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.
By 10pm Eastern Standard Time tonight, the Oklahoma City Thunder will officially arrive at the exact midpoint of the 2015-16 regular season. The truth is that, by the time the 41st game of the season is complete, there’s a good chance we won’t know much more about the team’s status as a true contender than we did after their 41st minute of the season.
We know that Kevin Durant, save for a pair of small hiccups, seems healthy and unaffected by the foot issues that sidelined him for so much of 2014-15. We know that his mere availability correlates directly with the team’s fluctuating status between contender and bystander, though that’s nothing new. A major case could build for Durant – and not Steph Curry – as the league’s MVP down the stretch if the Thunder can successfully navigate a brutal post-All Star break schedule.
We also know that Russell Westbrook is finding the perfect middle ground between facilitating point guard and MVP-caliber, team-leading superstar. Russell has had a rough week, but he has also matured tremendously as a passer, leveraging his explosive offensive skills to create easy points for the big men.
But those two are the prerequisites for all of this to work. We ‘ve long acknowledged the greatness of Durant and Westbrook, but it’s the white noise surrounding them that will make or break the Thunder this season – and there’s a lot of it.
As we head into game 41, here is the non-Durant and Westbrook midseason edition of Plus/Minus:
+3 Cameron Payne
While the phenomenon is still quite recent, Payne is beginning to establish himself as a legitimately vital piece of the rotation. Relegating D.J. Augustin to the "sad veteran in full warmup suit who probably should be sitting further down the bench" role, Payne is beginning to surpass any expectations of what he might contribute during his rookie season. No one ever expected him to become a full-on James Harden-caliber super-sub, and he’ll likely never become one, but the Per 36 minute stats suggest that Payne’s rookie performance is actually more on par with Harden’s than with that of Reggie Jackson, the guy we (more realistically) hoped he might replace:
Best of all? These stats are hardly empty. Since the calendar flipped to 2016, Payne has averaged 8 points on 49% shooting (42% from three point range) in 19 minutes per game. These have been real minutes alongside starters in key stretches.
Among the most interesting story lines of the season’s second half will be how long Payne’s leash is during cold stretches. When the honeymoon ends, will Donovan let him work through growing pains as the games get more crucial, or will he go back to the stable, far less dynamic Augustin? Keep in mind that it’s not as if this was a case of Payne simply blowing past Augustin. D.J.’s own poor play made it perhaps easier than Donovan would have hoped to give Payne a shot at the full-time backup spot.
We aren’t yet at the point where Payne can or should be trusted as a reliable, essential component of Thunder victories, but the second unit becomes a lot more difficult to guard with a true creator at the point.
+2 The Funaki Lob
An easy choice for a positive spot in the midseason edition. Despite the chaos surrounding the season, 2015-16’s first half might well be remembered for the emergence of the Westbrook-to-Steven Adams alley oop. The play has been unstoppable at times, as opposing big men are forced to choose between giving Westbrook a clear path to the basket or leaving Adams wide open for the lob. The bottom line: someone is about to dunk.
+1 The Rest of the West
If the Thunder are going to reach their ultimate goal, the only true measuring sticks at this point are the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs. Those 3 teams are almost certain to be among the conference finalists, and the Thunder must reach a new level to join them in the elite tier.
Could it be that we might have overrated the West a bit? The Clippers are dangerous, playoff-tested (however unsuccessful), and have come on strong as of late. But the Rockets? The Grizzlies? Where are the dominant, terrifying beasts we imagined? The Rockets are a mere 21-19, and the Grizzlies have looked nothing like the team that has given OKC so much trouble over the past half decade. Even teams like the Jazz and Pelicans have, for reasons including injuries, failed to build on last season’s momentum.
Most of these teams aren’t lacking for talent, and there could be a huge effort by the western powers to avoid the potentially dangerous Rockets in round one, but the Thunder have to feel good about their current standing. If the stars can stay healthy, and if the team can run off a few more winning streaks, the Thunder will face far less competition for home court advantage in round one than we thought they might when the season began.
0 Billy Donovan
When the final Plus/Minus of the season is filed, Billy Donovan will be on it - somewhere. That much is certain. His performance in his rookie season as coach will be judged solely on how the team closes out the season and then leverages their standing in the playoffs.
As of right now, though, what can really be said of Donovan? Are the Thunder really better or worse off because of him? No. Have his rotations been at times vexing? Yes. Has he shown a willingness to adapt? Yes.
It’s tough to gauge Donovan at this point, other than to say he hasn’t really blown it yet.
-1 Dion Waiters
There is mounting evidence to suggest that Dion Waiters is literally worse than ever. Sporting a career-low PER of 9.7 (reminder: PER is adjusted so that 15.0 equates to an average player) and a negative value relative to a replacement-level player on both offense and defense, Waiters is clearly failing to live up to the role envisioned by Presti & Co. when the Thunder acquired him last season. Not into advanced stats? Great. Dion is also averaging a career-low 12.7 points per 36 minutes, and is turning the ball over at a higher rate than he ever has as an NBA player (13.8 times per 100 possessions).
Because we kind of expected this, however, let’s instead choose to focus on the positive: the insane, inexplicable highlights:
Whatever. Dion Waiters #NBAVote.
-2 Serge Ibaka
Not much to add that hasn’t been covered, but at this point in the season there is only one guy who could possibly keep Serge Ibaka from the -3 spot. Serge has been nothing short of a colossal disappointment during a year in which the power forward position has emerged as perhaps the most important in the game. As similarly-paid power forwards continue to evolve and provide other contenders with a litany of offensive and defensive options, Ibaka has devolved into a streaky jump shooter who at times provides little to no interior toughness and is allergic to the ball in crunch time. That should about cover it.
-3 Kyle Singler
Forget about the contract. Forget about the players the Thunder chose him over.
Instead, do Kyle Singler the justice of looking at him for what he is: at a certain point in the season, he was the worst player in the NBA.
I don’t actually believe that Kyle Singler is the worst player in the league. Surely, there are less-skilled and less valuable assets, and his contract isn’t actually that bad when you consider the league’s current landscape.
The problem is that his mere presence on the roster represents a missed opportunity. Other top Western Conference teams have veterans playing the same minutes at Singler, and it’s tough to argue that Singler isn’t the worst of the bunch, all things considered.
Despite the efforts of Dion, Serge, and Kyle tonight, here’s to the Thunder ending the first season on a high note tonight against a Timberwolves team they somehow let stick around earlier in the week.
Here’s an awesome David Bowie video: