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Who's to blame for OKC Thunder struggles?

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Why are these Thunder bad? Are they even bad? What steps do we take?

Two very unpopular faces in OKC right now.
Two very unpopular faces in OKC right now.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder are 1-4 over their last 5 and have fallen one game below .500. This has sent many fans into panic mode, calling for the firing of Coach Brooks or even GM Sam Presti. I think both actions are absolutely absurd and rash. They're not the people to blame, and neither are our stars.

Stay the course. At least, when it comes to the Thunder's management and big four.

It helps when you think of things from a broader perspective. Consider these points:

  • The Thunder have played 14 games without Durant or Westbrook. In those games, they are 4-10.
  • The Thunder have played 10 games without just Durant. In those games, they are 4-6.
  • The Thunder have played 22 games with both Durant and Westbrook. In those games, they are 14-8.
  • Of the 22 games that Durant and Westbrook have played in, 15 have come on the road.
  • The combined winning percentage of the 22 teams Durant and Westbrook have faced is .544.
  • Durant is playing through injury and has had to play in 5 less minutes of each game on average. That's huge, considering his per-36 minute numbers are on par with his career averages.
  • Westbrook's per-36 numbers are on par with career averages as well, aside from a slight dip in three point percentages.
  • Serge Ibaka is going through an adjustment period. The loss of talent at the start of the season spurred him to expand his range, rather than looking to post-ups. Serge's threes are hitting, but his normally rock-solid mid-range game has failed him.
  • Reggie Jackson's per-36 numbers are virtually the same as last year, with the only dip coming in three point percentage.

Thinking about all of the above, it's absolutely ludicrous to start calling this season a lost cause, or even calling for the firing of Coach Brooks. The Thunder's stars are going through injury struggles and are making adjustments to their games as they get older. They all continue to produce on a high level, and I have no doubt about their ability to compete when things get critical.

Of course, the problems haven't come from the Thunder's traditional core. I've blamed Westbrook for losses in the past, but his end of game management without KD has always been an issue. Really, you have to pin a ton of the bad record on the Thunder's new rotation players. Let's consider whom the Thunder have lost:

  • Caron Butler (9.7 PPG, 40.9% FG, 44.1% 3PT, 1.1 SPG, 11 Seasons in the NBA)
  • Thabo Sefolosha (6.3 PPG, 41.5% FG, 31.6% 3PT, 1.3 SPG, 7 Seasons in the NBA)
  • Derek Fisher (5.2 PPG, 39.1% FG, 38.4% 3PT, 0.9 SPG, 17 Seasons in the NBA)
And here's who's effectively replaced them....
  • Dion Waiters (10.8 PPG, 36.1% FG, 26.8% 3PT, 1.5 SPG, 2 Seasons in the NBA)
  • Andre Roberson (3.7 PPG, 46.0% FG, 22.9% 3PT, 0.8 SPG, 1 Season in the NBA)
  • Anthony Morrow (9.4 PPG, 425 % FG, 36.6% 3PT, 0.7 SPG, 6 Seasons in the NBA, 0 Playoffs)
I know it seems simplistic, but bear with me. The new players are clearly scoring just as much as the players they replaced, but they're taking more shots to do it. The new players are also clearly inferior defensively, as Coach Derek Fisher had more steals per game than Roberson and Morrow are averaging now. Lastly, the new players are much younger than their counterparts, and possess virtually no playoff experience.

Those are just the facts. From my perspective, things get much worse. Let's discuss each new acquisition individually, shall we?

Waiters Replaces Butler

I always harped on Caron Butler's defense, because he was old and sluggish. He wouldn't let guards get to the rim, but he would get dominated in the post by bigger players. Butler was also notoriously slow on his perimeter closeouts, which led to too many easy threes for our opponents. But despite his flaws, Butler was always mentally in position and locked in. Tuff Juice never really lost his assignment, and had a good eye for batting the ball out of his opponent's hands in the post.

But Dion Waiters, this guy's a trip. He wildly flings himself around looking for steals, and doesn't seem extremely concerned with staying on his man most of the time. Where Butler made physical mistakes, Waiters makes mental mistakes. And the mental mistakes often end up affecting the Thunder much more, because it lets the opposing offense move the ball and helps them gain confidence.

