We have now crossed over the mid-way point of the season for the Thunder, who are in the midst of another disheartening stretch, not so much because they have lost games, but because all the promise they had begun to show in December has egressed the ‘Peake kind of like Goose got egressed from Maverick’s cockpit in Top Gun.
To take stock of things, the WTLC writing team addresses a few outstanding questions. If you have your own insights or more questions for us to consider, please let us know in the comments.
1) On a disappointment scale of 1 to The Phantom Menace, where are you feeling right now?
Dom Flaim: To sum up, I’m just going to use my generic post-game gif.
My expectations went from hope for a solid season and an outside shot at a conference finals to wondering if this team makes the postseason and in how many games they are out. My disappointment is almost immeasurable to the extent that for the first time in my memory I’m indifferent after the games and don’t even really get upset at losses. They’re expected.
R.K. Anthony: I think going in we all understood that Sam Presti was taking a risk trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, but my hope for a special season, even if both felt it was a one and done situation, lie in George’s injury and Anthony’s age. Every season, no matter where a player is at is unique and neither George or Anthony have ever had this kind of talent around them in an NBA season and odds are high, whether they are willing to admit it or not, they will never have this opportunity again. I don’t feel they are giving it all they have and I think they will regret it one day.
I started the season with an expectation around 8, it’s down to a 5 and falling as each bad loss passes with little or no passion shown with the result.
Mark Bruty: Look, to be fair, my disappointment is running at about a Kendrick Perkins type level. I’ll give it a solid 5. I knew this team was going to take time to gel and I think we started to see that before the Roberson injury and now it has been a case of ten steps forward but 5 steps back. We have lost some horribly winnable games and we have not brought ANY effort in a number of poor losses to teams we should have beaten in our sleep. So I am buoyed by the potential but disappointed in the delivery at times this season.
J.A. Sherman: I vacillate between a 6 and a 9. I understand that for most of this half-season, they have been less than the sum of their parts, and I understand to a large degree why, and what has been lacking. But I’ve seen that before. What I haven’t seen or felt is the sensation that I’ve never seen such a collective waste of top shelf talent in my NBA-watching life. I’m sure it has happened before, but I couldn’t tell you when. And then when we see glimpses of true genius, it is all the more heartache.
2) Where do you think the wheels started to fall off, and can Presti/Donovan put it back together in time this year?
Dom: I don’t even know, but I’m guessing before the season when Donovan felt they’d just “figure it out” offensively. That’s a part of his job, and the total lack of structure added to the glaring issues with player development and rotations seem to indicate to me that he’d lost the season before it started. I admit I had been very anti-Donovan in the past and this entire season has brought to fruition almost every single critique of him I’ve had. Rotations have ranged from baffling to poor (see the bench with Melo and George and how the minutes are distributed), players have continued to develop worse under his usage than anyone else (Abrines looks like he may have reached Singler level useless), and the offense is somehow worse than last year despite adding two stars. That’s a bit of a rant but it’s my personal best guess.
R.K.: I’m not sure you can quantify a place when the wheels fell off when they were never totally on to begin with. Apparently, the plan was to focus on developing a strong defense first and then switching to offense once the defense was intact. The plan to develop a strong defense worked. When all hands are on deck and focused, the Thunder’s defense can make even the line-up of death look mortal and by all indications, the offense started to come together about 10 days into December.
Up until Roberson went down, the Thunder were 12 and 3 in the month of December and knocked off the #1 team in the west and #2 team in the east in consecutive games. Injuries are part of the game, I just think the impact that Robes injury is having on this team has caught a lot of people by surprise.
Personally, I don’t think many fans realize how much adding Carmelo Anthony at the eleventh hour sat the coaching staff back going into training camp. Basically, all the planning done from the Paul George trade to the Carmelo Anthony addition was reset to square one. For instance, I’m certain the initial plan included Patrick Patterson starting at the 4, well, “who me?” changed all that in two words.
Mark: It took Melo a long time to realize his role, it took George a long time to become a little more aggressive and it also took Russ too long to stop appeasing them and just going out there and balling. Some will say it was doomed from the start and that we actually would have been better off just staying put after the PG trade, but with Kanter still not playing 4th quarters now in the Big Apple, I think we can see this isn’t the case. When this team is locked in, they are as good as anyone, but there have been FAR too many lapses and times where they have all fallen back into their bad habits.
There is still time. Before the Roberson injury we were looking at snaring the fourth seed in the West. That is all we need to be honest. If the Thunder can finish the season and head into the playoffs as the 4th seed and home court advantage, they can win through to the WCF. I honestly believe that. And maybe then, when the stakes are high, we will see the true potential of this squad.
Granted, nobody really knew what Boston was only a few weeks into the season, but the startling way in which the Thunder both seized the game and then systematically handed it back was striking. And it became a blueprint for at least another 15 losses we’ve witnessed, regardless of opponent.
