The Oklahoma City Thunder are heading into the home stretch of the season and are still trying to establish a consistent identity. In truth, they have yet to identify too much consistent anything to date as Billy Donovan's line-up experimenting continues. The roller coaster ride that is the 2015-16 season goes on and many fans are long past simply looking for improvement. They want results.
Throughout this season's ups and downs, mountains of advanced statistics have been discussed, cussed, rehashed, and poured over in the search for answers. In the final analysis, there is only one stat that truly matters, especially in the post season. Wins vs losses. A stat tabulated simply by looking at the big numbers on the scoreboard when the game is over.
I can name 24 teams that would love to have a win/loss stat as good as the Thunder, but the expectation, and this a fair one, is higher for the Thunder than most teams. The truly frustrating aspect about this bunch is just about the time you start to feel pretty good about the their chances, they let a guaranteed lottery team beat them in their own house or blow a 20+ point 4th quarter lead.
I get it, it is maddening. But to be perfectly honest, advanced stats bore the hell out of me and my reaction to any explanation for what ails a team that relies too heavily upon them pretty much comes across like this:
I don't need to hear endless debate about Enes Kanter's DRtg to know he sucks at defense. His little Tinkerbell impression when the mighty 5'9" Isaiah Thomas made him his be-otch when all he had to do was set his feet is all the evidence I need to understand his major malfunction, and until some basic issues are addressed, advanced stats won't help much anyway.
Besides, it is important to not overthink the small stuff and loose sight of the big stuff in the first place.
Here are the Thunder's average "big numbers" for the past 5 seasons from teamrankings.com:
Everyone should remember 2012, the only season the Thunder made it all the way to the NBA Finals. Ironically, the lowest of the big numbers illustrated here.
The 2013 season. The year Sam Presti "doomed" the Thunder's offense and traded James Harden. Also the year Thunder fans learned to hate Patrick Beverley. (So much for the misconception that the offense would crumble without the bearded wonder.)
The final season before the fall, 2014. No Harden and no Kevin Martin and yet the numbers still going up.
Interesting. Russell Westbrook missed 15 games due to injuries. Serge Ibaka missed 18. Kevin Durant played in only 27 games all season, and yet the team finished 5th in the league in points scored and only saw a 1.5 point drop off from the previous season. So who were those masked men scoring points for the Thunder last year? A possible case for keeping the ball moving and trusting them more in the fourth quarter, nes pas?
Amazing! The 2015-16 season's 109.8 pts/gm are the HIGHEST in the Oklahoma City era and after pasting the Celtics for 130 Wednesday evening, still rising. In fact, if not for the cyborg-like numbers the Golden State Warriors are amassing this season, the current Thunder output would be good enough to be numero uno in the league for the past 5 seasons!
Yes Thunder fans, even in the midst of never ending line-up changes and rotation tweaks, this infuriating version of Billy Donovan's Oklahoma City Thunder are surpassing the offensive numbers of Steve Kerr's vaunted maiden season with Golden State.
Donovan was brought to Oklahoma City to make the offense better. Guess what? Whether you choose to believe it or not, he has. Billy the kid was not hired to destroy an offense that had not finished lower than 6th in the league in 4 previous seasons, but rather to add to it. The big number doesn't lie. More points good, less points bad.
One can only imagine what the current 109.8 rate would look like if the team were in a more stable substitution rotation with every player's role clearly defined. (Sort of makes you drool at the possibilities for next season doesn't it? More on that later.)
If Donovan's offense is executing properly, it is NOT THE PROBLEM!
So what is? Why isn't this team being heralded as a solid contender as they have in years past? Let's look at the other big number on the scoreboard: points allowed.
Even these numbers are telling. Golden State may give up more points per game than the Thunder, but they are producing 11 more points per game than they give up while the Thunder's offense is only surpassing what they give away by 6.9.
Hard to make the playoffs when your offense is only 2.2 points ahead of the defense, and even made harder after the Enes Kanter trade and the team was giving up 107.9 pts/gm in the final 28 games.
2014 was former coach Scott Brooks' final season in the playoffs. A five point differential? Really? After all the lamentations over the loss of Brooks, I would have thought it was much higher.
Ahh, now we are getting somewhere. A healthy 8.3 differential, which would look truly amazing if not for these damn Warriors!
The gold standard, the year of "the Finals" and a 5.9 scoring differential!!! ...... whoa, wait a second, hit the brakes! SCREEE-EECH!
Am I supposed to believe that this "dumpster fire" of a Thunder team is actually outscoring their opponents more than the Wonder Thunder team that made the 2012 NBA Finals? I mean.... WHO-DA-THUNK-IT?
So if this Thunder team is outpacing their opponents at a better rate than the 2012 Finals team, then why is the current team's winning percentage .672 after 67 games compared to the .712 mark that Thunder team put up in the 66 game strike shortened 2012 season?
Many point at turnovers as the primary culprit behind Thunder's tale of woe, and while it is true that this team averages 15.8 TO's to the 2012 team's 15.3, they are actually less turnover prone. The 2012 squad turned the ball over at a 15.8% per possession rate compared to this team's 15.6%. In my mind, that would seem to make the turnover comparison a wash. But is it?
