The Oklahoma City Thunder have had a whirlwind first ten games of the season, but still find themselves with a record of 7-3. A collection of Thunder bloggers and podcasters have stopped by to discuss the beginning of the season for the Thunder.
1. What has been the biggest surprise of the season for the Thunder?
Alex Roig, Now That’s Thunder Basketball: The biggest surprise of the season for me was the quick return of Russell Westbrook. After the news broke that he had the arthroscopic procedure and would be out for the first 4 to 6 weeks of the season, I mentally prepared myself for a month of low scoring, frustratingly inefficient games. And this was before the Minnesota game. But alas, Westbrook returned in the 3rd game like a knight coming back from a victorious battle, and all was normalized in the land of the Thunder.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Gotta be Russell Westbrook’s return, right? Coming back a solid four weeks earlier than expected and completely changing the perception and feeling around this Thunder season.
Eli J. Friedman, Thunderous Intentions: The play of Serge Ibaka. When the Thunder lost Kevin Martin, people started to question how Oklahoma City would replace him with a third-option scorer. Many eyes looked to Jeremy Lamb or Reggie Jackson. So far, Ibaka has been that third option. He is averaging a double-double with 14.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks a game. Those are all-star type numbers right there. I didn’t see this type of play coming from Ibaka.
Zebulun Benbrook, Welcome To Loud City: The Thunder’s late-game resilience. They’ve had four games so far (Phoenix, Washington, Golden State, and Denver) where they’ve successfully re-gained the lead after trailing for the majority of the fourth quarter and much of the game. You might say that this is the bench unit’s fault, but I prefer to think on the positive side. Scott Brooks’ new flexibility regarding late-game rotations has paid huge dividends. Basically, he lets the starters and bench get equal time as complete units in the first 38-40 minutes of the game. Then when the game hangs in the balance, he throws in the Big 3 of Ibaka, Durant, and Westbrook along with the two other highest performing players, whomever they might be. This allows the team to have the optimal lineup at exactly the right time, and makes for some really exciting finishes.
Jay Smith and Andrew Schlecht, Down To Dunk Podcast: Without a doubt, the biggest surprise of the season was the quickness in which Russ returned to the Thunder. After two lackluster games, Russ returned 3-6 weeks ahead of schedule and immediately changed the team.
2. What has been the biggest disappointment so far for the Thunder?
Roig: The biggest disappointment has been the play of Thabo Sefolosha. Honestly, you could flip flop between Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, but Perkins’ play (or lack thereof) isn’t anything new. We’ve witnessed the gradual decline in Perk’s game, and almost come to expect it. But, Sefolosha’s bread and butter has always been perimeter defense, and, to the eye, he seems to be getting torched a lot more in this small sample of games than he did in years past. To compound that, his offense has been virtually non-existent this season. And by offense, of course, I mean 3-point shooting. In the Thunder’s offense, they need Thabo to act as a perimeter decoy/floor spacer when he doesn’t have the ball, and to knock down threes when he does receive the ball. He didn’t do that in the first 7 games of the season, shooting 3-21 (14%) from 3-point land, which has led to the early season struggles of the starting 5 on offense. He’s gone 4-6 from 3-point land in the last 2 games he’s played, so hopefully he has turned the corner.
Young: Thabo Sefolosha. He’s not shooting well, and he hasn’t defended especially well either. It’s early and things could change, but with it being a contract year, you have to wonder if he’s pressing or has it in the back of his mind.
Friedman: The biggest disappointment so far has been Kendrick Perkins’ impact. I had this odd feeling before the season that this would be Perk’s year to really breakout and have a great year. But, unfortunately, he’s been the same old Perk. His numbers are down a bit, but the most intriguing numbers is his plus/minus. Against the Nuggets on Monday night, Perkins was -11. That’s never a good sign.
Benbrook: Weak-side defense. In every loss we’ve had this season, our weak-side defense has absolutely killed us. I understand that a key part of the Thunder’s strategy is their ability to generate fast-break opportunities off of turnovers, and in order to generate turnovers you need to pressure and trap your opponent. But that’s not the issue. The Thunder simply need to be more attentive on both sides of the court. It’s perfectly possible to trap on one side while staying at home on the shooters on the other side. I mean, I understand that having the weak-side defenders go towards the center of the court creates the possibility of helping defend the drive, but it’s simply not working, especially while the starters are on the floor. The three most-used lineups by the Thunder this season (basically, the starters, the starters+RJ, and the starters+Adams) are allowing opposing teams to shoot a whopping 52.1% from three. That….is a problem.
