As the Oklahoma City Thunder head into December on an extended break (3 days off in the NBA is an extended break), there are still questions surrounding the team. They’ve played about a quarter of their schedule, and currently sit in 4/5 slot in the Western Conference along with Houston. There have been pleasant surprises and confusing disappointments. There have been riveting wins and frustrating losses. But in the end, the Thunder are doing what they have to do to stay afloat in the West, and are probably around where they should be after 20 games. Myself and four other writers from Daily Thunder look at some of the questions still surrounding this team as they head into the back end of the first half of the season.
1. Russell Westbrook is currently averaging a statistical triple double heading into December (31.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 11.3 assists). Can Russell Westbrook continue this torrid pace? Will he?Alex Roig:
The pragmatist in me says, “No! There’s no way he can keep this pace”. Think back to the injury-ravaged 2014-15 season, where Westbrook had to carry the team by himself for much of the second half of the year. What Russell did in November of this season is basically what he did in January and February of that season. But by the time March and April came around, the man was running on fumes. That’s the precedent that I see being set here. Would I love to see him average a triple double for the year? Of course. But the after-effects of carrying this kind of load was put on full display after the Knicks’ game. When Fox Sports Oklahoma sideline reporter Lesley McCaslin went over to talk to Westbrook immediately after the game, the Thunder point guard did his interview sitting. He was so drained, he needed to take a seat. And that game was in late November, not late March.John Napier:
There’s a reason no one, besides Oscar Robertson, has averaged a triple-double over the course of an entire season –it’s incredibly difficult. Not only are there fewer possessions and less minutes played by a player in the modern NBA, but the exertion necessary to compete at this level wears on a player over 82 games. So, while theoretically he could keep up the pace, Westbrook won’t (and probably shouldn’t) dial in at this level on a nightly basis. I think he ends up averaging a double-double in points and assists, but with a rebound average of somewhere around 8, which would still result in a pretty remarkable season.Daniel Wojciechowski:
Westbrook will be Westbrook, and will average a triple-double this season. The biggest obstacle for Russ averaging a triple-double is him getting enough rebounds nightly on a team that is full of great rebounders. Russ will likely be one of the frontrunners for MVP, but the Thunder’s seeding will most likely hinder his chances. He will definitely make a case for the award, though.Andrew Schlecht:
As long as the Thunder don’t make any massive trades that results in lightening Westbrook’s load, I don’t see….. why not. He’s clearly motivated to rebound. Westbrook’s defensive rebounding helps the team play fast, which is something they need to do because of their lack of spacing. If players like Oladipo, Lauvergne, and Sabonis go cold from corner three that could hurt his assist totals, but as of today, I don’t see him slowing down.Royce Young:
I kind of think he will. After watching how he’s getting them, it’s not like he’s scraping by each night. He’s routinely having massive rebounding nights. The question is if he can avoid the really light games, where he only pulls in three or four. I think one area that’s going to really help him is he’s probably going to play a lot of fourth quarters. He might’ve had 25 triple-doubles last season, but he sat a lot of fourths because OKC had a big lead. That’s going to happen less this year.
