I’ll admit – I bought into the hype. While common sense told me otherwise, I got a little excited by the strong start. The tough win over the Los Angeles Clippers was the most encouraging game in a 6-1 start with the only blunder being the collapse against the Golden State Warriors – on the road in an emotionally charged game on the second night of a back-to-back.
Then the losing set in. And it wasn’t just the losses, it was the nature of the losses. Narrow games that got away. Problems with poise that cost us points. Defeats at the hands of teams with sub .500 records. That’s when it really set in. You don’t just replace the second-best player on your team – especially when that guy was a highly effective and efficient scorer and former league MVP. It hasn’t helped that there are also plenty of new faces in the line-up (none of Domantas Sabonis, Jerami Grant, Victor Oladipo, Alex Abrines or Joffrey Lauvergne were on the Oklahoma City Roster in 2015-16), but it’s largely that “he who shall not be named” just left a gaping hole. Not just in the box score or on the stats sheet, but in the balance and dynamic of the team.
The small forward position went from being an incredible strength to a weakness that cannot be hidden. Plenty of points walked out the door, some rebounds too – but the floor spacing and two-way production from the wing is what has turned this Thunder team on its head.
Russell Westbrook is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Plenty thought that “the skinny guy” was sacrificing himself in order to play alongside the wondrous wrecking ball that is Westbrook – this season has shown that Russ himself had been “holding back” from being an all-encompassing superstar. The very fact that Russ is more than half way to averaging a triple double on the season is incredible. The fact that he is playing on a team that isn’t structured around his strengths anymore is downright unfathomable. When you factor in the young, raw, talented kids that he is distributing the ball too – you can see why Westbrook is in the MVP discussion.
If you have watch the Westbrook show, you know that he is strong, super strong, quick, athletic, ferocious. There probably aren’t enough adjectives to accurately describe him. He can post up people, pull up on a dime after going 0 – 100 real quick and he can rebound and pass the basketball. Where Russ struggles is from the perimeter – an issue that played right into the strengths of his former running mate, but no longer remains a “concealable” short coming. The Thunders inability to successfully space the floor is the reason they will be pushing up hill to remain in the playoff picture and almost certainly sees them fall short of a top 4 finish out West (which basically eliminates any MVP chances for number 0).
Let’s break it down even further.
The Thunder lost “that guy”, they traded Serge Ibaka who had become a perimeter threat (to the detriment of his defensive game) and Dion Waiters who wasn’t always consistent, but was consistently a threat to score from deep. That’s a lot of power from the perimeter that is now launching long range rockets for other franchises. Instead, defences can now pack the painted area without fear of repercussion from range – and it has limited the effectiveness of the current Thunder roster. We’ve mentioned Russ, but Victor Oladipo is also far more comfortable getting into the key, slashing, cutting, scoring or distributing. Steven Adams who really made people stand up and take notice last year – especially in the playoffs – had a lot more space to operate and didn’t have to contend with a key full of defenders every time he touched the rock.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were built, and I truly mean built, to have perimeter scoring power. It played to the strength of Westbrook, it sure as heck helped Adams become the beast he is and it kept opposition teams guessing as to when, where and how the points were going to be scored. Like Westbrook in the open floor – you just tried your best to make it as difficult as you could. This season though, teams are using the three point arc as a 6th defender, sagging off the Thunder’s “shooters” to lend a helping hand on the inside – where Adams, Dipo, Kanter and Russ really want to be.
So, I can hear the comments coming in already….. If I can see it as an issue, why can’t Billy Donovan? Why can’t Sam Presti? Why can’t the Thunder players? I’d suggest they all can, but they are in far too deep right now to do anything about it. Tonight’s game against the Chicago Bulls highlighted things quite well. Both teams are horrible at shooting the triple, but the Bulls took just 15 shots from deep (making 6 for a 40% night) while the Thunder racked up 37 attempts for just 10 made baskets (27%). And this was without Alex Abrines who has been brought in this season to try and be that long-range marksmen who will keep defences honest OR make the most of Westbrook’s drive and dish game. It takes a lot longer than 50 games to make these types of adjustments (Note: Cameron Payne was also meant to play an important role in spacing the floor but has yet to really find his feet after a delayed start to the season).
As the title of this piece suggests – I’m a realist. I knew this season was going to be tough, even if Russ has made it enjoyable and bearable to watch. I knew we were largely a mid-tier playoff team that would have to punch above its weight to make any real noise. Sam Presti is not the kind of GM to sacrifice long term success by making a knee jerk reaction. And it shows.
The triple double brilliance has been great. Watching the best of Oladipo has been fun and makes me think we have a really good, solid two-way shooting guard and Steven Adams is still as promising as he was just last season. We’ve added some great young depth in Sabonis and Grant and while the jury is still out on what Payne can do – he’s young and there is time to get it together before he goes the way of Jeremy Lamb. We COULD have fought our way – with some luck – into a 4th or 5th spot in the Western Conference, but when Enes Kanter punched that chair he also punched the Thunder’s ticket. He will likely miss close to 20 of the remaining 30 games – and OKC will be fighting like crazy for that 7th and 8th spot to extend their season.
Many are hopeful of some help coming at the trade deadline, and I’d like to provide some positivity around this. There is every chance Sam Presti makes a trade deadline deal, he usually does because – let’s be real – Oklahoma City hasn’t been the “free agent destination” before. Nor is it now. Presti will make a move, but only if it benefits the team moving forward, and that might not be the next 32 games. It may be next season. So please, stick by the Thunder, stand and support them with all you’ve got because they need it. Small market teams need this support, they need the sustainable success that Presti is hell bent on delivering – the Oklahoma City Thunder need you. There will be losses, probably lots of them through the rest of the season, but through every dark night, there is a bright day – and the Thunders is coming. Real talk.