As the page turns on another year, people get in the habit of reflecting on what they could have done better in the year that past, and make it their goal to improve upon those things for the next year. It is a yearly staple in the psyche of most people’s mindsets. Self-improvement always has to have a beginning. So what better time to start than at the beginning of the year. Of course, the results of said resolutions usually don’t turn out to be quite so successful. Gym memberships throughout the country probably increase exponentially in the month January, but likely dip down by the middle of the month as the new gym members realize that you actually have to work out to lose weight.
But not everyone fails in their endeavors. Some people actually stick with what they want to change and get to where they want to go. Sometimes seeing a beginning point like the first of the year is incentive enough to change what happened the previous year.
The Oklahoma City Thunder had a roller-coaster of a year in 2016. They made it to the Western Conference Finals, but lost in the most wickedest of fashions after being up 3-1 in the series. Then franchise cornerstone Kevin Durant decided to not only not re-sign with the Thunder, but instead sign with the team they lost to in the conference finals, the Golden State Warriors. Not everything was bad news though. The superstar who stayed behind decided he liked Oklahoma City enough to sign a 3-year contract extension. And the Thunder head into the final game of 2016 with a surprising (depending on who you speak to) record of 20-13.
But like any other person in life, the Thunder players could improve on certain aspects of their game to make the overall team better. Here’s a look at each individual player on the roster and what they could do to improve themselves in 2017.
1. Russell Westbrook: Cut down on the technicals
Westbrook is the unquestioned leader of the Thunder, and probably the leading candidate for MVP if he can keep up his current statistical bombardment on the league. But he leads the league in another ominous category: technical fouls. After getting ejected from the Thunder’s last game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the ninth-year guard currently has 10 technicals fouls 33 games into the season. Of note: there is still one more game left in 2016. The number of technicals could increase for 2016.
The NBA issues a one game suspension after the 16th technical of the regular season, and then subsequent suspensions for every two technicals after that. Westbrook has reached the watermark before, but has never gone over the limit on technicals. But with 49 games left in the season, it would behoove Westbrook to make it a New Year’s resolution to not get anymore technicals.
Around this time year, Westbrook made a vow that he was done picking up technical fouls. And it worked, as he only picked up 3 technicals for the rest of the 2015-16 season. I believe it is time for him to make the same vow this year. In addition, without Durant on the team, the team is a complete dumpster fire without Westbrook. Hopefully, Westbrook realizes the stakes are much higher with this being “his” team, instead of him co-sharing the team with another superstar.
2. Victor Oladipo: Continue shooting 3’s
Not only is Oladipo shooting 3’s at a career high clip (5.6 per game), he’s also making them at a career high rate (38.1%). There was some concern when the Thunder first acquired Oladipo to be Westbrook’s back-court mate. Their styles were very similar as slashing guards who both made threes at under 35%. Without a bonafide floor spacer on the floor for the Thunder, what would Westbrook and Oladipo do when defenses packed the paint? Instead, Oladipo started to calm some of those fears, hitting 3’s at a pretty good rate after he got adjusted to his role in the offense. The Thunder have missed Oladipo’s overall game in the 9 games he’s been out after spraining his wrist on a scary fall against Boston.
3. Andre Roberson: Improve your free throw shooting
Here’s the good news: Roberson finally got his free throw percentage to be higher than his 3-point percentage. Now the bad news: He’s only shooting 29.5% from deep. Teams have started to employ the Hack-a-Roberson, and while the Thunder have won the two games in which it was most recently attempted, Roberson only went 1/6 from the line during those situations.
There’s a reason why Roberson probably wasn’t extended before the Oct. 31st deadline, while Steven Adams and Oladipo were: he’s still too much of a question mark. His defense is top-notch, but his offense can be a total liability. And in this NBA, where one-way players get constantly attacked and played off the floor, paying someone like Roberson $12-15 million is almost asinine. When one of your wings struggles to parlay one of the most basic basketball skills into points, then that becomes something he has to definitely improve upon in the new year.
4. Domantas Sabonis: Be more aggressive offensively
Seven free throw attempts. That’s all Sabonis has attempted this season. For comparative purposes, Westbrook has attempted 7 or more free throws in 13 of 14 games this month. In fact, Sabonis’ total free throw attempts only outnumbers that of three other Thunder players (Nick Collison, Josh Huestis, and Cameron Payne, with the latter two having yet to play a game this season).
Sabonis has shown a knack for scoring the ball from time to time. He’s a competent 3-point shooter (40.5% on 2.4 attempts per game) and has been more aggressive in attacking the rim these past 8 games, as evidenced by his 5 free throw attempts. The Thunder want to use Sabonis as a floor-spacer. But as he becomes more of a threat from outside, the pump-fake and drive will start to become his best friend. His New Year’s resolution should be to average at least 2 free throws per game.
5. Steven Adams: Keep asking for the ball
Becoming an offensive player in the NBA is not as natural for some players as it is for others. Look at Dwight Howard, for instance. For all of his physical advantages, Howard has never been able to consistently add a dynamic offensive game to his repertoire. A decade plus in the league and most of his points still come off of put-backs, alley-oop dunks, and made free throws.
Asking Steven Adams to go from a defense-first center to an all-around player in the span of an offseason would seem to be a bit unfair. But that’s exactly what many people expected from Adams as the season started. They saw his great defense in the playoffs the year before and his developing two-man game with Westbrook and thought, “Marc Gasol, 2.0”.
