November 15, 2010
It's happening! OK, it's not happening, and it might not be about to happen. But it could happen.
I'm not exactly the most pedantic or ambitious when it comes to documenting what the national mainstream media has to say about what's gone terribly wrong. Apparently the Cowboys aren't any good, the rumor goes, and our President hasn't outfitted each of us with ethanol-powered flying orbs yet. And, I'm assuming, a year from now the latest state representatives will probably fail to power us with privately owned Exxon-powered flying orbs.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, though? The backlash is coming. It might hit this afternoon, or if the team falls terribly short (and who wouldn't?) on national TV this Friday in Boston. The team is 5-4 as it heads into a week that finishes in Milwaukee, hits Boston as mentioned, takes on the potentially potent Houston Rockets in Texas, and starts tonight in Utah against a team that may be coming off the most impressive week of play (and this is no bluster) in NBA history.
The Thunder are 5-4. Winning over 55 percent of their games so far. On pace for 46 wins a year after winning 50 and making no major upgrade. Or a minor one, if Cole Aldrich's(notes) influence can be described this early and Morris Peterson's(notes) 93-second turn -- where he failed to contribute in a single statistical area -- is allowed to be telling.
But it does behoove us -- those who would prefer not freak out about anything on an otherwise placid mid-November Monday -- to understand expectations, and to not lose our minds, this early.
It would be smart of us to wonder if the Thunder are indeed lucky to have won five times in nine tries, and to wonder about what could change, even if the team bides its time until its veteran influences in San Antonio, Denver and Phoenix take a step back once this season is history.
The first part, that sense of understanding, is of paramount importance. I wrote in BDL's online season preview that Thunder fans should know "that merely holding serve in 2010-11 is accomplishment enough," and thus far, the team is (record-wise, at least) well on its way to something along those lines. This is what happens when everyone in that playoff bracket adds someone of varying degrees of significance (crediting Portland with merely adding a healthy but potentially brilliant Nic Batum and the eventual return of Greg Oden(notes)), and you stay the same. And you, no matter how impressive that 50-win season was, still ended up eighth out of eight playoff teams.
This was, and is, the plan. GM Sam Presti didn't chase down Ben Gordon(notes) or Charlie Villanueva(notes) last year, and he didn't go nuts trying to orchestrate things to bring in a rotation-level player -- or even starting stud -- last summer who was five or six years older than his go-to youngsters. Kevin Durant(notes) turned 22 a month and a half ago. Russell Westbrook(notes) (not the best point guard in the NBA this season, but perhaps the second-best player in the NBA this season) turned 22 a couple of days ago, and there's no point in jumping at a Carlos Boozer(notes) or Al Jefferson(notes) this early. At least, according to Presti.
Couple that with something a lot of us figured out last summer, while looking back on an astonishing 2009-10 for Oklahoma City. This team, for whatever reason, managed to stay healthy all season. Not just the stars, but the rotation as a whole.
Those things don't sustain. And those things, though buttressed by an impressive impending batch of internal development, don't really lend themselves to a similar season even in a conference gone static.
Merely approximating 2009-10's record is achievement enough. This is something to keep in mind, before we crucify Oklahoma City for a failure to reach expectations that those who shouldn't have been expecting great things will no doubt prattle on about.
This doesn't mean we should let this initial turn pass without criticism, though.
Oklahoma City is lucky to have met that 5-4 start. They nearly let one get away against a pitiful (in that first game) Chicago team to start the season, beat Detroit and Philadelphia by a combined seven points and barely beat the Trail Blazers twice in games they probably should have lost. It's a delicate line that I'm trying to preach: Oklahoma City has the talent to have won those five games in a more convincing fashion, but they aren't as good as some of your fair-weather analysts would have you believe.
On top of that? The Thunder have been playing defense -- combined with average offense -- typical of a 30-win team. After Sunday's loss to San Antonio, Oklahoma City is 28th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency. The offense has held serve, at 12th overall, but the D has dropped from ninth to 28th.
There were fears about this heading into 2010-11. Former assistant coach Ron Adams put together several masterful defensive seasons in Chicago as the team's assistant under (mainly) Scott Skiles, and he left the Thunder after improving the Thunder's defense last season to return to the City That Works. Even if the ship rights itself and improves defensively, this cannot be a coincidence.
And Nate Collison, who I saw as one of the NBA's most effective defenders last season (even doing away with the knowledge that he was among the league leaders in charges taken), just played his first game of his season against San Antonio. Of course, the Spurs scored 117 points, but Collison (playing just 11 minutes, -4 overall) was hardly to blame.
Whatever it is that Kevin Durant does to make his teams way, way worse defensively when he's on the court? He seems to do it quite often.
Like in his rookie year. Or in his second year. Maybe not last season, but definitely this season. Per 100 possessions (the typical Thunder game is just under 94 possessions), Durant's team is 18.1 points per game worse with him on the court than they are with him off the court defensively. That's an ungodly amount.
(A godly amount? The 27.7 points per 100 possessions that the Thunder is better with him on the court than they are with him off the court offensively. A shockingly great amount.)
The problem with that second stat? Though Oklahoma City could stand to improve, offensively, offense isn't the problem. They won 50 games with the same offensive ranking last season. They've dropped from ninth to 28th, though, defensively this season, and have looked the part every step of the way. The Thunder need spacing, shooters, easy scorers, but last offseason's quibbles (though still as valid) aren't the problem thus far.
On top of that, while Jeff Green's(notes) points per game have shot up to 18.5 (though the power forward is shooting just 44 percent overall and managing just 17 percent from long range despite taking nearly four 3-pointers a game), this guy isn't really helping in any way I can understand.
The Thunder are better off both offensively and defensively with Green on the bench, but that hasn't stopped coach Scott Brooks from playing the middling tweener 38 minutes a game while Serge Ibaka(notes) averages just 29 minutes.
Ibaka might look like a defensively limited banger to you after his rookie season, but he shoots better from the field, averages more than a rebound per game better than Green despite the minutes differential, doesn't waste the team's time with nearly four 3-pointers a game and he has defensive statistics that (despite his presence on the 28th-ranked defensive team) have me wondering if he isn't this league's Defensive Player of the Year so far. Bump him up to Kevin Garnett's(notes) minutes, and he might have my vote.
Toss in James Harden's(notes) 38 percent shooting and more turnovers than assists, and you have a rotation to worry about, a head coach to wonder about and two major lottery picks (in Green and Harden) that might signify a waste of a season (2007 and 2009). These are legitimate concerns, even if the Thunder continue to buck the trends, continue apace and run toward 46 wins.
So, no, don't rip. And pass on listening to those who do just a few weeks into the season.
But, regardless of record (especially a 5-4 start that seems a bit flimsy), do worry. The Thunder might be in a self-induced holding pattern, but that doesn't mean we should have to hold back on the criticism.