The Oklahoma City Thunder are off to their best start in franchise history, despite going through a tumultuous offseason.
Oklahoma City lost two veteran mainstays and a total of three rotational players this offseason with Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Dion Waiters departing. Still, the Thunder lead the Northwest division with a 6-3 record, despite losing two straight. Russell Westbrook led the way in the 110-108 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, recording his sixth double-double with 29 points, 14 rebounds, and nine assists. He struggled from the field, knocking down just 9-of-25 shots, though he was 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. Westbrook missed a three-pointer that would have given OKC the victory at the buzzer.
Since Durant’s departure, Westbrook has thrived in his role as the face of the franchise. Westbrook is currently the front runner in the MVP race, per the NBA. The 27-year-old got off to a blazing start, though his production has leveled off a tad since the calendar turned to November.
Westbrook is averaging 27.0 points, 8.3 assists, and 7.3 rebounds in the month of November. He is also shooting 38.5 percent from the floor, and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc, while also turning the ball over a whopping 5.8 times this month. For the season, the 6-foot-3 point guard is on pace to post career bests in several categories – posting 30.9 points, 9.4 assists, and 8.9 rebounds while shooting 41.2 percent from the floor and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Westbrook was slated to hit the open market following the completion of the season. But he signed a three-year extension with the team in August for $86 million.
Oklahoma City is not just the Westbrook show. The Thunder do have several other talented young veterans in Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams. They also received 2016 lottery selection Domantas Sabonis as part of the trade that sent Ibaka to Orlando.
Oladipo has established himself as the team’s primary second option. The 24-year-old has reached double-figures in five straight games, and has topped the 20-point mark three times already. He is a volume scorer who doesn’t shoot particularly well. Oladipo is currently averaging 16.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.6 assists, while shooting 40.3 percent from the field, as well as a career-high 41.7 percent from beyond the three point line.
Kanter is a very skilled scorer and rebounder. The 24-year-old is a good finisher and offensive rebounder who can also play out on the perimeter. He does struggle on the defensive end though.
Kanter has seen inconsistent minutes this year due to defensive liabilities, and the fact he is coming off the bench. He has been productive for the most part in the games where he has gotten minutes. Kanter has produced four double-doubles, and is averaging 12.0 points, along with 7.0 rebounds, while shooting 58.0 percent from the field in 18.4 minutes of action. The 6-foot-11 center produced 11 points along with 13 rebounds, while making 6-of-11 shots from the field in 21 minutes against the Clippers on Saturday.
Adams was known just for his defensive and rebound prowess his first three seasons in the league. However, the 23-year-old worked hard this offseason on his offense, and it has paid off so far. He has five double-figure games thus far, recording two double-doubles. Adams is averaging 10.2 points, along with 8.1 rebounds, 1.0 block, and 1.3 steals a game for the season.
Sabonis has a lot to learn about the NBA game. However, the 6-foot-11, 20-year-old is supremely talented. Sabonis brings an ability to stretch the floor and has an acute passing ability that neither of the other Thunder bigs possess. He is also a good scorer and rebounder, though his production on the boards has been a little disappointing.
Sabonis is coming off a 12-point, two assist, and one rebound effort against the Clippers on Friday. He knocked down 4-of-5 shots all from beyond the arc. Sabonis is averaging 8.3 points and 3.7 rebounds, while shooting 48.3 percent from the field along with 52.0 percent on three-point attempts.
Defensive-minded wing Andre Roberson joins Westbrook, Sabonis, Adams, and Oladipo in the starting lineup. Roberson’s value is in his defense, as he is long and athletic with the ability to guard four positions. The 6-foot-7 wing is also a good rebounder. He is not much of a threat shooting the ball, though he has shot the ball from long-range in the early going, making 7-of-18 (38.9 percent) of his three-point attempts.
All five of the above players are under contract until at least after the 2017-18 season. Roberson can be a restricted free agent after this season.
While the Thunder have a nice nucleus, Royce Young of ESPN is reporting that the team is not content with its current roster and plan on undergoing some changes during, as well as after, the season. Oklahoma City has already made one deal, which was to acquire Jerami Grant from the Philadelphia 76ers for Erslan Ilyasova and a future first round draft pick.
Grant fits in the Thunder’s plan due to his athleticism and defensive abilities. The problem is he doesn’t bring much to the table offensively other than scoring in transition and around the rim. To his credit, Grant appears to have improved his perimeter shooting as he is shooting 60 percent (3-of-5) on three-point attempts with the Thunder.
The Thunder’s biggest issue in the early going is their bench. Oklahoma City has not gotten much bench production from anyone other than Kanter. The team’s bench players (7-13) are averaging a combined 19.2 points, while shooting 38.0 percent from the field (9.1-23.7), and 24.7 percent from long-range (2.1-for-8.5). They also have grabbed just 22.0 percent of the Thunder’s rebound total, and are a minus-11.1 in plus/minus.
Despite Grant’s attributes and the ideal fit with the Thunder, his statistics have not added up just yet. He leads the Thunder’s bench mob with a negative-5.5 plus/minus rating.
In fact, Kyle Singler is the only player with a positive plus/minus rating of the bunch. And the 6-foot-8 forward is only averaging 3.0 points, along with 1.9 rebounds, while shooting a measly 30.8 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from the three-point line in 14.9 minutes of action.
Center Joffrey Lauvergne, point guard Semaj Christon, and shooting guard Alex Abrines usually join Grant, Kanter, and Singler as part of the team’s second unit. Anthony Morrow and Nick Collison have seen sparse action so far. Youngsters Cameron Payne and Josh Huestis are with the Oklahoma City Blue of the D-League.
It is still early, but it may be time to give Collison more time on the floor. The 36-year-old has appeared in two games for a total of 12 minutes.
Need for outside shooters
With Westbrook playing so helter-skelter and with his ability to get to the basket at will, it would be in the Thunder’s best interest to provide him some spot-up outside shooters. The Thunder are currently tied for 15th in the league with 8.8 made three-pointers a game. They are tied for 17th in the league with 24.3 three-point attempts, and is shooting at a 35.4 percent clip from long-range.
The thing is the Thunder don’t have any true three-point shooters besides Sabonis, Morrow, and Singler. Morrow hasn’t gotten off the bench much, while Singler is inconsistent from long-distance. Oladipo has improved his shooting every year, but he is still more of a slasher. Abrines may eventually develop into a knockdown shooter.
The question is what assets do the Thunder have to give up to obtain a shooter? Lauvergne, Singler, Morrow, and Collison seem to be the most logical players to be moved. Morrow and Collison are in the final year of their contracts, so they may have some trade value. The big question is whether the Thunder would deal Kanter?
[Featured Image by Alonzo Adams/Getty Images]