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Thunder Week 9 Plus/Minus: The Future is Now for OKC

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We always knew 2016 was coming. Now it's almost here. Welcome to crunch time in the Durant/Westbrook era.

© Mark D. Smith

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.

***

2016 is almost here. As a Thunder fan, 2016 is a year you might have even heard about. It’s the one that everyone has been referring to as the Thunder’s "last chance to win a title," or even the year the that a certain player "heads home in free agency."

It will also be the year that the team’s newest superstar in waiting grows into his role as a legitimate game changer. It will be the year the most talented Thunder team in history enters the Western Conference playoff gauntlet. It will be the year that a rookie head coach gets his sea legs and finds the perfect medium between micro-manager and bystander.

And if you want my opinion, it’s NODion Waiters isn’t going home in free agency.


Plus/Minus

+3 Cam Payne

This one was too easy. Against Milwaukee, it wasn’t a case of simply showing flashes in limited minutes. It wasn’t another tantalizing display of lottery pick talent against D-League also-rans.  This was Cameron Payne providing a huge boost to Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder, announcing his arrival with a 16 point, 3 assist, 3 rebound flurry in only 16 minutes of action during a suddenly-close game. There were zero turnovers, and his points came on 5/6 shooting from the field. His four fouls served as a reminder that there is still a long way to go in catching up to NBA speed, but Payne had it all on display: the three to end the first quarter, the array of floaters and runners, the ability (and willingness) to slice to the basket, and the touch to make opposing guards pay when they go under on screens. Payne even added a very Westbrookian steal for good measure.

This is a fun one to watch again. Note how Payne manages to create space for Kanter and Morrow on his assists with his accuracy and savvy – not unlike an NFL quarterback throwing to a back shoulder of a would-be covered receiver.

+2 Enes Kanter

This is the Enes Kanter the Thunder paid $70 million for. In his last four games, Kanter is averaging 18.5 points and 10 rebounds, while shooting a blistering 68% from the field. Kanter is making an impact even when he isn’t getting rebounds - his constant battling on the offensive glass has been a major headache for opposing bigs over the past week.

Oh – and Kanter somehow has 3 steals in his last two games. That gives him a total of 4 for the season, and he now trails league-leading Russell Westbrook by only 76.

+1 December

If an NBA team keeps going 12-3, they eventually end up winning 65 regular season games. If they can get past the pesky, though now Bledsoe-less, Phoenix Suns in a New Year’s Even matchup that has been historically very exciting, 12-3 will be the Thunder’s December 2015 record. 12-3 is very good.

But hidden in that 12-3 record is a festering worry that the Thunder aren’t yet at the point where they can consistently beat other contending teams. All 3 of this month’s losses were exceedingly painful. In their own respective vacuums, all three losses felt like they could have – and should have – been wins. Given the task (self-appointed), I would rank the three losses like this in terms of sheer frustration:

  1. Cavaliers - Lebron James might wake up on January 1st with some fresh continuation free throws from this game.
  2. Bulls - This  game felt like another scab being torn off, as Chicago seems to somehow keeps an extra roster  spot for 2011 Derrick Rose so that he can play twice a year against the Thunder.
  3. Heat - Basically everything frustrating about the Thunder condensed into a 2-hour viewing experience.

Let’s not mince words here – all three losses were brutal. If taking control of games like these doesn’t become a regular occurrence, 40-4 runs against the Lakers really aren’t as fun.

OKC’s December still gets a positive rating this week because, come on, – 12-3 is still 12-3. The problem is that I can’t remember a 12-3 that felt this unsatisfying or left so many unanswered questions.

+0 Serge Ibaka, impact player

He’s been a popular target for criticism from just about everyone this year, myself included, but Serge has quietly played slightly better as of late if you discount the 3 for 12 dud he put up against Chicago. His help defense is still a step slow, and it’s still frustrating to watch him get overpowered consistently, but until the Bucks game Serge had actually posted only one negative plus/minus dating back to November 23rd.

This has, of course, helped coincide with a successful stretch for the Thunder as a team, and the correlation between Ibaka’s box score plus/minus and the team’s win-loss record is beginning the long journey back to respectability.

Plus/Minus Correlation to Victory
Kevin Durant 0.57
Russell Westbrook 0.63
Serge Ibaka 0.50
Dion Waiters 0.49
Enes Kanter 0.40

Correlation between each player’s box score plus/minus and a binary 1/0 coding for wins versus losses.

While the Thunder will always go as Durant and Westbrook go, you would still like to see your third best player impacting games slightly more. Like all statistics, this one doesn’t tell the whole story, but I’d venture to say that the whole story probably does Serge a larger disservice.

Improvement is still positive, however, and here’s to hoping that Serge turns the corner once and for all in 2016.

-1 The Jeremy Lamb Thing

Lamb has cooled off a bit as of late, but his career-best play this season has still provided plenty of takes and talking points among Thunder fans – especially when one considers who the team kept instead of Lamb (see: -3).

An underrated aspect of Cam Payne’s rise is that this point will, with any luck, become moot. We have gotten over Harden, and Reggie didn’t do himself many favors on his way out. We can’t have a third guy so quickly.

-2 D.J. Augustin

There was always going to be a casualty in the rise of Cameron Payne, and it was unfortunately always destined to be D.J. Augustin. Augustin has performed admirably since joining the Thunder in the middle of last season. His play in 2015-16 has been uneven, and the Thunder bench as of late has simply needed more of a jolt than Augustin’s reliably steady hand so often brings. D.J.’s night in, night out presence could ironically be his downfall in OKC, where steady doesn’t cut it on nights when the rest of the second unit struggles. Payne is simply a more dynamic scoring threat off the bench, and Augustin’s statistically negative defense doesn’t help.

There’s a better chance than not that Augustin is on the Thunder roster through the end of year, but if we have seen the last of D.J. Augustin "era," it is one we can at least look back on fondly. He was a solid midseason pickup whose presence has allowed for patience with Payne’s development.

Credit the excellent Thunder Buddies Podcast – it looks like they nailed a preseason prediction that Augustin would dominate playing time early, before eventually being overtaken by Cam Payne by the end of the year. It had to happen organically if OKC was ever going to make a push, and it finally has.

-3 Kyle Singler

For a while, it seemed like the Singler "experiment" was winding down. Then he inexplicably played nearly 17 minutes against Cleveland, and gave the world a master class in how to play 7 minutes in a 40 point win and still only wind up with only a +2.

I wanted to post some shocking, subversive statistic here comparing Singler’s win shares to his salary – something like "Side note: Kyle Singler is getting paid $1.2 million for each win share he has produced so far this season," but I can’t. No one can.

Because Kyle Singler has -0.3 win shares.

Happy 2016. It's going to be a big one.