Offensively, Butler and Waiters are entirely different animals. Butler could very occasionally post up and drive, but was mostly relegated to draining wide open threes. Waiters can't hit a catch and shoot three to save his life. His form look extremely awkward to me, and I've seen him airball at least one this season. Instead, Waiters thrives in the ISO game. Waiters takes up way more possessions ISOing than Butler did, and the results haven't been promising. Dion has seen limited work with teammates, but it's far too little. Waiters will need a dramatic shift in his role if he is to emulate Butler's success.

Roberson Replaces Sefolosha

Defensively, Andre Roberson is like Thabo if you replaced the steals with boards. Both of them are extremely long, stout players that can always keep their opponent away from the rim. But Roberson is more of a lock down defender than Sefolosha was, seeing his opponent as a personal challenge. Roberson almost never helps off his man and never plays the passing lanes. Thus, despite Andre's longer arms, he registers less steals than Thabo. Roberson gets like one more rebound, but who cares? You could argue that Roberson's one-on-one defense is superior, but we're really missing Thabo's ability to trigger the break.

Speaking of Thabo's offensive ability, none of it is present in Roberson. At least Thabo could hit corner threes, make slick passes in transition, and very occasionally pass around a pick and roll. Roberson can't do any of those things. I will grant that Roberson is in the process of completely restructuring his shot, and that the early returns have been promising. But Roberson's ability off the dribble is worse than that of Ibaka and Adams, and he's generally offensively useless when not slam dunking the ball. It's going to be at least another season before Roberson can begin to equal Thabo's output.

Morrow replaces Fisher

I always thought of Fisher as a regular season weak link, since he tended to register a ton of good stats in blowouts (Butler was guilty of the same thing). Despite that, Fisher was critical in the playoffs. Right now, Anthony Morrow has never been to the playoffs. Countless NBA players have described the experience as a whole different animal, so Morrow may go through a serious adjustment period there.

Still, throwing that aside, Morrow has not been his usual self in Oklahoma City. I've heard Brian Davis describe Morrow working on an ultra-quick release, and it seems like he's always trying to squeeze out threes when they aren't there. Simply put, I think Morrow's struggling because opposing teams are able to shut him down. If Morrow played with Thabo and Caron instead of Andre and Dion, I could see his three point percentage being much higher. I think the same goes for Jackson and Westbrook, whom, as I mentioned earlier, have both seen their three point percentages dip this season.

Also, I have to mention that Morrow is a huge gambler defensively, and pressures for steals a good amount. This was okay when he played with Lamb and Jones. Now that Morrow is next to Waiters, it's always a disaster waiting to happen. Both players need to do a better job of communicating when to pressure, or Morrow needs to concentrate on his man while Morrow plays all the lanes. Otherwise, the opposing team just gets too many open shots.

Solutions

Again, I think calling for the firing of the coach is ridiculous. He's done the best he can with the personnel he's been given, and has had too much past success to fire him so hastily. I also think blaming Presti is ridiculous, because he's made some ridiculously sly moves. Moving Lance Thomas for the potential of Dion Waiters was an absolute steal, and it's not his fault that Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb aren't viable NBA players.

Speaking of the latter two, I really don't think they're the solution here. Lamb has range, but he doesn't have a consistent enough form to trust him with regular shots. Lamb will also get stuck in huge ruts during games, missing several shots at a time and tanking the team's offense in the process. Jones can shoot threes, but not well. And his post/mid-range ISO game really isn't anything to write home about. At best, he's an emergency KD replacement. And defense? With those two, no way.

Honestly, the Thunder need to take a hard look around the league and look for a player that can hit threes and help trigger the break. Not necessarily a defensively great player, but one who will at least get you a few possessions. OKC might have to give up an asset in the process, which hurts. But the Thunder's stars are literally dragging their younger counterparts at this point. It's either that, or Waiters magically finds his groove and Roberson discovers the secret to hitting threes.

By the way, when I said "give up an asset", I did NOT mean Reggie Jackson. He's an essential part of this team. Lose him, and you hand over the second unit to Dion Waiters. And I know that it's hard to get something without giving up Perk or Jackson, but you could always go over the cap....it's not like there's a shortage of money in the NBA right now. Or a lack of fan support in OKC.

What do you think OKC should do at the deadline? Drop a comment and let us know!