2. Rookie power forward Domantas Sabonis has flashed some promise, while also having his share of rookie moments. Should he continue to start? If so, why, and if not, who should?Roig:
Yes. Unless some huge trade occurs and the Thunder happen to get that 2nd superstar, this is going to be a developmental year for the Thunder. And one of the players whose development is of great importance to the Thunder’s future is Sabonis. In addition, the two players who could realistically compete with Sabonis for his position, Joffrey Lauvergne and Jerami Grant, appear to be developing great chemistry on this team as reserves who can step in at crunch time if the match-up dictates it.Napier:
Yes, but not for the reason you might think. The Thunder were reportedly high on Sabonis and made him a key target in the Serge Ibaka trade. It’s easy to understand why when Sabonis is dropping three-point bombs and demonstrating high basketball IQ to move in space with the ball. That being said, he’s not been overwhelming on the boards and hasn’t shown much of an offensive post-game, ranking second to last on the team in percentage of points in the paint (just ahead of Alex Abrines). Moreover, many of his rookie moments are on the defensive end. All that said, his skills from college were rebounding and low-post scoring, so it stands to reason that those will translate to the NBA with enough time and experience. And, the best place to develop those skills is in meaningful minutes with your best player (Westbrook) and a low-post defensive presence (Adams) who can help absorb some rookie mistakes. So, yeah, this is a really long winded way of saying that he may not be the best player to start at PF, but I love the commitment shown to developing young talent by making him a starter and letting him grow into the role.Wojciechowski:
Domantas Sabonis should keep starting. His development needs to be a priority for this team moving forward and it’s better to integrate him now as much as possible while the Thunder are still working on retooling the team.Schlecht:
I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on this one. I think it’s good for Sabonis to start and have space to shoot wide open threes. He needs to continue to build confidence and get reps. I can also see starting a more confident shooter like Lauvergne or an athletic defender like Grant, depending on the match-ups. Overall, I think Sabonis is the future for the franchise at power forward and investing in his development seems like the right move.Young:
I think he should. There are two other realistic options if you don’t start Sabonis: 1) Lauvergne or 2) Grant. I don’t think the Kanter-Adams pairing works as a starting lineup, and alongside Westbrook, Sabonis’ fits well in the starting five. He’s sound defensively and part of the point to starting him is you’re investing in your future. Sabonis is a rookie. A lot of players don’t find their confidence and comfort until year three or four. The more he plays, the better he’ll get. Again: It’s not just about winning tomorrow’s game. It’s about trying to get back to place where you could win it all.
3. The Thunder are currently 12-8, good for 5th in the West. Knowing what you know now, what defines a successful season for the Thunder this year?Roig:
Regular season-wise, I think 46+ wins and another Northwest division banner would be a successful year. Looking further into the future: Call me crazy, but I think this team could make it to the Western Conference Finals. Outside of the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder have proven they can pretty much beat anyone else in the Western Conference. Both games against the Los Angeles Clippers were close, with the Thunder winning the game that was on the road. The Thunder defense stifled the offensive machine known as the Houston Rockets. And although they have yet to play San Antonio, the Thunder, historically, have always given the Spurs problems because of Westbrook and their athletic bigs. If they can avoid the Warriors’ side of the bracket, I could definitely see a scenario like this playing out.Napier:
A Northwest Division championship and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. With the Portland Trailblazers unable to defend a toddler YMCA team, and the Utah Jazz struggling, the Northwest Division is ripe for the picking. I still think this team is capable of being a borderline top 4 team in the West, and a trip to the second round would prove that belief. Add the fact that this team is still evolving, both organically as all the new parts and pieces play more minutes, but inorganically, as a trade seems almost inevitable at some point this season, moderately high hopes shouldn’t be that surprising.Wojciechowski:
A competitive first round series should be considered a successful season, even if the Thunder lose.Schlecht:
Getting the 5-7 seed in the West (I would rather the Thunder miss the playoffs than get the 8 and play the Warriors….. just for my own sanity) and being competitive in the playoffs. The second round feels like the ceiling for the Thunder as currently constructed. After losing a top 3 player in the league that sounds pretty good.Young:
It’s simple for me: Win enough games to get Westbrook the MVP. This Thunder team isn’t competing for a title (unless there’s a big time trade or they get some serious good fortune). This is a transitional season, trying to regather from the events of last summer and start to piece together a team that fits around Westbrook’s skillset. Of course everyone wants to win, but Westbrook completing a historic season and winning the game’s top individual award after what happened in July would feel pretty good.