The Bulls win though really woke something up in me, and this is a game where they won by double digits. They were so, so bad in that second half against a truly terrible team. How bad? They scored 34 points and made 7 total shots. In the entire half. And worst of all, nobody really cared. That win masked so much bad substance, and we’re still seeing the impact of it.
3) How would you grade Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this year, respectively?
Dom: Not sure on a letter grade but I feel like both are about as expected. So a B or C? George is an elite 2nd/3rd option who functions well without the ball and defends at a high level along with being a great shooter. However, he’s not a great primary ball handler (hence why the bench with him still kinda stinks) and he’s being forced into it. But everything I figured he’d do well he pretty much has.
Melo is who he is, a scorer who brings a little creativity and can get his most nights. He’s not a defender and not really much for anything non-scoring, but we knew that and he seems willing enough to at least try to change a little. I don’t think he was totally ready to change but he has at least a little, so that’s something. He’s not a great fit with Russ and that’s not his fault as they just overlap too much. He’s as advertised (though I do admit I wasn’t quite ready for the sheer amount of long midrange shots, man oh man that’s a lot of ‘em).
Note- I’ve now edited this part twice and I’m just adding a sentence after the Charlotte game, but I’m getting lower and lower on Melo. Another game of bad shooting, no passing, and no defense. I’m not sure if the changing thing was just too much or if he’s reverted, but his grade is dropping for me.
R.K.: First, let me quantify my answer somewhat by saying that I wasn’t one of those that felt an overwhelming desire to dismantle what the Thunder started last year. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis didn’t just jump off the plane and the Indiana air transformed them into the players we see today, they were going to improve this season. The bod Oladipo is sporting was in place a week before the Paul George trade, he was preparing to match Westbrook’s intensity and with Patterson signing up, Sabonis would have come off the bench here just like he is in Indy. Additionally, I would have liked to see how a stronger PG like Felton could have helped Kanter improve. I just thought that team had a special chemistry and I hated seeing it broken up.
That said, comparing their potential to the result we are seeing, a C at best. I follow the Antonio Daniel school of thought and I want to see less talk and more passion from these two. I’ve never seen players of this caliber react with such cool indifference to 3 embarrassing losses.
Mark: I’d give them both a solid B for now. Maybe a B+ for George because of the effort he has brought on the defensive side of the ball. Those grades are skewed due to the sluggish start to the season as they developed familiarity though. Since Melo has found his niche – he has been a B+ and George has been an A. Poor shooting has been the only knock in recent weeks.
Sherman: Melo will always be sentimental for me. I can’t help it, and I won’t apologize for it. But in retrospect, the moment the whole “who, me?” thing happened, it started the team dynamic down the wrong course. It may be too late to switch his role now, but I contrast his attitude with that of David West who, despite less accolade, has probably had every bit of an impact on his teams and the league that Melo has. And West paid his dues in Indiana and then left millions on the table to sign with the Spurs and then Warriors because he wanted a taste of a championship pursuit more than anything. Until Melo gets to that moment, he’s not fully embracing his place in the game at this stage of his career. I give him a B- so far; he’s brought some leadership and veteran perspective, but his game needs to find its proper place.
For PG, he gets a C-. I admit I haven’t followed him during his Indiana days as much as others, but his up-and-down interest in the game has me really worried. So worried to the point where I really don’t consider him a max contract type player. There are too many red flags.
As much as he looks like Scottie Pippen some games, far too often he morphs into a lazy version of Tracy McGrady. Either he ‘gets it,’ or he doesn’t, and Presti needs to move on.
4) Who is the non-Westbrook MVP of the half-season?
Dom: Andre Roberson. That’s all I’m going to say here.
R.K.: Two weeks ago I would have said Steven Adams, but I’m with Dom, Andre Roberson. We knew Robes was good but it is somewhat surprising to find out he was actually the heartbeat of the Thunder’s defense.
Mark: Steven Adams. He is a star and really is the new Collison. The glue guy. No ego, works hard, does the right thing, does the team thing. Defensively brilliant, works extremely hard on the glass to give the guys second and third looks AND he has improved his offensive game to be more of an asset on that end. He is a star and a superstar in the making. Close second is Raymond Felton. If we had Felton running the second unit last year, we would have seen a few more wins that’s for sure. He has been great and a very underrated pick up during the off-season.
Sherman: Robes. And I think R.K. said it best, because he seems to be the only guy who is consistently committed to a passionate pursuit of excellence. The free throw shooting is of course the big wart on it all, because his inattention to the one thing that can consistently hurt his team is highly problematic. But on the defensive end, and even within the flow of the offense, he cares more than everyone except maybe Adams to always be in the right place at the right time, knows his teammates’ tendencies, and actually brings them collectively to a higher level of performance. You can’t even say that about Russell Westbrook this year.
5) Take off your cynic hat and put on Peter Parker’s brand new Spidey suit. What would get you excited for the 2nd half of the season?
