The Thunder are technically past half-way this season, but the All-Star Game has always served as a breaking point, if no better reason than to let us all breathe a bit and take stock of what we’ve witnessed thus far.
The WTLC team has some thoughts, and we know you do too. Her are ours, and please provide your own reflections in the comments below!
1. How would you grade the Thunder’s season so far?
Reid Belew: I’m feeling good with an A-. This season has been great, but a rough start, some really horrible losses (Atlanta, LA, Washington) and Russ’ struggles have kept it from as good as possible.
Mark Bruty: B+. I would be inclined to head upwards of this mark, but the 0-4 start was less than ideal and there have been some shocking losses — and I mean shocking — where we just haven’t brought the energy or effort at all. This is what separates the upper echelon of teams — that killer instinct to come out hard every night and never let the foot off the tiger’s neck... Over these last 12 games: A+.
Ben Mertens: A. Not A+, but still an A. They’re playing like a 55 win team and look like the second best team in the West. They haven’t gotten there the way I expected they would (if you told me Russ was going to shoot this bad, I’d have guessed they were playing at like a 43 win pace) but I can’t argue with results.
Isaiah Freedman: A. This has been, by all accounts, a fabulous season thus far from the Thunder. Their starting five of Westbrook, Ferguson, George, Grant and Adams is all signed under contract until 2021 and have outscored opponents by about 14 points per 100 possessions. You can tell this team loves to play with each other and the defense has been incredible, especially impressive considering defensive stud Andre Roberson is still nowhere to be seen. The only reason this is not an A+ is because OKC still sits at 3rd place in the West and Roberson remains MIA.
Dom Flaim: A-. They haven’t been perfect, but if you’d have asked to start the season if I thought they’d have 37 wins at the break I’d have given a pretty solid no. Losing a few bad games but still holding up well against the better teams in the league with a few really quality wins while sporting a top 5 defense and improving offense gets high marks. They’ve also been much more free and fun to watch with a faster paced style. Credit to all involved for it, but so far so good.
2. What has been your biggest surprise of the season?
Reid: It’s hard to choose between PG blasting off into space, Schroder fitting so well, and Russ’ defense. I’m going to choose Jerami Grant, though. It’s been so awesome to watch him become a 2nd-level scorer and an even better defender than he was last year. He’s 24! He may improve for the next 5 years and be a supremely valuable player, more so than he already is. I’ve got a real soft spot for 2-way players playing within their means (and a 2nd round draft pick to boot), and Grant does that for me. I didn’t expect his offense to step up like it has.
Mark: Deonte Burton — who has been really impressive every time I’ve seen him and he needs to make the roster in a full time capacity.
Ben: I want to say T-Ferg, who I wasn’t sure would be in the rotation at all and has instead turned into a worthy starter and a force on both ends of the floor. But the answer is actually Paul George. I love Paul George, but I never thought he would be an MVP level player. Yet he is, and the jump from “regular superstar” to MVP is the hardest leap to make. So it’s PG.
Isaiah: My biggest surprise has been Ferguson’s development from somebody who couldn’t buy a bucket in Summer League to the perfect 3 and D player the Thunder have been searching for. Throughout the years, OKC always had trouble striking a balance between shooting and defense next to Russell Westbrook. Thabo Sefoloshawa and Roberson were ace defenders, yet couldn’t throw a ball in the ocean, while players like Anthony Morrow and Alex Abrines were too brittle to hold up on defense despite their pristine shooting. The Thunder outscore opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions and maintain their ferocious defensive numbers when Ferguson is on the court. This January, T Ferg converted a scorching 48% of his three-point attempts. Not too shabby.
Dom: I was a vocal Ferguson critic from the day he was drafted. Didn’t want him taken then, didn’t think he’d be anything of note, didn’t think he’d improve much. I wanted Diallo starting at the beginning of the season which at this point sounds ridiculous. He’s been solid in his man defense and hitting 3s at a good clip. I’m of course surprised by the things mentioned by others too (PG’s crazy year, Burton, Russ on defense, etc.) but if you told me Ferguson was this good right now I’d have been shocked just 5 months ago.
3. What has been your biggest disappointment of the season?
Reid: I just want our offense and defense to be elite at the same time. That’s all.
Mark: The departure of Alex Abrines, I really thought he was coming on and there is obviously something to derail that, I believe personally, and I am hopeful he can make it through that. Shame to lose him, but his well being is more important.
Also Patrick Patterson. He was meant to be the Toronto Raptors version - and he teased us in the pre-season, but I look at other teams like Sacramento that have Bjelica and I’m jealous. But largely, it’s those games where we have played down to the level of our opponent and have hard to work really hard for a win or have lost some absolute stinkers.
