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The Thunder are (probably) going to be fine

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OKC is in a bad stretch of the season, on what should Thunder fans hang their hopes?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

At some point on Wednesday night, the Thunder’s season hit rock bottom. It was probably when Danny Green hit yet another 3 pointer a few minutes into the third quarter to extend the Raptors lead to 78-58. OKC had lost 3 straight and was on their way to a 4th straight, which would make them 5-10 since the all star break. A team that had a decent chance to get the 2 seed in the West only a month ago would drop into 8th with the loss, leaving them in danger of having to face their enemies in Golden State in the first round.

In a moment like that, it’s only natural to assume the worst. The Thunder are doomed! They might miss the playoffs entirely! But a sober, big picture look at things tell us differently. The Thunder are probably going to be fine.

As that Green 3-pointer swished through, it would have been understandable to blame the Thunder’s wretched defense for that loss and the team’s recent struggles in general. The Thunder have been on the downturn defensively since January, and it can be easy in the heat (no pun intended) of a game to see players like Goran Dragic or Danny Green raining threes and conclude the defense has been killing OKC. In fact, over their current 4 game losing streak the Thunder have the 10th best defensive rating in the league. They have the 7th best defensive rating in the NBA post All Star break, allowing a very respectable 108 points per 100 possessions. That’s not the elite number OKC put up for the first 2 months of the season, but it’s more than good enough to win games.

The Thunder’s offense, on the other hand, hasn’t been good enough to win a g-league game. Since the all-star break, the Thunder are dead last in offensive rating, averaging just 104 points per 100 possessions. Lottery teams that long ago punted on this season and are mostly running out the clock while dreaming about Zion Williamson have scored more efficiently than the Thunder.

In a bit of cruel irony, the Thunder’s offense has died just as their most maligned scorer has finally figured out his shot. Aside from a dreadful game against Golden State, Russell Westbrook has been excellent shooting the ball since the All-Star break. His true shooting, which factors in foul shots and the additional value of 3 pointers, has jumped from 50.1 pre all star break to 55%. That’s not elite, but acceptable. That number has been powered by improved shooting from 3-point land (36%) and the field in general (46%)- only his still poor free throw shooting is keeping it from climbing higher still.

I have heard arguments that Russ’s improved shooting has caused him to do less playmaking, which in turn has hurt the team’s overall offense during this stretch, even as Russ’s individual numbers have improved. I don’t see it. Russ averaged 11 assists and 20 “potential assists” per game pre-All Star break. Since the break he’s averaged 18.4 potential assists, but only 7.6 actual assists. He’s passing a bit less, but the drop off in his assist numbers is coming far more from teammates simply missing shots they were hitting before the All-Star break.

Aside from Westbrook, the Thunder’s leaders in 3-point attempts are Paul George, Terrance Ferguson, and Dennis Schroder. All have shot horribly since the All-Star break. George has shot 31.4%, Ferguson 28.4%, and Schroder 25.6%. If the trio had seen a downturn in quality looks, it might be fair to point the finger at Westbrook, but that hasn’t been the case. Below, you can see how the trio have shot on 3 point attempts classified by NBA.Com as “Wide Open” before and after the All Star break:

Ferg and Schroder have essentially puked on the court on these looks despite getting more of them since the All-Star break, while George has shot incredibly well on these wide open looks, but struggled badly enough on 3’s with any sort of contest to drag his average all the way down to 31%.

That those three have shot so woefully just as Russ has come into his own is nothing but an unlucky coincidence. It is also something we probably should have seen coming, at least in the case of Schroder. The Umlaut shot unsustainably well during the Thunder’s red hot January, as I noted at the time, and the bill was always going to come due for a guy who has shot 32% from deep for his career. The hope was that, by continuing to take the right kind of 3’s- off the catch, relatively open, he could sustain at least average shooting even when he cooled off. It has not played out that way. Schroder is actually taking more 3 pointers off the catch than he did during his hot streak- 3.7 of his 5.5 attempts per game are off the catch- but he has shot a pitiful 30.4% on those attempts, and his numbers are equally atrocious on catch and shoot opportunities, as noted. That’s without even discussing how bad he’s been from 2-point land.