Dom: Honestly a trade. Do something because this team isn’t working. I’d still trade George if the Nets pick is available but you must flip some of the Thunder’s bench junk for another team’s and see if you can get some better use of guys. A backup big or bench wing would do wonders (I’d like a reunion with Thabo Sefolosha personally). But honestly the Nets pick still gives a bright future and if you could get that, Crowder, and another player that’d be great for me and get me excited for the franchise in future seasons.
R.K.: A pulse. Believe it or not, the first truly positive sign I’ve seen of one this season was Westbrook refusing to talk to reporters after the recent loss to Portland. I don’t care if there was a single coach on the sideline or not, this team should have a better record against lottery-bound teams than 8 and 8.
I think if Presti doesn’t see the pulse I’m talking about by the end of this month, Dom will get his wish and he will get his trade. However, be warned and remember the old Chinese proverb, be careful what you wish for. This 10-year run is coming to a climax. It either works or Presti’s history tells us when dealing with a team that isn’t living up to the financial commitment the organization is making, he hits the reset button and sells it all.
Mark: Wins. Shots falling and a killer “mamba mentality” attitude from everyone. I’d love to see the Thunder just come out with that win at all costs attitude and not just wanting to win but to completely embarrass teams. Keep the foot on the throat and just bury teams on the scoreboard and by breaking their spirit. We have some cold blooded dudes on the squad, but they’re just a little too friendly and not focused enough. Roberson back will excite me, 2Pat building into his role is exciting me. A trade deadline move for someone like Lou Williams would also excite me.
Sherman: A sense of urgency. Of course, if you didn’t have it in pre-season, you won’t have it now.
And also for the team to realize and fully embrace that there is only one thing that turns them into a viable contender - their defense. That defense, which stretches teams out to half-court and utilizes every aspect of the team’s attributes, is a thing of beauty. Without it, or even more sadly, to willingly put it aside, they’re a lottery team.
6) Where does OKC end up at the end of this season?
Dom: Best case 5th in the west, maybe eek a series against Minnesota if they string together a good stretch before Golden State takes them in 4 or 5. Worst case they fall to 7 or 8 and lose in the first round.
R.K. Anthony: We’ve seen what this team is capable of when they put their heart into it, that is why I shy away from saying that it isn’t working. As a matter of fact, as shown by a 3 and 1 record against the top 4 teams in the league, when the OKC3 fully commit, it works exceptionally well.
On the other hand, we’ve also seen how pitiful this bunch is when they are just going through the motions.
If Presti rides it out, I don’t think it matters where OKC ends up just as long as they don’t screw around and miss the party altogether because I think this team, when they put their heart and soul in it, can beat anyone.
Mark: Best case scenario - 4th seed in the West and ready to take on the challenge of dethroning the Warriors and anyone else who gets in the way.
Worst case scenario – 6th seed and Paul George has either been moved or plays the post-season thinking of elsewhere...
Sherman: Maybe Melo and PG have brought some of that Eastern Conference “we just need to make it to the playoffs and then anything can happen” nonsense (which makes sense in a LeBron-dominated conference, but doesn’t actually work), but taking that perspective in the West gets you a bad seed and a fast bounce.
Either OKC commits to getting into the top 4 seeding, or they might as well skip the thing entirely.
Your turn: ask your most pressing question, and answer it (you too, readers!).
Dom: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Yes, yes it is.
R.K.: Interesting, based on its use in a sentence, a hot dog is either a sandwich or an insufferable show-off. So yes and no.
My turn, I’ve asked it before and I’ll ask it again; when Steven Adams flies in for one of those monstrous dunks, if there was no crowd noise, would we hear the rim crying? Yes, as in boo hoo hoo, just like a thrashed sook.
Mark: Sam Presti is notorious for making trade deadline deals. Who do you think is most likely to make an exit? Heustis? Abrines? Other?
Sam Presti nearly ALWAYS makes a trade deadline move and he tries to ensure he maximises return. I’d suggest that there are a few people who might be in the topic of conversation when Super Sam picks up the phone to dial other GM’s.
Unfortunately, Jerami Grant is going to command some dollars as he has turned into a valuable player. I’d suggest Presti tests the market for him rather than run the free agency risk. The same would go for Heustis - again an important part of the puzzle for this squad who needs defensive prowess, size and length but someone who could cost a little more than OKC are willing to pay after this season. With Ferguson getting some good minutes in Robersons absence, Presti now has a better idea of these guys and what they can do and what they bring to the team. I wouldn’t expect all 3 of them on the roster by the end of the season. If Presti can find a suitor for Abrines, he could also be expendable - and if the Thunder could snare a Lou Williams (even as a rental as he is also a FA at seasons end) I think he pulls the trigger. OKC need cap relief if they are going to re-sign Paul George and Carmelo Anthony...
Sherman: Did you know that they put cream cheese on their hot dogs in Seattle?
My question: How far away are we before Steven Adams finally blows a gasket?
My answer: Jan. 28th when Joel Embiid comes to town.