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Thunder Plus/Minus: The Feast is Over

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Tired of squeaking by bad teams? Fret not - there aren't many bad teams left on the schedule.

© Brad Rempel

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.

The feast is over. The wine is gone, the dessert has melted, and the leftover bits of the main course have sat out too long to be salvaged. All that’s left now is to clean up, go to sleep, and hope for merely a mild hangover at work the next day.

This is a situation everyone knows, and it isn’t very enjoyable.

It’s also the exact situation in which the Thunder currently find themselves.

Since December 6, OKC has put together a 24-5 run that might better be described as a series of points in which they were unable to turn the corner from "good" to "great" against largely inferior competition. Concentration lapses, cold shooting, and frighteningly poor defense has left more questions than answers – questions that will surely be answered in the coming weeks.

It is one thing to feast on poor teams, but it is entirely another to do so in such laborious fashion. As we sit and watch the obviously superior Warriors and Spurs dominate opponent after opponent, and as we watch their key players resting for entire quarters, it is impossible to not wonder if the fourth quarter minutes played by Thunder starters against bottom feeders might come back to haunt them. If all goes to plan, and if the Thunder can get their play on both ends of the court sewn up to the point where they are mentioned as peers of San Antonio and Golden State, the extra minutes played by Durant and Westbrook against the Minnesotas and Brooklyns of the world may begin to appear as unwelcome, disturbing images in OKC’s RVM.

But there’s good news ahead for a team struggling to close out lesser opponents: nearly everyone the Thunder play in the next 50 days is really, really good. After the 29 game stretch against teams who are currently 585-770 (good for a 0.431 winning percentage), the next 20 Thunder games are against opponents sporting a combined 494-380 record – a 0.565 clip. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the quality of teams weighting that record down. The Pelicans are only 17-28, but are playing far better as of late and still have one of the few nuclear superstars in the league capable of matching Durant or Westbrook. Milwaukee is a very disappointing 20-28, but is one of only 4 teams to hang a loss on the Warriors.

Looking at the schedule, I am reasonably confident the Thunder will beat the Kings on February 29th, and the Timberwolves on March 11th. Apart from that, the only certainty is that the media narrative of OKC’s chances will likely be highly defined over the stretch. A combined 7(!!!) of the next 20 games come against either the Warriors, Cavs, Spurs, or Clippers. Not only will those games provide a litmus test of where the Thunder actually stand against the league’s elite, but the stretch will also be crucial in determining playoff seeding. A decent run that includes 2 wins against the Clippers will all but lock in at least the third seed, while a few slip-ups could put the second seed even more out of reach than it seems now. That, of course, could actually be a blessing, as a solidified position might allow for more rest as the season winds down, but it’s nothing more than a bridge the Thunder would love to cross several weeks from now.

Every NBA season brings a point where things just start to feel different, as if a switch is flipped and things suddenly just start to matter. Most years, that point comes sometime after the All Star break. But for the 2015-16 Thunder, with more on the line than anyone else, that time is already here.

+3 Kevin Durant, Closer

Still seething about the Brooklyn loss? Consider how much worse things could have gone over the past few days without Durant hitting an endless variety of superhuman jumpers in the tense closing stages of close games. If Durant fails to hit the shot below, the Thunder leave New York 0-2. Let that sink in.

+2 Full Westbrook

I’ve mentioned it here before, but there is a point that comes very early in most Thunder games where it’s obvious which phylum of Westbrook games we’re about to get. Sometimes it’s the scoring Westbrook, where he starts 7-9 from the field before leveling off at 10-21 by final horn. In other games, it’s the "passing Westbrook," where he racks up 6 first quarter assists on pick and roll jumpers by Ibaka and Steven Adams dunks. Basically, Westbrook has historically gotten the Thunder either 30 points or 12 assists a night.

But the past weeks have seen Westbrook turn the "either" to an "and," leading many to believe that he is playing the best basketball of his career. If you discount the game against Dallas in which he was ejected, Westbrook’s is on a 10-game run with averages of 21.2 points and 11.7 assists. In those 10 games, Westbrook has even averaged 8.5 rebounds, a number higher than the season averages of players like Brook Lopez, Nerlens Noel, and Tyson Chandler.

Think about that: 21.2 points, 11.7 assists, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per game over a 10 game period. The only thing crazier than that line is how closely it actually resembles Westbrook’s full season averages. Every season it seems almost impossible that Westbrook will be able to come back better than he was the last, and it seemed especially impossible this time around. But we are, over halfway through the season and Westbrook is putting up 24.1 points, 9.8 assists, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per game, and in doing so hasn’t had to sacrifice plays like these:

+1 The case for keeping D.J. Augustin around

A subtle, but potentially crucial, thing happened on Wednesday against Minnesota. With 1:46 left in the third quarter, it was time to give Russell Westbrook a rest. Earlier in the game, Cameron Payne had exited with concussion-like symptoms.

Westbrook went out, and a competent point guard came in. As this happened, I couldn’t help but remember when injuries forced the Bulls to play rookie Marquis Teague heavy minutes during the playoffs. Teague responded with an own basket:

It’s fun to include Augustin in Trade Machine scenarios, but he could be huge down the stretch, and I’m still not even sure Donovan will give Payne a very long leash come playoff time.

0 The looming Trade Deadline

Despite the above, it can’t be deined that the Trade Deadline looms large in Thunder history. It gave us Kendrick Perkins. It got us Enes Kanter. It took away Kendrick Perkins. This year’s deadline seems to loom larger than ever among Thunder fans due a general anxiety and frustration that the team is still a step below the truly elite teams of the West.

But who would it be? Ibaka has been the most realistic bandied about candidate, though that is only in relative terms. An Ibaka trade would be nothing short of stunning, and would almost certainly bring back a disappointing haul. Minus the inclusion of a guy fans definitely don’t want to trade (think Cam Payne), the possibility of the Thunder landing a truly impactful, big-name championship piece for Ibaka is basically null.

Everyone has soured on Dion Waiters. Unfortunately, "everyone" probably also includes NBA general managers, even that one poor sap among them who is going to give Dion a $10 million deal this summer.

Take a look at the Thunder roster. Minus an absolutely mind-numbingly shocking development, this is the core squad Donovan and Presti are rolling with this year.

-1 The new "light up" three point arc on ABC telecasts

You may have heard that, beginning this Saturday with the Spurs vs. Cavs, prime time ABC telecasts will feature a digitally augmented three point line each time a player hoists a three point shot. Go here to see some mockups. It’s not a #hottake to point out that this will be a colossal annoyance, and we must only hope that its inclusion as part of ABC-aired games (i.e. the good ones) is short-lived.

-2 Injuries

Injuries are always brutal, but losing Andre Roberson for a bit is going to hurt more than usual when you consider the schedule. In case you haven’t heard, Houston and Golden State have a few decent wing players. And though there were a lot of bad defenders on Sunday night, it’s tough to envision Brook Lopez having the game he did if Steven Adams wouldn’t have gotten injured in warm-ups.

Every team is dealing with injuries at this point, but injuries that will directly affect key starting matchups in important games are tougher to swallow than the standard issue "DTD – wrist" designations to rotational players.

-3 Defense

Injuries had the -3 spot on lock until the Thunder gave up a combined 361 points this week against the Nets, Knicks (playing without Carmelo), and Timberwolves. Either Andre Roberson is literally the league’s most valuable player, or the Thunder have some glaring team wide issues that need to be addressed and fixed immediately. Zach Lavine’s way-too-easy 35 points were a harbinger of things to come from Harden, Curry, or Thompson.