Again, there is the other side of the page, or the rest of the story. This version of the Thunder may not be any more turnover prone than the 2012 team, but they clearly aren't as good at getting their opponent to cough up the rock. These Thunder generate 13 opponent TO's per game while the 2012 team finished at 14.2, but it's more than that.
The 2012 Thunder team made mistakes because they were young and dumb; this current team doesn't have that excuse. Mistakes resulting from inexperience are much more forgivable than mistakes from lack of concentration, and as we see from the wins and losses column, more damning, because in this team's case, lapses in concentration are often a by-product of lapses in personal discipline.
Take the most recent embarrassing setback to the lowly lottery-bound Timberwolves (minus K-Mart) at home on March 11th. Twenty-four turnovers to twelve. That is absolutely ridiculous at this stage in the season and even more so when one takes a peek at the offending parties.
Nearly half (11) of the total turnovers are "credited" to the team's two best players.... their leaders? Leaders to what? Disaster, that's what.
In a recent article, NewsOK's Berry Tramel nailed the Thunder's primary problems when he said:
The Thunder's problem is mental. The Thunder's primary shortcomings are will-based. They are elementary.
The Thunder does not get back on defense and does not take care of the ball on offense. Those deficiencies are intertwined, of course. Commit live-ball turnovers, and don't hustle back on defense, and you've compromised your team.
And it really isn't any more complicated than that. The Thunder doesn't always focus when it has the ball and doesn't always hustle when it loses the ball. And you can put Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the top of the culprit list.
OUCH! That hurt, but that is the harsh reality of truth. It is often painful and owning this goes with being the faces of a franchise of a player-driven professional sport. It goes with the job and as much as I hate to admit it, Tramel is right.
There is no debating the fact that without Westbrook and Durant, this would all be a moot point. Take them away and Thunder fans have nothing to look forward to at this point but the lottery show this summer. Durant and Westbrook's importance goes without saying, but that doesn't mean they are perfect. They don't walk on water and aren't turning said water into wine at halftime. There is room for improvement. There is need for improvement.
The good news is that these areas are completely in KD and Russell's control.
As discussed, the 2012 Thunder turned the ball over just as much as this team, but won games at a higher percentage. They made up for their offensive slip-ups by playing disciplined defense anchored by Kendrick Perkins and a much more active Serge Ibaka, which led to giving up only 96.7 points per game, compared to this year's version that gives up 102.9.
I have watched this team from virtually the first day they arrived in OKC and I have a few suggestions for the "leaders." Top of the list: STOP WHINING ABOUT NON-CALLS!!! It is a waste of time and energy. Perk and 2012 Serge aren't back there now. It's the Enes Kanter lay-up giveaway show, so get back on defense is imperative.
It doesn't matter that the ref is as optically challenged as Mr. Magoo, the ball is still live. Complaining about something that won't get changed rather then getting back is defensive suicide. Kendrick Perkins' presence helped make amends for that silliness in past years, but since his departure I have seen more and more of it. The last thing this team needs is anyone doing anything that weakens an already crippled defense.
Crying over a non-call is a self-indulgence that serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Bottom line, while venting one's frustration may feel good, it is a gratuitous tax that hurts the team. The truth is, KD and Russell need to come to grips with this reality and start policing this non-productive behavior in themselves and their teammates.
There is really no nice way to put it. It's not 2012 any more, KD and Russ need to grow up, shut up, and get back on defense. It is something that is completely within their control and an easy way to lower an opponent's big number.
Now before the firing squad begins forming because I dared to say a disparaging word about the dynamic duo, I'm fair-minded and I have some thoughts for our rookie coach, starting with the live ball turnover issue.
Scrap the KD at PG experiment, it ain't working. Willing passer or not, KD's height makes him vulnerable if he is dribbling the ball too much. Free Cam Payne for good and all. It was the right move to give the kid the back-up point guard slot in the first place, don't try to fix what wasn't that broken and make up your mind about the rotations already. Two games with Payne back in the fold and the Thunder have averaged only 11.5 giveaways compared to a season average of 15.8 and an atrocious 18.9 in the seven most recent games without him! Stick with it, he represents the future, the very near future.
And while your at it, free the "Fastest Gun in the West."
When he is on, Anthony Morrow will break an opponent's back...
...But even when Morrow's shot is off, he keeps an opposing defense honest by virtue of his gravitational threat on offense.
I understood the need for experimentation earlier in the season, but the time for kicking the tires is past. Repetition will begin to build confidence, which will lead to less mistakes and less turnovers.... not to mention better communication on defense and more ball movement in crunch time.
There is less than a month of the regular season left before the playoffs and, as the saying goes, it's time to fish or cut bait. Or as my old Granddad used to say, it's time to "sh%@ or get off the pot."
It's time to let the team find its rhythm with its full faculty of players. Let the ball handlers handle the ball and let the shooters shoot. If you want to preach consistency coach, then now is a good time to practice it yourself...take off the training wheels and let 'er rip...it's time to rock and let the big numbers roll.
In the words of Captain James T. Kirk, "let's see what she's got." Otherwise you might get to the playoffs and find out....
UGH! That you got nuthin'.