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Plus/Minus Thunder week 1: What Worked and Didn’t Work in OKC

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One week in, there are some bright spots, but much of what we’ve seen veers in the opposite direction.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Plus-Minus, a weekly column where I’ll be recapping the previous week of Thunder basketball by pointing out some things the Thunder did well (Pluses) and didn’t do well (Minuses).

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The Thunder have yet to win any basketball games this year, so as you’d expect this week’s Plus-Minus is high on negativity. But looking beyond the scores, there were some little things the Thunder did well in their first week back- things that will hopefully lead to more wins next week.

Plus: Steven Adams, Playmaker

Ever since this play over two years ago, I’ve been curious to see more of Steven Adams as a passer:

Adams might not be Nikola Jokic, but he clearly has some good instincts as a passer. Early on, the Thunder have tried to use him a little this way. Look at this beauty:

Most of the time when the Thunder go to Adams in the high post it’s to “Run Designated Hand-Off” (DHO) plays. Adams hands the ball off to one of the Thunder’s ballahndlers on the run so they can get downhill with speed, and throws his body into their defender as part of the deal. But when Patrick Patterson sees Draymond Green is distracted, he cuts hard to the rim- and Adams delivers.

Any variation in the Thunder’s predictable offensive game is welcome. Going to Adams in the high post lets him use his skills as a screener, but also a chance to flash his better-than-you-think passing game. More of this please!

Minus: Bombs away

The Thunder are firing away from 3 point land early this year, attempting 36 3 Point shots per game through Sunday night, 6 more per game than last year. They are hitting 23.9% of those attempts, the worst mark in the league. I’m honestly encouraged by the volume of attempts — most of these shots, with the exception of Westbrook and Schroder’s off the dribble 3’s (literally never a good idea for either of OKC’s lead guards) have been good shots, in the flow of the game, and relatively open. The problem is OKC has just been bricking them.

Some of that will change. Paul George (31.3%), Alex Abrines (28.6%) & Patrick Patterson (25%) are all good or great shooters who are just having cold spells so far. It’s unfortunate for OKC that they’re all slumping at the same time, but it happens. They’ll find their footing. More worrisome are Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson, unproven shooters who are 1-for-10 and 1-for-11, respectively, from 3 so far this season. And some of their misses have been downright ugly.

Grant and Ferguson need to take those shots- they’re in rhythm and in the flow of the offense, and it’s good to see them going up without hesitation. But the number of horrendously bad misses (they’ve both barely grazed the rim on multiple attempts) is worrisome. Shooting has long been an afterthought in constructing OKC’s roster, with Sam Presti chasing long, athletic wings. Grant at least is paying off on the defensive end, and being an athletic team of defensive stoppers isn’t a bad thing. But the lack of floor spacing is starting to strangle the offense.

George, Abrines and Patterson will get better. But the Thunder need players like Ferguson and Grant to get up to at least an average level from deep in order to punish teams who help off them aggressively to deter Russ. If those guys can’t, defenses will wall off the paint, forcing Westbrook to either drive through 3 defenders or settle for pull-up jumpers. As we saw in last year’s playoffs, that isn’t a winning formula over a seven game series.

Plus: Hammin’ it up

The Thunder have won zero games this year, so as you’d expect, almost all their players have negative net ratings. One player has a positive net rating, the highest on the team by a mile. It’s none other than future 9-time All Star Hamidou Diallo, who has been incredibly impressive so far.

Early on, most of the Thunder’s young wings have struggled. Terrance Ferguson has gotten the starting nod and the bulk of the minutes but has been practically invisible- he only gets noticed when he misses 3’s or gets cooked on defense. He’s young, but it’s been a disappointing start to his sophomore campaign. Alex Abrines has looked okay on defense but has been slumping from 3 point range, his specialty. TLC can’t even get on the court.

And then there’s Diallo. This early in the season, numbers don’t mean a ton. But watching the games, you can just see Diallo’s impact. He looks like he belongs on an NBA court, which is more than you can say for a lot of rookies. And as cliche as it is to say, he makes winning plays- stuff like this:

Diallo is a rookie and has plenty of flaws. But he has thoroughly outplayed Ferguson through the first week of the season, and if he keeps it up will only carve out a bigger role for himself. The Thunder could use his help.

Minus: The pull-up midrange Jimbo

Dennis Schroder is not afraid to take long two pointers. Per Cleaning the Glass, 44% of Schroder’s shots were mid-range Jumpers last season in Atlanta. He actually knocked down a respectable 43% of them, but that’s the trouble with mid range jump shots; even if you’re better than average at them, it’s still an inefficient shot.

Schroder has taken 26 mid-range jump shots so far this season and hit...5 of them. Five. That’s putrid, and will get better. But the volume is more concerning than the percentage. A number of those shots have come early in the shot clock, with Schroder coming off a screen and firing instead of getting inside and trying to set up others. if the shot clock is running out and you need to get a shot up, fine, but there’s never a reason for these low percentage shots before anyone else has even touched the ball

What does it say about Billy Donovan that Schroder is already taking such a high volume of bad shots? It’s one thing to be unable to convince Russell Westbrook, face of the franchise, to erase these shots from his game. But is Donovan unable to get through to even Dennis Schroder? Or is the problem that Donovan is actually okay with an offense based around very inefficient shooting from his point guards? Which of those options is worse?

Coming up

The Thunder face Boston on Thursday and have a rematch with the Clippers on Tuesday. It’s certainly too early to panic, which is why I tried to balance the pluses and minuses this week. But with only the perpetually struggling Suns sandwiched in there, there’s a realistic chance OKC is 1-5 for the next addition of this column, in which case it will not be so balanced. See you then.