The Oklahoma City Thunder Need a Quick Turnaround
Earlier this NBA season, analysts of both the professional and armchair variety were quite sure that the Thunder could come back from their 5-12 start without reigning MVP Kevin Durant. But, at the time, none of us could foresee another Kevin Durant injury. That's exactly what happened on December 18th when KD suffered a mild ankle sprain in a game against the Golden State Warriors.
In the next six games, the Thunder went 3-3. Now that's not all bad. However, they lost to four fellow Western Conference playoff contenders. That doesn't help their efforts to climb into the back end of a loaded Western Conference. And since KD's return to the lineup on New Year's Eve, the Thunder have gone 3-3 once again, losing to two more Western Conference foes. So, now what's going on in OKC?
Not only have the Thunder won just half of their games, but they've also picked up some chemistry questions along the way. With the addition of Dion Waiters on January 5th, in a three-team trade with the Cavs and Knicks, came more lineup questions for coach Scott Brooks. Would Waiters and his offensive-minded game get in the way of Durant and Westbrook's shots? Would he help or hurt the team defensively?
Well, Waiters has shot 39 shots in three games thus far. In those three games, Westbrook has taken 49, and Durant 53. So far, Waiters hasn't taken a lot of shot attempts away from the two superstars. However, Waiters has shot just 36% from the floor. But that accounts for Waiters' first game with OKC, where he went 1-of-9 against the Kings. Since then he's shot 43%.
Can he be more efficient though? In last night's game, in which Waiters took 16 shots, Kevin Durant took just 12 (and he connected on 8 of them). Waiters will have to learn to take better and fewer shots to contribute offensively in order to allow Durant an MVP's share of shots every game -- not to mention Westbrook, who took just 13 shots himself. If Waiters could play more games like a week ago against the Jazz -- where he went 7-of-14 for 15 points -- he would help more than hurt the Thunder going forward. We'll have to wait and see if he can do that.
As for the defensive side of Waiters, he hasn't started out all too bad with the Thunder. In his first two games, he posted defensive ratings of 102 and 91. But in game three against James Harden and the Rockets, Waiters struggled with a rating of 124. But hey, he was trying to guard the currently un-guardable MVP candidate so I'll give him a break. What about the rest of the team though?
When you look at the Thunder's defensive numbers, such as their defensive rating of 103.7 (9th in the league) and their points allowed per game (12th in the league), they're not all that bad. But when you look at how that stacks up against some of the elite teams of the West, the Thunder defense isn't anything to brag about.
The Warriors, Trail Blazers, and Rockets are numbers one through three in defensive efficiency in the league. And compared to the Thunder, they're much more than just two to three points better on defense. Their net ratings (offensive rating - defensive rating) of 11.3, 7.4, and 4.9 are all four points the superior to the Thunder's lackluster 0.5 net rating.
They have not shown any more promise when recently facing these elite Western Conference foes either. The Thunder have faced both the Warriors and Rockets once in their last four games. In those two games, the Thunder struggled defensively. Oklahoma City allowed 117 points to Golden State while earning a defensive rating of 115.6. They were equally as bad last night when Houston put up 112 points, giving Oklahoma City a rating of 117.6.
For comparison, in those two games, Oklahoma City, and their dynamic duo, was held to a total of 192 points. You can see the difference between the truly elite teams of the West and the struggles of the Thunder.
Is There Hope?
Could help be on the way though? With rumblings of a Brook Lopez to OKC trade, it might just be. We'll have to wait and see. Either way, with or without Lopez, we know the Thunder have the capability to score just as any other team in the West. But can they defend just as well?
They're going to need to if they hope to jump into the playoffs in a brutal Western Conference. With their current record of 18-20, the Thunder are three-and-a-half games out of the eight spot. That's not damning news. But it doesn't help that they'll have to compete with teams like the Suns, Pelicans, Nuggets and Kings for that spot. It'll be tough -- our numbers give the Thunder just a 34.3% chance to do it.
They'll have to turn it around quick if they hope to overcome those odds.