Welcome to "Plus/Minus," a weekly series that focuses 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 considered neutral.
Last night’s loss to the Miami Heat was the first relevant Thunder loss in over a year. If you’re an OKC fan, you know this one feels different than almost any loss during last season's debacle. No one is hurt. The coaching staff, save for perhaps the final inbounds play and a few defensive switches, appeared at least somewhat competent. There wasn't even a particular issue like a sluggish start (more on that later) that you can point to and say, "that is why we dropped this one, but it will be cleared up come March." By no means am I yearning for the days when we could point to an injury as an excuse, but games actually matter now. For the first time in what feels like forever, these games are an actual indicator of a healthy Thunder team's ability and potential. Thursday night brought the kind of average loss reserved for less-than-contending teams, and it could be a harbinger of a painful identity crisis.
Now, there is no sense of massive shame in losing on the road to the Miami Heat. They are a legitimate threat in the East, and Dwyane Wade’s "throwback" performance felt as inevitable as it was nauseating. The Heat even have Gerald Green.
Even if something bad was bound to happen, we at least didn’t expect it to feel so run-of-the-mill. Over the past six years, most Thunder losses have been the product of helter skelter circumstances. Last night, though, they played Thunder basketball and just lost the kind of game that we are used to seeing them win. Was it a surefire step backwards towards general irrelevancy? Probably not, but it also wasn’t meaningless. If similar losses begin to pile up, we may have to rethink this team’s status as a contender – and all that comes with it.
A quick note: When I began this column, I frankly envisioned many weeks that allowed me to omit the "Minus" part of "Plus/Minus" altogether. This week, however, there is very little to be genuinely excited about. Absolutely nothing jumps out as a solid +3 this week. Here’s to hoping there is more to write about here 7 days from now.
+2, No one
+1, The Dion Waiters Takeover
If you saw the fourth quarter of the Heat game, you probably have a pretty good idea of what Dion Waiters likely sees every time he closes his eyes. Spin moves, step back jumpers, insane three pointers – just buckets.
The good news is that Waiters really can be that good. The bad news is that, a) this came on the heels of a combined 4-20 shooting spree against the Pistons and Hawks, and b) "The Dion Waiters Attempted Takeover" is a stone cold lock to be in the "Minus" section of next week’s column.
0, The second unit
As the season began, Thunder fans hoped the second unit would provide organized production behind a steady, capable backup point guard and a classic post presence. Instead, when the starters leave the floor, it looks more like the Puppy Bowl. Apart from Dion, nearly everyone looks uncomfortable with the ball right now. Skip passes are sailing, shots are generally not falling, and what we all hoped would be a strength has proven so far to be anything but. It’s especially disappointing that Mitch McGary has been relegated to the D-League. If nothing else, the Thunder need his energy more than ever.
The bench is part of why this season was going to be different. Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka have always been productively steady, but the Kanter/Waiters/Morrow triumvirate was one that we all thought would be effective this year. The Thunder starters are of the caliber where they shouldn’t expect to have anyone bail them out, but it’s a mystery why the bench has often been so unreliable. In particular, Enes Kanter, who is one of the best low-post offensive players in the NBA, is averaging only 8 shots per game, and under 6 shots in his past 5 games.
We all hoped to be well clear of the anxious "Get (star player name) back in before this gets out of hand!" days, but I’m not sure that’s the case, even as the Thunder take on relatively middling opponents. Again, this isn’t to disrespect Atlanta or Miami – both are more than capable of beating almost anyone. It’s simply to say that true contenders get wins against merely playoff-caliber teams. The Thunder haven’t done that very often this year, and an inconsistent bench is a huge reason why.
-1, Big players playing small
Serge Ibaka is treading dangerous water right now as a Stretch 4, playing more like a Slow 3. I would say that he currently looks like a much, much worse Kevin Durant, but Durant is actually blocking more shots and generally patrolling the glass at a higher rate. Per Basketball-Reference, Serge is pulling down a career-low 12.1% of available rebounds. The starting point guard, by the way, is grabbing 11.7%. Serge is a negative factor on offense, statistically speaking, with a -1.4 offensive box plus/minus. In fact, let’s just use this opportunity to point out that Serge Ibaka is generally playing the worst basketball of his career by a wide margin. If you don’t know what any of the numbers mean below, just know this: nearly all of them are better when they’re higher.
Serge Ibaka's 2015-16 Advanced Stats
Don’t adjust your screen – Serge Ibaka’s PER is currently 15.1. PER is a stat adjusted so that the average NBA player has a PER of 15.
Serge is not the only one at fault here. No one down low has been very effective lately. Serge will simply always get special mention for a lot of reasons most people would probably prefer to not mention.
-2, Defensive players playing bad defense
By all statistical measure, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson are among OKC’s best defenders. Considering the roster as a whole, not only are defensive specialists a necessity, but the Thunder can also afford to have more "extreme" cases of such players. That said, I thought Adams and Roberson had a bad week. Adams especially seemed to struggle with some rotations in both losses, though he handled Dummond admirably.
Roberson had his moments against Dwyane Wade, though fans will remember Andre’s week for what he didn’t do – stay in front of Jeff Teague. Teague is a difficult matchup for any single player, and help defense was nonexistent on the most crucial play of the game, but to see the team’s defensive stopper fail so miserably during a key defensive possession certainly raised some eyebrows.
-3, The Walking Dead
After such a bad week of basketball, might as well shoot for some cross SEO.
OKC seemed to show up approximately 30 minutes late to play the Pistons and Hawks. The Hawks dominated the first quarter against OKC, grabbing an early 31-21 lead that would prove vital down the stretch. Against the Pistons, OKC jumped out to an early 15-6 lead that eventually devolved into a 31-29 deficit by the end of the opening period. If there’s anyone out there who plays drinking games involving first quarter Thunder turnovers, then this column lost readership this week. Those people are no longer breathing.
There are a lot of legitimate reasons for a team to lose a basketball game. Coming out lifeless in major match-ups should not be one of them.