But things don’t always work that way. First off, with all the changes around Adams and Westbrook, there was an adjustment period. Add to that a hand injury that made handling the ball difficult for Adams for a 5-7 game span, and many started to lower their expectations of Adams after the first month of the season. But over the past month, Adams seems to be getting over that adjustment period and the hand injury seems to be healing just fine. In the month of December, Adams is averaging 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds on 62.5% shooting from the field. More than anything though, has been how aggressive Adams has been in asking for the ball. No longer is he just waiting for the oop pass from Westbrook. Adams has lately introduced a back to the basket game to his arsenal and is using that more and more.
6. Enes Kanter: Become what you were destined to be: the point center for the 2nd unit
These last 5 games have been a bit of an epiphany for Kanter and the Oklahoma City Thunder. For much of the year, the bench struggled with Semaj Christon handling the ball for the 2nd unit. The rookie point guard was thrust into his current role after the team cut Ronnie Price and Cameron Payne started the season on the injured list due to a broken foot. Christon has shown some promise, but he’s also been exposed for his weaknesses. Namely, distributing the ball.
The team tried staggering the minutes between Westbrook and Oladipo so that Oladipo would get some time with the bench. And that started working until Oladipo went out with the wrist injury. Instead of turning back to Christon as the main ball-handler for the second unit, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan switched things up and ran things through Kanter. Instead of the ball moving aimlessly around the perimeter for 22 seconds of the shot clock, the Thunder set up Kanter on the block and usually had a shooter on the same side of the floor as him. What has happened has been an explosion of production, not just from Kanter, but also from the bench as a whole. In the five games before the Memphis game, the bench was averaging 46 points per game. Much of that had to do with Kanter’s play. Over the past 5 games, Kanter has averaged 18.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists.
7. Cameron Payne: Protect your foot
This team needs playmakers about as much as they need a second superstar. The Memphis game brought many things to light about the Thunder, but one of the main ones was the fact that, outside of Westbrook, the team doesn’t have any playmakers if both Payne and Oladipo are out. Payne would be one of those playmakers if and when he comes back (which he is slated to do so on January 2nd).
But foot injuries can be a finicky thing. The play in which Payne rebroke his foot didn’t look much worse than a slightly sprained ankle. But it moved just enough to re-break. The team needs Payne to play, so keeping his foot healthy should be of utmost importance.
8. Alex Abrines: Get stronger
Abrines is starting to become what we all expected him to become: a floor spacing wing with the ability to put the ball on the floor and make things happen. At his apex, I could see him becoming something like JJ Redick to the Thunder. But he has to get some man muscle on him, first. He has improved defensively from the beginning of the season, but he still gets pushed around a bit, especially by driving wings. Once he starts to get that musculature, he should be able to withstand those types of plays and see more time on the floor.
9. Anthony Morrow: Be ready
Once the team gets Oladipo and Payne back, I could see Morrow’s playing time diminish in favor of further developing Abrines. But Abrines is still a rookie and has never played in more than 40 games in a season as a pro. He, along with the rest of the Thunder rookies, could definitely hit the rookie wall about halfway through the season. At which point, Morrow’s 3-point shooting could once again become a valuable commodity on the team. After the Detroit game, which could probably be labeled as Morrow’s coming out party for this season, Donovan praised Morrow’s ability to stay ready, despite his lack of consistent playing time. That same scenario will likely be in play sometime in the near future.
10. Jerami Grant: Develop your handles
Grant has shown that he could be a huge piece for the Thunder moving forward. He can be almost Serge Ibaka-like in his ability to protect the paint and make 3’s. But he’s not as big as Ibaka, and will likely only play the 4 in small-ball line-ups. With that in mind, one of the things that he can work on is improving his handles. He currently only has one more: a straight line drive where he tries the dribble the ball over the head of the opponent as he drop steps into the lane. If he could develop a counter-move or two to that, he may be able to play in other line-ups.
11. Joffrey Lauvergne: Find some way to turn the Stache Bros. into a trio.
I mean, it’s destiny, right.
12. Semaj Christon: Embrace the fact that you are a combo guard
Amidst all the negativity surrounding Christon, there have been flashes that he has some basketball skills. His ability to get to the basket and finish is underrated. He doesn’t great handles, but he can handle it enough to get around most defenders. Instead of focusing on just being a point guard, I would like to see Christon just keep on heading to the basket. Become a combo guard in the Reggie Jackson mold.
13. Nick Collison: Get the pen ready for another extension
Collison doesn’t seem like he is ready to retire. Even though he only plays about once every 8 games, he still looks spry in the 10-12 minutes he’s out there. I don’t see the Thunder letting Old Man River walk, so if he tells them he would like to play another season, he’ll likely get another extension offer from the Thunder.
14. Kyle Singler: Be proud of the check you earn
Don’t worry, Singler. Yes, you are having another craptastic season. But you won’t be the only one stealing money from the organization you work for this season. With all the money that was passed out this past offseason, and all the money that will be passed out this offseason, they’ll be plenty of buyer’s remorse going around to make your paltry $5 million salary look, dare I say, like a steal.
15. Josh Huestis: Enjoy the fact that your are one of the richest guys in the D-League
Yeah, you aren’t playing in the NBA at the moment. But revel in the fact that your salary makes you one of the biggest fish in the small pond that is the D-League.