Ferguson’s downfall has been more disappointing. After shooting just 29% on his 3’s over the first two months of the season, it appeared he had turned the corner, shooting well over 40% in January and February. It was an eye popping jump, and even if it was unsustainably high, the hope was the young shooting guard could settle somewhere in the high 30’s. Nope. Ferg has turned back into a pumpkin on his 3’s post all-star break, shooting as bad as he did at the start of the season.

It’s tempting to think of Ferg and Schroder’s performance as regression to the mean, but that’s not quite right. Regression to the mean doesn’t mean that if a player shoots much better than his career average we should expect him to follow it up by shooting worse than his career average for an equal length of time. Rather, it means we should expect, in the long run, a player’s shooting to return to his average following an extreme performance in either direction. Ferg and Schroder are both shooting far below their career averages form 3 since the all-star break. We shouldn’t expect them to return to the outlandish performances they put on in January, but we should expect them to shoot closer to their career averages.

That’s doubly true of Paul George, who performed like an MVP all the way through February’s thrilling double OT victory over the Utah Jazz before a shoulder injury caused him to miss 3 games and derailed his shooting even after he returned. It seems fair to say he’s back now, however. George is averaging 26 points on 43/38/80 shooting splits over the Thunder’s last 6 games, just below his season averages of 28 points on 44/39/83. The regression to the mean isn’t coming for PG. It’s already here.

It’s now just a matter of Westbrook and George both showing up in the same game. Westbrook had the worst game of his season against Golden State and was suspended for the game against Miami, while George laid an egg until the final 2 minutes of regulation against Toronto. It’s only a matter of time before the duo both are both rolling during the same game. When that happens, the Thunder can make up for a lot of other weaknesses.

Of course, there’s also the fear that just as the other will revert to average, Westbrook will revert to playing the way he did earlier in the season. That is possible, and part of Westbrook’s improved scoring has come from an improved performance shooting the 3 ball, always the shakiest and most inconsistent part of his game. But part of it looks to me like improved health- he looks more explosive since the break, which has translated to him shooting nearly 4% points better at the rim. He’s also taking 1 extra catch and shoot 3 pointer per game, which is part of the reason he’s shot better from deep. He has also shot better off the dribble, which will go away. His improved shooting at the rim and increased volume of catch and shoot attempts should be more sustainable. Even if they’re not, the Thunder have proved all season they can win without great shooting from Russ as long as the defense is good and his teammates bury the looks he gives them. If tomorrow the entire team, Russ included, returns to shooting the way they did pre-all star break, the Thunder as a whole will be better for it.

If George and Westbrook both play well offensively and the defense stays tight, the Thunder should start racking up wins again. We saw proof of that shortly after that Green three pointer that brought them to their low point. Even down twenty points, OKC continued to defend with verve. When Toronto’s deep shots stopped dropping, OKC was able to fight back into striking distance. With under 2 minutes to go, PG scored 9 straight points by drawing a foul on a 3 pointer and then draining two vintage, ridiculous 3-point attempts to draw within 2. Following a stop, a throwback Russell Westbrook transition drive tied the game and forced overtime. In that 4th quarter, the Thunder held the Raptors to 31% shooting, George had 12 points on just 5 field goal attempts, and Westbrook had 11 points on 5 field goals. Were it not for George fouling out, they may well have pulled out the victory in overtime.

The Thunder haven’t looked like that team very often of late, but their fundamentals suggest they still can be that team. They have maintained a high level of defense even while their offense has faltered, and the offense has faltered because most of the team has shot so far below average that it has drowned out positive signs, like the play of Russell Westbrook (not to mention Jerami Grant, who has also had his best scoring month of the season).

If those players round back into form and the team keeps defending at a high level, they should be able to deliver a solid finish over the final 10 games of the regular season, climb out of 8th place (they jumped back into 5th thusday night without playing a game due to a complicated series of tiebreakers), and be a nightmare of a matchup for whatever team is unlucky enough to draw them in the First Round.