4. For better or worse, what has been the biggest surprise so far this season for the Thunder?Roig:
Kyle Singler’s regression from Pre-Season Kyle Singler. (Sad face emoji) Honestly, though, my biggest surprise this season has been Russell Westbrook. I knew he was great. But I also thought he was a byproduct of the attention he and Durant forced opponents to have on the Thunder when they defended them. With Durant (and the attention he garners) gone, I thought there was a possibility this would be a very frustrating season for Westbrook. Instead, the Westbrook we have on our hands now is something the league has never seen before. A point god with the ability to lead the league in scoring and assists, while also grabbing 10+ rebounds amongst the trees. Aside from the statistics, Westbrook’s maturation into team leader this year has been incredible. When there are two superstars on a team, sometimes neither will lead for fear of stepping on the other’s toes. With that hindrance out the way, Westbrook is now fuly invested in leading this team….his team.Napier:
For worse, the Thunder defense. With the loss of a pretty decent offensive player (and the addition of a defensive-minded assistant in Adrian Griffin), I presumed that the Thunder would focus way more on the defensive end. While the Thunder started off hot (ranking 4th in defensive rating in their 6-1 start), the drop has been significant. Since starting 6-1, the Thunder’s defensive rating ranks 19th in the league, and they’ve been allowing an NBA-worst 49.7 points in the paint and an eighth-worst 108.2 points per game.Wojciechowski:
The Thunder are way more dependent on Russ than I thought they would be. It’s been the Westbrook show the entire season, which is basically a roller coaster. This Thunder team as currently constructed relies very, very heavily on Russ playing with extreme balance, tasking him to be an elite play-maker and scorer every game.Schlecht:
Joffrey Lauvergne! He’s currently ranked….
- 6th on the team in PER at 14.1
- 5th in TS% at 55%
- 4th in Total Rebound %
- 1st in corner three % at 62.5%
- AND HE HAS A POSITIVE VORP! (.1 but whatever it’s positive!)
That’s a big surprise!Young:
They’re not that bad of a 3-point shooting team. It’s not great, but they’re not like HORRIBLE. And within that, Victor Oladipo has been a marksman from deep. Especially from the corners (where he’s around 60 percent) and on catch and shoot 3s (where he’s over 45 percent).
5. Who has been OKC’s second most important player so far? And will it be the same going forward?Roig:
Victor Oladipo. While this team is still transitioning from the Westbrook/Durant era, it still functions best when there are two wing scorers out there on the floor. And, surprisingly, Oladipo has been a great compliment to Westbrook in the backcourt. There was a lot of fear coming into the season that Westbrook and Oladipo would inhabit the same niche on the floor and get in each other’s way. Instead, Oladipo has transformed into one of the best catch and shoot players in the league, which is exactly what Westbrook needs next to him. In addition, Oladipo is beginning to grow more comfortable in his role as alpha scorer when Westbrook sits and he is staggered on the floor with the reserves. Moving forward, I believe Oladipo remains the Thunder’s second most important player.Napier:
Victor Oladipo. Forgive me for stating the obvious answer, but the presumed second-best player on the team is the second most important player. As Westbrook has shouldered the immense load of willing the team to each victory, Oladipo is the one guy who’s ready to take some of that burden away. And, after a slow start, Oladipo is beginning to flourish–in fact, he’s on pace to have his best season of his career, averaging career highs in FG%, 3P%, TS%, and Net Rating while scoring over 17 points per game). Oh, and as to the second question, it most definitely will be the same going forward. Oklahoma City invested a ton of money into Oladipo, and for this team to recapture the highs of yesterday, Oladipo will have to be one of the biggest keys to success.Wojciechowski:
Victor Oladipo has been the second most important player this season. The backcourt makes a lot more sense today than it did when the season started. Oladipo can be really streaky at times, but I predict he will be the second most important Thunder player for the rest of this season, and all of next season.Schlecht:
Steven Adams. He’s had somewhat of a disappointing start. The expectations pressed upon him by his preseason play may have been unfair. Steven has also struggled with a hand injury that hampered him for several games. However, Adams is still the key to having an above average defense. He is currently 8th in DRPM among centers. The only other players to rank in the top 10 in DRPM or ORPM for their position are Roberson (7th among SF in DRPM) and of course Russ (1st among PG in ORPM). Steve’s ability to switch into smaller players had been vital to the Thunder defense so far. He doesn’t seem to have the space or comfortability to be a heavy contributor on offense, but as he gets more opportunities and experience with this team I expect that to change. Going forward he is the second most important player for OKC.Young:
It’s probably been Oladipo thus far, but going forward it’s Adams. If Steven Adams can build off the player he was in the second half of last season and the playoffs and take another little leap, the Thunder could be pretty good. If he’s just a solid starting big that plays great defense and finishes a pick-and-roll every now and then, they’re going to stay about where they are. Adams has played a lot better recently and with his hand getting better, he might be able to starting trending upwards again.