The Oklahoma City Thunder pause seven games above .500 at the All-Star break. While OKC's opening 57 contests have featured a collection of sprints and restarts, this reconfigured unit will ultimately define itself along the season's final two months.
Though missing a key contributor -- presumably through mid-March -- Oklahoma City's brave new roster resides within striking distance of home-court advantage for the opening round of April’s playoffs.
However, to understand where the Thunder's regular-campaign journey may end, a review of the team's pre All-Star performance is in order.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP: A+ through B-
These players represent Oklahoma City’s main core. Without the performances of these Thunder, post-season talk would be replaced by lottery debate.
- Russell Westbrook: A+
Obviously, the Thunder owes 9/10ths of its successes and failures to Russell Westbrook. Though, more times than not, Westbrook (31.1 ppg, 10.5 reb, 10.1 apg, 8.2 Win Shares) has delivered in pressure-packed situations.
Consider that Westbrook leads all qualified NBA players (5.8 pts) in clutch scoring and FGM (1.9). Of players to log ten-plus clutch appearances, only Boston’s Isaiah Thomas compares with OKC’s dynamic 6’3 floor general.
However, in the waning moments, Westbrook outperforms Thomas — .6 ppg, 1 reb, and .4 apg— across the board. Furthermore, “Fourth-Quarter Russell” has become a Thunder Nation rallying cry.
During the closing frame, OKC’s six-time All-Star contributes a staggering 9.4 ppg, 45/40/79 split, and plus-2.5 +/- toward his team’s cause.
This is impressive.
Although, Oklahoma City’s 21-6 record following a Westbrook triple-double punctuates and finalizes the protean guard’s immense MVP-esque impact.
- Steven Adams: B
In a testament to Adams’ marked development, the 7-foot bruiser now faces consistent double teams from leery opposition. With increased responsibility, New Zealand’s pride is averaging a career-best 12.2 ppg, 7.9 rebs, and one-plus assist/block and steal.
Adams’ 17 PER (league average is 15) and +3 NetRtg (tops among qualified Thunder) speaks volumes toward the validity of his signed $100 million pre-season extension.
The 23-year-old also serves as an invaluable anchor to Oklahoma City’s defensive-oriented approach. While Adams showcases excellent positional defense, and creditable rim-protection capabilities, the Thunder’s DefRtg improves +2.3 with the “Big Kiwi” in tow.
Additionally, as one of the league’s top back-to-basket performers, Adams boasts eight 20+ point outings, and twelve double-doubles.
When OKC’s playing at its best, the former Pitt Panther anchors a stifling defense, and rolls to the rim in perfect unison with dance partner Russell Westbrook.
- Victor Oladipo: B-
Following a stiff early learning-curve and debilitating wrist injury, Oladipo has emerged as Oklahoma City’s second-leading scorer (16.1 ppg).
While amassing fourteen games of 20+ points, OKC’s off-season acquisition centerpiece paces all Thunder to log 350+ minutes in DefRtg (102.3). Further, the still-developing 24-year-old holds opposing shooters -1.3% below their usual three-point percentage.
However, most promising is that Oladipo’s 35.4% 3PM and 44.6 FG% represent career highs. Though, at times inconsistent, V05 is showing signs of blossoming into a legitimate two-way threat for OKC.
The Thunder will need this added element if a potential first-round playoff upset is to materialize.
THE CORE: C+ through D+
Every competitive team needs a solid foundation of role players. These valuable contributors provide just that for Oklahoma City Thunder basketball.
- Enes Kanter: C+
If not for an ill-fated decision to slam his hand into a folding chair Jan. 26 vs. Dallas, Kanter would have graced the “Cream of the Crop” listing. Unfortunately, though, even Kanter’s 14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, in 21 mpg and 24.47 PER is moderately negated by the stress his unforced absence places upon Oklahoma City.
Consequently, a scrambling Thunder iteration is 4-6 in contests minus its OffRtg (108) leader. And though Kanter’s defense is much maligned (107.9) DefRtg, the 24-year-old has exhibited slight improvements in that area.
Even so, there are two halves of a basketball court. To win a game, team A must score more points than team B (earth-shattering stuff); and with Kanter in the fold, OKC did just that. Without him, they have not. For good measure, Kanter is also one of six OKC players to sport a positive (0.5) VORP.
Again, for Oklahoma City to enter an expected playoff run at full speed, Kanter must be fully functional.
- Andre Roberson: C
Yes, Roberson’s 43/24/43 shooting split is unsightly. However, the tenacious 6’7 defensive standout limits elite scorers to -4.4 overall FG% and -3.3% from deep. On a nightly basis, Andre Roberson gives every ounce of his being to OKC’s quest for victory.
If that weren’t enough to garner a respectable C, the fourth-year pro averages 5.1 rebs, 1.1 stls, and a block per contest.
Unquestionably, Roberson is among the league’s best defensive players. More so, there isn’t another performer league-wide who can claim to work harder than the upcoming RFA.
For this reason, Robes is a favorite among the vast majority of Thunder Nation. Here’s hoping that a situation arises in which Presti can keep Robes and boost OKC’s perimeter-shooting stock this offseason.
