Well, well, well. Since that 0-4 start that had some people proclaiming doom, Oklahoma City has gone 9-1, despite Russell Westbrook missing half of those games. The team has been winning and looking good doing it. Let’s get into what the Thunder have been doing so well (and one thing they haven’t been doing well).
(All stats per Cleaning the Glass except where noted)
Plus: The Good of Dennis Schroder
Russell Westbrook has now missed 7 games due to 2 separate injuries, more than he missed the last two seasons combined. The Thunder are a solid 4-3 across those games; understandable losses on the road to a definite playoff team in Golden State and a probable playoff team in the Clippers, as well as a pretty brutal loss to the likely lottery-bound Mavericks (though they just roughed up OKC’s previous vanquishers the Jazz by 50).
But OKC has bagged wins against the unsurprisingly awful Suns, Knicks and Cavs and the surprisingly awful Rockets, who are suffering through a lot more ailments than cutting Carmelo Anthony will resolve. Those 4 wins aren’t exactly the stuff of legends, but OKC being able to survive at all without Westbrook is a major step forward for a team that was a flaming bag of poo whenever Russ sat the last two seasons. Two years ago the team posted a net rating of -9.3 when Russ sat; last year, -4.9. Most concerning of all, they were -11.9 with Russ off but Paul George on last year. PG is a superstar level player, but he is not a lead ballhandler; it was too easy for opposing teams to key in on him last season when he brought the ball up, and there was no player besides Russ who could reliably get PG the ball in favorable spots.
Dennis Schroder has instantly filled that gaping hole. The Thunder are +8.9 when Schroder plays and Westbrook sits, a mark that would trail only Golden State, Milwaukee and Portland if sustained over the season. Put another way, The Thunder have played like a top 5 team even without Russell Westbrook in the lineup. With Westbrook, they’re a still excellent +7.1, which would still put them in the top 5. The number without Russ is obviously somewhat inflated by the quality of competition in the games Russ has missed. Nonetheless, in past seasons, the Thunder played like a lottery team when Russ wasn’t in the game. This year, they have sustained a playoff caliber performance even with their leader out. That’s the reason the team finds themselves sitting pretty at 9-5 despite Russ missing 7 of their games.
Schroder is a big reason for all of this. There were plenty of valid concerns when the team acquired him this summer. He historically doesn’t play much defense and he’s a poor 3 point shooter, making his fit alongside Russ a question. Schroder has the 4th highest salary on the team; that would be a hell of a lot to pay for someone who couldn’t exist alongside Westbrook. That fit alongside Russ remains an open question; the duo have logged only 350 possessions together this season, and they’ve posted an ugly -6.4 net rating across those minutes. There have been some promising moments, particularly a lineup featuring the duo alongside Alex Abrines, PG and Steven Adams in a small ball lineup heavy on shooting and driving ability. When Russ returns from injury, the duo’s ability to play together will continue to be something to monitor.
However, the Thunder most desperately needed Schroder not to pair him with Russ but to survive the minutes without Russ. He has thrived in that role, especially with Russ missing a lot more time than the team expected when they traded for Schroder. Dennis has thrived taking Russ’s place in the starting lineup — +34.0 alongside Abrines, George, Grant and Adams - a mark that’s somewhat inflated by playing the Cavs and the Suns, but also much better than you would expect that lineup to do if Ray Felton was forced into the starting role. Despite concerns about his defense, the Thunder have posted a very good defensive rating of 103.8 with Schroder on the court- indistinguishable from their overall mark of 104.0, which is the third best mark in the entire league.
On offense, where Schroder’s real talent lies, the team has done well with him in the lineup, posting an offensive rating of 109.3 - a mark that would rank 14th in the league this season. With Westbrook on the floor, that number jumps to 113.8, which shouldn’t be a mark against Schroder- Westbrook is one of the best offensive players in the entire league. Keeping the team at an average level even without Westbrook is an achievement. Schroder’s ability to run a real NBA offense and get the team into its sets have been key. When those sets involve PG or Adams as the focal point, as they often do, the eventual basket comes far enough later that Schroder isn’t always credited with an assist, though he’s averaging a healthy amount of those. His impact is clear in the net rating numbers and in simply watching him play. The trade that brought Schroder to town already looks like a win 15 games into the season.
Minus: The Bad of Dennis Schroder
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Schroder’s performance is that he’s got the Thunder playing good offense while he himself is shooting horribly. He is shooting just 41.3% this year, his worst mark since his rookie year and an awful mark all around. Last year in Atlanta, Schroder didn’t have much of a reason not to shoot as often as possible, but with Paul George as a teammate, Schroder could stand to check himself a little more. In 3 of the 7 games Schroder has started, he has led the team in shot attempts (in fairness, in 2 of those games he tied with George). George has struggled at times this year, but he’s coming on lately and should still lead the team in shot attempts in any game Westbrook doesn’t play. The best version of the Westbrook-less Thunder is a performance like last night against the Knicks- George leading the way with 22 shots, Steven Adams getting 13, and Schroder taking a moderate 10, but dishing 12 assists. Of course, the Knicks have a tendency to make every team look like its best self. Better teams are baiting Schroder into shooting, and he’s falling for it a little too much.
