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Are the Thunder for real?

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OKC is 12-7. Has their play so far been a mirage, or are they one of the best teams in the league?

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Oklahoma City Thunder Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Time flies when you’re playing well. The regular season is already a quarter way over, and despite a weird loss to Denver over the weekend, the Thunder are 12-7, and officially in 5th place in the western Conference- but the race is so crowded that they are only 1.5 games out of 1st. Considering that the Thunder started last season a disastrous 8-12 before righting the ship, and that they have been without Russell Westbrook for almost half the season so far, OKC should be very pleased indeed.

The quarter way mark is the point at which sample sizes get large enough that stats and records actually mean something... but not everything. Were the Thunder doomed by their 8-12 start last year? No- their point differential suggested they were a much better team, and they turned things around before Andre Roberson’s season ending injury. But it did mean that dreams of finishing second in the West were out the window, and that the team had some real issues.

This year, whether than hoping to turn around a bad start, OKC is hoping to continue a good one. But has this hot start been a mirage, or a sign of good things to come? The Thunder did feast upon some weak opponents during their winning streak, although per ESPN, their strength of schedule so far has been middle of the pack- they haven’t faced a murderer’s row, but they haven’t faced the weakest schedule in the league either. The losses that would have looked bad at the start of the year- a loss to Dallas and two losses to Sacramento- actually don’t look too bad, with both those teams at .500 and in the thick of the playoff race. Their other losses were all to playoff teams- the full strength Warriors on opening night, the somehow-first-in-the-West Clippers, a strong Nuggets team, and a weirdly inconsistent Celtics team. They’ve beaten both the Warriors and the Rockets, though neither was at full strength, and also beat the Clippers (who, again, are first in the West. I keep saying it because I still can’t quite believe it).

But every team will have some good wins and puzzling losses every season. At this early point in the season, the statistics can give us a better clue of where OKC is headed than parsing who they beat and who they lost to. And the numbers are very favorable to OKC.

Defense first

Per Cleaning the Glass, OKC has the 5th best net rating in the league, with +5.8 (In layman’s terms, they outscore their opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions). A team with such a net rating would be expected to win 58 games over the course of a full season, which would be the Thunder’s best win total since 2014. Their net rating comes on the strength of the best defense in the entire NBA, with a 102.1 defensive rating. In a year of offensive explosions, OKC is routinely strangling its opponents.

That the Thunder are doing so without Andre Roberson, who seemingly single handedly propped up their defense last year, is astounding. Steven Adams, in the midst of a career season on both ends of the floor, has led the way, with a net rating of +11.8 whenever he plays. Jerami Grant and Paul George, who leads the league in steals, have both been fantastic, and even guys who haven’t previously shown great defensive chops, like Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder, have been defending well. The worst offender has honestly been Westbrook, who still has nights where he doesn’t seem to try until late and is still prone to falling asleep off the ball. Yet the team has kept up it’s excellent defense even with Russ on the court- their defensive rating with Westbrook is 103.5, only a tick worse than their overall mark and still an elite rating.

Offensive improvement

The pedestrian offense is a cause for concern, but again there are good signs. The Thunder’s overall offensive rating is 108.6, only 17th in the league. With Westbrook on the court, that number jumps to 113.6, which would be a top 10 offense. That number slips to 109.9 when Dennis Schroder plays and Westbrook sits- an average mark, but if there are only about 15 minutes per game where Russ sits, the team’s overall rating should approach Westbrook’s rating. What truly kills OKC’s offense is when Westbrook and Schroder both aren’t playing. For most of those minutes, Raymond Felton has been charged with running the offense, and the Thunder have posted a truly awful offensive rating of 88.2. The teams that are trying to lose games have better offensive ratings than that. Felton should not play, and as long as Westbrook and Schroder are both healthy, he won’t.

An early point of concern was the minutes when Westbrook and Schroder share the floor. Schroder is the team’s 4th best player, and he and he and Westbrook need to be able to share the court for some minutes for the team to reach its ceiling. There was always going to be an adjustment period for two guys so used to dominating the ball, and we saw that early. But now the duo are downright killing it when they play together: a net rating of +12.4 whenever the two share the court. Both have made some big improvements to get this marriage to work. Schroder has been a poor 3-point shooter for his career, and defenses have responded by sagging off him when he’s off the ball. He has punished them for doing so, shooting a scorching 41.2% on catch and shoot 3’s this year, per - the best mark on the team.

Russ’ shot selection

Westbrook, for his part, has shown a willingness to defer to Schroder even in big moments- it was Schroder who hit the big shot to seal the win against Charlotte last Friday night, while Westbrook watched from the corner. Westbrook also willingly gave up the ball to Schroder and George on key possessions, leading to better looks- in one case, a better look for Russ himself after getting the ball back. His worst Mamba instinct still tends to rear its ugly head at inopportune moments- witness his 12 3-points attempts against Denver, most of which were off the dribble and objectively bad shots. But good things are happening when he shares the court with Schroder.

If there’s one cause for worry for OKC, it’s 3-point shooting. Schroder is red hot behind the arc, and Jerami Grant is shooting a career best 35%. Grant’s shooting helps makes the starting lineup go, and Schroder’s shooting is big for his and Westbrook’s success together (the 5 man lineup of Westbrook-Schroder-George-Grant-Adams, which in theory seems like OKC’s 5 best players, has only been +1.4 so far. They looked good closing out the win against the Hornets together- keep your eyes peeled for this group). If either of these guys revert to their past averages from three, the Thunder will struggle even more to generate good offense- especially since no one else on the team can seem to hit a three right now. Paul George is shooting 35% from 3, which is league average but low for him. Alex Abrines, a 3-point specialist, is shooting only 32%, Patrick Patterson, who has struggled in all aspects of the game so far, is shooting 31%, and Terrance Ferguson is shooting a wretched 26%. Then again, even if Grant and Schroder do regress, you would expect George and Abrines to pick it up at some point from beyond the arc.

The Thunder have been average for the year as a whole, but elite offensively when Russ plays, mainly because Russ has been electric from within the arc. Westbrook is shooting 55% on 2 point attempts and 66% at the rim. Both those numbers might come down a hair, but what’s encouraging is his shot profile. Westbrook is always at his best attacking the rim, but has long struggled with settling for pull up shot attempts from midrange or 3-point land. His diet of shot selection is the healthiest it’s ever been this year- 46% of his attempts come at the rim, compared to only 33% from the mid-range and 21% from beyond the arc. He has been okay from mid-range and atrocious from three, but you can live with that if he’s taking fewer of them. If Westbrook can keep up this new style, he will have the most efficient season of his career.

Adams has been huge too- he is taking a career high 11 shots per game and rewarding the team with nearly 16 points per contest, for a shooting rate of 59%. The Thunder could still stand to get him a couple more looks per game, but the improvement over last year in Adams’ offensive role is encouraging. Paul George has been merely average at the rim and from behind the arc, but because he takes so many threes, his overall numbers are still quite good- a career high 24 points per game. But if his 3-point shooting number go up to his career average, he’ll look even better- and so will the team as a whole.

To sum it up

The Thunder have an elite defense, and there’s not much of a reason to expect it to get worse, barring injury. They have an average offense, and there are real reasons to expect them to get better. They are a top 5 team in the league at this very moment, and haven’t even hit their ceiling yet. The Thunder are for real. There are plenty of other good teams in the West and it will be a fight the whole way, but if OKC can continue to improve, there’s no reason they can’t finish with a top 3 record in the west and make a deep playoff run.