Ben: Andre Roberson not coming back has been really disappointing. Ferguson’s breakout year has softened the blow but it sucks that Andre hasn’t been able to get out there.
Isaiah: Probably the growing realization that Patrick Patterson will never be the player he once was before his knee surgery. When the Thunder signed Patterson to a three-year deal in 2017 for only about $5 million a season, it looked like a bargain for a stretchy bench big who could moonlight at power forward and center. But now, I’m sure OKC regrets the deal. Patterson looks like he’s stuck in quicksand when he defends, and he’s shooting only 38% from the field this season, which is a pitiful number for a big man. On the bright side, Patterson is an excellent teammate and positive locker room presence.
Dom: For all the talk of the bench, it really not producing that much. Noel has been solid defensively but doesn’t play enough to really be of note and Schroder’s mostly been somewhat inefficient and tends to get tunnel vision. Since they’ve staggered more it’s gotten a little better but it’s still weird to me that Schroder hasn’t really even statistically been a notable upgrade from Felton. Houston’s mostly built a better bench as of now with financial constraints from ownership and no names of note, while OKC’s had guys who are paid, just aren’t producing. That funnels to Patterson and what’s essentially been a dead roster spot in Abrines as well.
4. What would it take for Paul George to have a shot at MVP?
Reid: If he keeps this up and OKC makes it to the WCF, I think he’s really hard to deny.
Mark: He’s there. Right there. A lot of talk for Harden who only plays one side of the ball, and Giannis who I believe is the real threat to PG’s chances. If George keeps this up and we finish top 3 in the West I think he’s a lock. A couple more game winners wouldn’t hurt the “clutch” case as well - and voters always love those moments at the business end of the season. Helps with the recency bias.
Ben: OKC needs to get up to the 2 seed, his numbers need to stay right where they are (29-8-4 on 45% shooting, 41% from 3) and he needs to stay in the mix for defensive player of the year. That would make him an MVP-caliber player. Only 1 player wins MVP every year, so it also matters what happens to his competition. Harden’s 30 point game streak probably needs to come to an end and the Rockets need to finish like 5th for voters to be able to put aside his scoring supremacy in favor of PG’s more complete game. Of course, if that happens, they still might decide to give it to Giannis instead, who is the best player on the best team. The argument for PG over him really has to come down to defense- Giannis is no slouch, but PG might be Defensive Player of the Year. Getting OKC to the 2 seed and finishing with 55+ wins would help close the gap on the team success argument.
Isaiah: Unfortunately, it would take Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden to go into a coma. As insanely efficient and impressive as George’s season has been thus far, he’s still behind Giannis and Harden in the eyes of the media. What more can he possibly do? The dude is single-handedly ruining teams on both ends of the floor and he averaged 38 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals on 42.3% from 3 in February. The man has been simply incredible, and he definitely has my vote for MVP over Harden and maybe even Giannis.
Dom: Giannis stopping playing. PG’s been flat out amazing this season (I’ve just listened to Zach Lowe’s two most recent podcasts and his numbers are near identical to Durant’s in 2016 in some regards, and in others even to his MVP season), but Giannis has a team looking at 60 wins and a huge leap. He’s also got a larger load to carry and a great storyline. Honestly I think PG has as good a case after Giannis as anyone, but he’s a solid second.
5. Is Russell Westbrook having a good season?
Reid: Yes? No? What is ‘good’ defined as? His scoring is down, but I’m so glad that he’s clearly altering his game to minimize his weaknesses. He’s a productive player and his defense has been kicked up. It’s a good year.
Mark: Are you kidding me? Absolutely. He’s defending better than he has before, he’s averaging a triple double, scoring over 20ppg on his lowest usage in YEARS and the key part - he’s making his teammates better. Four Thunder guys are putting up career numbers and you can trace it back to Russ - both on and off the floor. As a leader, a mentor and as a superstar point guard - yes he is having a great season (just not when it comes to shooting the basketball!)
Ben: Yes. His shooting has been awful and it is a problem for the team, even if Thunder fans and Russ himself are sick of hearing about it. It’s also overshadowed everything else he’s done, which is unfair. He’s having the best defensive season of his life & the best passing season of his life. His playstyle and setting the table has led to an MVP season for PG and for career seasons for guys like Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant, who can’t create their own shot. He’s averaging a triple double, again, and his rebounding does matter-for all the snark, his ability to grab and go leads to a lot of transition play (the Thunder have the 2nd most transition opportunities in the NBA this season, per Cleaning the Glass). If Russ was doing all this and scoring the way he did in 2016-17, he’d be an MVP candidate himself. As it stands, he’s having a good season even with the bad shooting.