Schroder’s high volume of shots forms an unholy marriage with how bad he’s been at those shots. Schroder has shot awful relative to league average from every part of the floor this year, per Cleaning the glass- 52% at the rim, 38% on midrangers, and just 30% from 3. 52% at the rim is a blah mark compared to most of the league, but it’s still an efficient shot. The mid rangers and pull-up 3’s are not. One encouraging stat, and something that bodes well for Schroder’s success playing alongside Russ, is that he’s hit 35.3% of his catch and shoot attempts, and is taking nearly 3 per game. That’s a good shot if he hits it at that clip. It’s also the only kind of 3 pointer he should be taking- he’s shooting 20% on his pull-up 3’s, per NBA.com, and he needs to cut those from his game entirely.
Some bad shots are part of the experience with Schroder, just as they are with Russ, and Schroder has easily been a net positive this season. This is a minor concern for now- but one that will matter more come playoff time, when every shot and every decision takes on an added importance.
The defensive performance of OKC so far this season really deserves a full article of its own. But we can’t do a Plus Minus without at least noting that the Thunder have the second best defense in the entire NBA, trailing only Boston.
Part of the credit goes to the Thunder’s incredible personnel; Steven Adams protects the rim and boxes out opponents, without a care as to whether he or a teammate comes up with the rebound, and swallows guards trying to get downhill in the pick and roll. Jerami Grant is excellent at rotating as a help defender to clean up messes. Paul George shuts down even the best wings in the league. Terrance Ferguson has been excellent after a shaky start, fighting over screens and staying attached to his man, and recovering well when he does get beat. And all of them are extremely long and fast, enabling them to jump passsing lanes and forces offenses into longer passes- which gives the rest of the unit time to recover. And part of the credit goes to the Thunder’s defensive scheme, with its aggressive traps or double teams and quick backside rotations, which has allowed the team to lead the league in steals by a comfortable margin (nearly 12 per game!) without overextending itself and giving up easy shots elsewhere.
This is not an easy thing to do! OKC failed at executing this scheme last year in the playoffs, leading to a parade of easy shots at the rim for the Jazz. At the time, a lot of us thought the lack of Andre Roberson was the main cause. It was, but Andre is still out, and yet here the Thunder stand, an elite defense. The Thunder’s defense is risky, as Bobby covered earlier in the week. Navigating such an aggressive scheme without giving up a ton of easy shots is a tightrope walk, but so far OKC is pulling it off.
Plus: Deonte Burton, Thick King
Hamidou Diallo, who is not getting his own entry this week because I fear becoming repetitive if I write about him every week, has been a revelation for the Thunder, and justifiably getting a lot of attention. The thunder’s other rookie, Deonte Burton, has gotten a lot less run, but has quietly been okay when given the chance. He first got some run in the Celtics loss, where he hit an important 4th quarter three. He’s not yet a big part of the rotation, but he’s clearly higher in Billy Donovan’s esteem than Abdel Nader or Timothee Luawawu Cabbarot at this moment.
In the blowout win against the Knicks, Burton got his most play time and showed us what Billy likes about him. He is, as promised, a strong 3 point shooter already- 40% in college, an unsustainable 50% so far this year. More importantly, he’s looked confident in the time he’s gotten, even if his most impressive game came against the Knicks, who barely qualify as NBA competition. And unlike younger rookies (Burton played 4 years in college) his body is, shall we say, already NBA ready. Or as the kids say, he’s thiccc with 3 c’s. That big burly frame is a boon on defense and battling for boards.
Diallo is going to go down as one of the steals of last year’s draft. But keep your eyes peeled- OKC might have found a nice player in Burton too.
Plus: Paul George, coming alive
Woof woof. PG is awake now. Since the Thunder’s 0-4 start, during which he and the team struggled mightily, PG is back to his old self, shooting nearly 40% on his 3 pointers and averaging 23 points per game. He’s also notched up his playmaking in the absence of Russell Westbrook, averaging over 5 assists per game in the Thunder’s current 9-1 streak- a career high. His defense has been what we’ve come to expect- phenomenal, all the time, making everyone’s else’s life easier. Steals are an overrated measure of defense, but for the record, George is currently the league leader in steals. He also leads the league in deflections- even when he isn’t the one who comes up with the ball, his instincts and speed are what creates the opportunity for OKC.
The partnership with Schroder is paying incredible dividends. Last year, the Thunder were a godawful -11.6 when George played without Westbrook. This year? +10.6. George is not a LeBron James style point forward who can be expected to bring the ball up and initiate the offense himself. But give him a merely competent point guard (and Schroeder has been better than competent) who can initiate sets and get him the ball, and George can still be the primary option for an elite NBA offense, just as he was in Indiana.
That’s huge for OKC, which will no longer have to rely on prayers and Raymond Felton 3’s when Russ is on the bench. Schroder’s presence means the Thunder can safely stagger their superstars and still expect excellence. His performance with Russ sidelined has been nothing short of spectacular. You can throw out all the caveats about competition you want- The Thunder have been without their former MVP for half the season so far, and are not only surviving but thriving, sitting pretty at 3rd in an already vicious Western Conference. PG’s leadership on both ends of the floor has gotten them there. This team can be very special once Westbrook returns at full strength.