5 Numbers to set the stage as OKC prepares for a Valentine’s Date with the Grizzlies in Memphis:
Russell Westbrook is shooting just 30.1% on 3 pointers this year, an abysmal mark. Russ seemed to make strides in his 3 point shooting last year, shooting a career best 34.3%. It appears that may have been an outlier, rather than a sign of long term improvement — Russ is back to being a well below average 3 point shooter. It’s not that Russ should never take 3’s — it’s important that he have the shot in his arsenal so defenders don’t simply duck under screens set for Russ. But the simple fact is this: in games the Thunder have won this season, Russ shot an average of 3.5 3’s per game; in games they’ve lost, he’s averaged 5.5 3’s per game. His total number of attempts is about constant — in victories, he shoots 1 extra shot in the paint and 1 extra shot from midrange. Mid-rangers aren’t a particularly efficient shot for Russ either — he averages just 40% on those, compared to 58% in the restricted area. Russ settled for a ton of jump shots against the Cavaliers last night in his first game back from an ankle injury; his shot selection will be something to watch once more tonight.
In Sunday’s win over Memphis, Alex Abrines took 13 shots. That was partly a result of Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony missing the game with injury, which led to Abrines getting some time as the point guard (Steven Adams was highly dubious of the move). Abrines produced 16 points.
With Russ and Melo back, and facing better competition in the Cavs, Abrines got the start again, but managed only 3 shot attempts, none of which he hit.
Abrines is a good shooter and not much more at this point. If the Thunder want to start him, they need to involve him more in the offense — he should have the lowest attempts of the starters, but he should manage more than 3 shots. Against a bad Memphis team, the Thunder should practice involving Abrines more in the offense. Abrines isn’t bringing Roberson level defense, or anything close; he needs to compensate by being a much bigger offensive contributor than Robes was.
That’s the number of starters Billy Donovan has tried at the 2 spot in Andre Roberson’s absence. Terrance Ferguson started several games and was all but invisible on offense, and played like the rookie he is on defense — he was out of the rotation entirely last night against Cleveland. Abrines, we just discussed. And Josh Huestis started the Warriors game. Huestis is a fascinating case. It’s clear Billy Donovan wants to get him minutes, and after 2 years of bouncing arou nd in the G-league, he’s a consistent part of the rotation this year. He's been terrible offensively- he's shooting 33% from the field- down to 27% since Roberson went down. He gets talked about a lot as a defender, and he certainly has the physical tools and has shown flashes, and the Thunder have postegd a much better defensive rating when he plays than when he sits- The Thunder’s defensive rating is 111.4 he sits and 100.7 when he plays since Roberson's injury. That’s a huge difference- borderline Andre level.
The one wing player Billy Donovan still hasn’t tried starting in Roberson’s place is Jerami Grant. He should. Grant ha splayed 40 minutes with the other starters in the 9 games since Roberson went down, and that unit has outscored opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions. The Thunder as a whole have a net rating of -1.3 during that stretch. Grant isn’t a 2; he’s somewhere between a 3 and a 4, or maybe even a smallball 5. But at a certain point, positions stop mattering, especially when you have two defenders as versatile as Grant and George, and it just becomes a matter of getting your 5 most talented players on the court. Without Roberson, Grant is the 5th best player on the team, and it doesn’t feel particularly close. His offensive game has improved, as I talked about in previewing the Cavs game, and comes the closest of any of the remaining wing players to approximating Roberson defensively. He’s not there yet- there’s a reason Andre was in the DPOY conversation- but having a poor man’s Roberson defensively is better than nothing. Billy Donovan may not start Grant, but this is the lineup they should be closing close games with. Hopefully tonight isn’t close, against a team a shorthanded thunder stomped a few days ago. Keep an eye on Grant’s minutes all the same.
Following last night’s results, 5 teams in the Western Conference playoff picture have 26 losses on the season: OKC, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Denver Nuggets, the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Los Angeles Clippers. The red hot Jazz, on a 10 game win streak, are just behind that morass with 28 losses; the Spurs and the Timberwolves just ahead with 24 and 25 losses, respectively. The Spurs and Timberwolves have been kind enough to keep dropping just enough games to keep the 3rd seed in reach for the Thunder, but OKC is being equally polite in losing enough games of their own to stay in that morass of the 5-10 seeds.
Two of the teams mentioned above are not going to make the playoffs. Winning games like tonight’s, against a bad team, will keep the Thunder from being one of them- and keep them in position to seize the 3rd seed if the Spurs and Wolves falter.