- Domantas Sabonis: C-
This selection was a toss-up between Sabonis and emerging reserve Jerami Grant. Ultimately, Domas was chosen due to his consistent appearances vs. top-caliber opposition.
The 2017 BBVA Rising Stars Challenge inclusion has started each of OKC’s 57 contests. An impressive number for a rookie. During his 21.7 mpg, Domas averages 6.1 ppg, 3.7 rebs, and 1.1 apg.
Though Sabonis’ shooting split has declined (40/31/69) following a healthy opening, the 6”11 prospect has proven himself an above-average NBA defender. Opposite longer, bouncier PF’s, Sabonis is limiting his competition -1.2% below their overall FGM average, and a robust -6.8 differential within six feet of the hoop.
Moving forward, though, Domas will need to reclaim his outside shot if OKC is to make the most of its remaining 25 regular-season affairs.
- Joffrey Lauvergne: C-
Following Kanter’s injury, Lauvergne has filled a major void in Oklahoma City’s rotation. Since OKC’s reserve-star went down, “King Joffrey” has netted 8.5 ppg, 5 rpg, 1.4 apg on 52/43/71% shooting in 19 minutes.
Lauvergne’s zeal, and outside shooting, has helped spark crucial runs in recent Thunder victories.
- Jermai Grant: C-
Grant’s mini-ascension (7.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg, in 19 mins) during the opening of Feb. has emerged as a nice surprise.
However, Grant has proven a mixed-bag defensively. The spindly 6’8 rim-protector (1.9 bpg per-36 minutes) rates among OKC’s lesser defenders by the DefRtg (109.2) metric, though interestingly Grant limits his opponents -3% below their normal FG%.
This contradiction is likely a measure of Grant performing well individually while playing alongside a subpar defensive second-unit. Further, while Grant defends the interior well (-8.9% opp. FG within 6 feet), he struggles (+1.2 opp. FG% greater than 15 feet) to contain perimeter shooters.
Nonetheless, 22-year-old Grant (6.1 ppg, 1.1 bpg, 21 mpg) should most benefit from Kanter’s absence. If all goes accordingly, come playoff time OKC may find its rotation depth a player deeper.
- Alex Abrines: D+
On a team which ranks next-to-last in three-point accuracy, Abrines (1.2 3PM, 37.5%) provides a mobile, floor-stretching option.
Although the 6’6 Spaniard’s defensive numbers —opp. overall +9.3% FG increase with Abrines defending; qualified team-worst 110.3 DefRtg— are porous, you can see Abrines’ understanding of the NBA game increase with each outing.
Also, prior to Enes’ forearm fracture, both he and Abrines had a nice inside-out combo against opposing backup-units. It will elate Thunder Nation if upon his return, Kanter rekindles this successful chemistry with the rookie sharpshooter.
THE FRINGE: D through F
These Thunder have had their moments, but for whatever reason have failed to pan out this season.
- Anthony Morrow: D
Perhaps Morrow’s career-low 3P% (29.4) is a function of both his 31 years of age, and winding NBA path. Regardless, save for a couple of decent stretches, Morrow (5.8 ppg, 15 mpg) has disappointed in his expected role as serviceable court-spacing reserve.
It appears Abrines (due to upside, and mobility) has earned Coach Donovan’s trust and will cut into Morrow’s minutes down the stretch.
- Cameron Payne: D-
Since returning from a lengthy foot injury, Payne’s hype has fizzled. Overall, the second-year man has floundered with a shoddy 33/30 FG/3P% split.
Payne, 22, edges fellow reserve point guard Semaj Christon for this spot by virtue of a 15-point outburst in a Feb. 9 win vs. defending champion Cleveland.
As of now, Cameron’s ceiling is set at 5.3 ppg, two assists, and two personal fouls in 16 mpg.
- Semaj Christon: D-
Well noted among the numbers cognoscenti, Christon’s shooting split (34/19/47) is one of NBA history’s worst. However, in Christon’s defense, the 6’3 guard owns an impressive 2.3/0.7 Asst/Turnover ratio.
Christon hasn’t seen notable playing time since an 11-point performance during a Jan. 2 win vs. Milwaukee. Consequently, Payne returned five days later against Denver.
One could make a viable argument that Christon eclipses Payne as the better pure backup PG, and runs the second unit with more efficacy.
THE INCOMPLETES: Featuring Kyle Singler.
- Kyle Singler: 2.2 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 23% 3PM in 282 minutes.
- Nick Collison: 1.1 ppg, 1 rpg, in 81 minutes.
- Josh Huestis: 7 ppg, 4 rpg, 75/50/87 shooting split in seven minutes. Perhaps young Mr. Huestis is worth a larger sample size.
The Oklahoma City Thunder take the court again Friday night vs. the new-look Los Angeles Lakers. This will account for just one of OKC’s remaining 17 contests vs. teams with losing records. Oklahoma City (32-25 #7 west) is 3.5 games behind #4 seed LAC.
Overall, the Thunder has 25 games before the regular-season concludes April 12. If Westbrook can continue navigating his blazing triple-double path — along with the bench coalescing, and Kanter returning to full health — then OKC can build key momentum for an anticipated post-season run.