timeout that went unnoticed by the officials, but the entire second half featured a relentless array of questionable offensive possession for the Thunder, as their lead wilted and morphed into a deficit.
Lucky for Donovan, the same athleticism and hunger that makes sharing one ball difficult can also help provide a quicker fix on defense, where it shouldn't be tough to find ways to leverage weapons like Ibaka and Durant.
I am willing to give Donovan a few more games for some of his lineups to develop and evolve, and his decision to go with Waiters against San Antonio was an unexpected stroke of genius that resulted in a massive win.
This was a predictable start, even when considering that the fan base spent an entire offseason convincing itself that impossible levels of domination could be expected from the outset. The West is too good for any team to run wild for an entire season. Week 2 features tough matchups against some of the East’s top teams and a visit from the eternally obnoxious Suns. If Donovan can fix some of these issues while putting together another .750 week, next week’s recap will list him near the top.
-2 Kevin Durant’s Defense
Last year, after coming to OKC in a midseason trade, Enes Kanter posted a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of -1.7 and a Defensive Rating^ of 106. For this defensive performance, he was mocked by an entire nation.
Currently, Kevin Durant has a -5.7 Defensive Box Plus/Minus and a 108 Defensive Rating. Yes, he has only played 4 games. Yes, he is working his way back from a frustrating, injury-riddled year. But KD has to get back to his previous defensive form for the Thunder to be at their best. While Serge Ibaka often gets a lot of credit for covering up OKC’s defensive mistakes, it is actually Kevin Durant who has been the team’s secret weapon on defense during their run as a contender. Durant’s length allows him not only to serve as a covert rim protector, but also to clog passing and dribbling lanes, often creating loose balls that lead to transition opportunities.
In 2012-13, KD posted his career-best Defensive Rating (100) and Defensive Box Plus/Minus (1.4), and it’s no coincidence that the rest of the team followed suit. As Durant works his way back on offense, it is actually his continued reacclimation on the defensive end that could take OKC to a new level.
Also, someone please get him to tie his shoes. Playing barefoot was almost certainly not part of his rehabilitation schedule.
-3 Whoever delayed the first Thunder/Warriors matchup until February 6th
A criminal offense. -3 isn’t enough.
*Defensive Box Plus/Minus is defined as "a box score estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team." All statistics are from basketball-reference.com.
^Defensive Rating is defined as "an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions" by a player. All statistics are from basketball-reference.com.