Isaiah: Yes. And while many will scream “He’s averaging a triple-double, of course he’s having a good season you idiots!”, I want to paint the whole picture. Yes, Russ is averaging a triple-double for the third straight season, which is truly ridiculous. The Thunder go from scoring 113 points per 100 possessions with their superstar guard on the court to a measly 101 points per 100 possessions when he sits. Sure, the shooting downturn is baffling and concerning when defenses tighten up in the playoffs, but Russ has been awesome. I still don’t think he’s fully recovered from offseason knee surgery and that ankle tweak a couple months back. But don’t worry about him, he’ll be fine.
Dom: I think so. He’s clearly not MVP Russ but he never will be again. He’s passing, defending, and generally deferring more and better than I can recall. He’s given up the ball on at least three occasions to a good shooter at the buzzer to get great shots which wasn’t his old MO. He’s shown effort on both ends of the floor and he’s got a career high in assists and assist to turnover ratio. He’s taking care of the ball a bit better, getting others more involved, and generally being more of what people always told him to do.
6. Does Andre Roberson return this year, and what role does he play if he is healthy?
Reid: I’m thinking probably not. He’s not immediately needed, so no need to rush him. However, if he does, I wonder if he’ll be used as a clutch time stopper in the playoffs. That’s a stretch. I’m saying no.
Mark: I think Sam Presti believes Roberson is back in time for the playoffs - hence why there was no knee jerk reaction at the trade deadline. Ferguson has filled in admirably and we are also getting key minutes from Burton, Nader, Diallo etc. The high energy, switching defense also means Robes hasn’t been AS missed as we thought he might. I’d love him to return but only if he’s 100%. As for his role, I think it stays the same and second units then have to deal with a mix of Roberson / Ferguson / George and Noel. Wow.
Ben: I have no idea if he makes it back. even if he does, it’s too late in the year to break up a starting 5 that’s blitzing opponents (net rating of +12.1), especially since Roberson will need time to round back into form even if he returns. T-Ferg’s 3 point shooting makes him a key cog in the starting lineup even if he’s only giving 75% of what Roberson did defensively. But Robes can still help a Thunder team that lacks experienced wings (the recent addition of Markieff Morris helps, but he’s better suited to playing the 4. Roberson can play the 2 or the 3). He gives the team one more body to throw at guys like James Harden, particularly if foul trouble becomes an issue. So his role come playoff time is a bench wing who’s minutes are probably matchup dependent, but can still really help the team.
Isaiah: This is by far the hardest question, and since the Thunder have kept Roberson’s latest timetable as secret as nuclear launch codes, I worry we may not see our favorite defensive hound on the court this season. I really do hope I’m wrong, but it may be in Roberson and the team’s best interests if he has the rest of the season and all offseason to recover so he’s 100% healthy come next season.
Dom: No, and I haven’t thought so for a while. The Thunder have a way of playing these injuries with media where they don’t release much information and when it does come out it’s sudden and rushed. Roberson was set on track then out of the blue came a setback like it was nothing. Months later near his return, again he’s noted as probably not a few more weeks. It’s convenient that the media seems to let them sort of not be bothered, but in the way they have handled it in the press I got that feeling a while ago. And I’m not even sure if he’s ever near what he used to be unfortunately.
7. How do you think the rest of the Thunder’s season will play out?
Reid: Western Conference Finals or bust.
Mark: If OKC can keep the focus and really build from here, I can see another 50+ win season and a top 3 finish out West. All we want is to be healthy and in sync come playoff time and then anyone can get it!
Ben: They should comfortably finish over 50 wins, and if they make a strong push post All-Star break they may be able to catch the Nuggets and secure the 2 seed in the West. The difference between 2 and 3 may not be that big of a deal; at the moment, the 2 seed gets to face the Spurs in round 1 and the 3 seed gets to face the Jazz, neither of which would be the sort of easy first round matchup you’d be entitled to as a top 3 seed out East (also: if the Lakers make a late push, the 7 seed could mean a date with LeBron in the first round. No thanks). Still, as long as they can stay in the top 3, OKC will have as good a shot as anyone to make the Western Conference Finals.
Isaiah: I predict a Western Conference Finals appearance. Who knows what can happen from there. Signing Markieff Morris was a huge pickup, and he’ll serve as the perfect backup big to Jerami Grant and Steven Adams. Morris is gritty and when he’s engaged he can guard multiple positions and knock down threes when needed. This is going to be a wild postseason ride. But first, let’s enjoy All-Star Weekend!
Dom: Best case is conference finals. Worst case first round out. In the end it will depend on matchups but I’ll try to be optimistic and say they get a favorable matchup first round and go on to lose in the conference semifinals to Denver or Golden State.