Smith & Schlecht: The biggest disappointment for me is a continued struggle of Brooks to trust younger players and stubbornly sticking with lineups that obviously don’t work.
3. True or False – Scott Brooks has taken another step as a coach this season.
Roig: True. Sometimes a heavy dose of reality is needed for someone to change their stubborn ways. The loss of Westbrook in the playoffs and the subsequent lack of a reliable 2nd option probably made Brooks realize that he needed to develop his young guys a little bit more, and that he needed to be a bit more lenient with his rotations. Brooks has been, at times, stubborn to a fault with his rotations. While this has led to a sense of consistency with a young, up-and-coming team, it has also been bracketed by Wolverine-like luck in regards to player health.
Young: Faction. I can’t decide quite yet. In some ways, yes, because he’s shown a little needed flexibility in expanding his rotations. But then again, he’s made some curious decisions when he’s had to adjust on the fly mid-game.
Friedman: True. Scott Brooks had to deal with the departure of Kevin Martin, who was giving the Thunder 14 points a game, and find a way to replace his point production. Also, Brooks had to adjust to bringing in a 20-year-old into the rotation in Jeremy Lamb, and basically throwing a rookie into the fire with Steven Adams. He’s done a good job so far this season. However, I would like to see the Thunder do a better job defensively, as they are giving up 102.1 points a game, which ranks 22nd in the league.
Benbrook: False. But only because I think Scott Brooks performed well last season. He definitely struggled early on in his career and relied heavily on experienced assistants (Ron Adams, Mo Cheeks), but over time he’s evolved into a pretty solid coach. People like to criticize him for his lack of lineup flexibility and reluctance to play rookies, but those issues are more philosophical than anything else. Really, Scott Brooks has developed a successful system, and his willingness to play more bench players comes from having more quality players to work with, rather than an increase his coaching skill. His offense is still very simple for the most part, and his defense is still flawed. But every player buys in, there’s absolutely no locker room drama, and the team always finds a way to win. Those are some very underappreciated aspects of Brooks that more people need to take note of.
Smith & Schlecht: False. I hope True. Sometimes I watch the Thunder and think, “is Brooks just messing with us by using these rotations?” I think he’s actually just processing through different lineups and seeing what guys bring in different situations so that when it’s time to matter, they’ll have tons of weapons. If this is true, then yes. He’s moving into the not remotely like Popovich wizardry range.
4. One to two words to describe the play of the young core off the bench (Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, and Steven Adams).
Roig: Excitingly unfinished! We’ve already experienced X-Men:First Class with Durant, Westbrook, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden. But now, with the stakes raised even higher as a probable championship contending team, we now have a new set of young players that have been performing extremely well in spurts at times this season. We saw what Reggie Jackson could do when Westbrook went down last season, but the great unknowns coming in were Lamb, Jones III, and Adams. And surprisingly, they’ve put up enough numbers to merit continued playing time. The Thunder’s present and future, to a large degree, rests on the shoulders of these 4 players. And surprisingly, the turnpike to Tulsa is stocked with more developmental talent in Andre Roberson and Grant Jerrett.
Young: Encouraging. The bench was a major question mark entering the season, but so far, it’s been not bad. Which I think is all it really needs to be at this point — not terrible. Reggie Jackson has been steady, Jeremy Lamb has knocked down shots and Steven Adams has shown excellent flashes. I’m encouraged by it.
Friedman: Exciting and interesting. I, and I think all, had no idea that Perry Jones III would see the court this year. Scott Brooks seems like he is confident in Jones III, and it’s paid off. He has played fairly well, as he has been producing every chance he gets. Jones III sets hard screens and just plays hard. Jackson and Lamb are a dynamic back-court who are capable of making plays. Jackson may even get a shot at winning 6th man of the year.
Benbrook: All That. All of them have their flaws. Steven Adams needs to keep a better eye on the paint and be more involved offensively. Jeremy Lamb isn’t creative enough to score consistently in the paint. Perry Jones gets blown by on the perimeter too much. And Reggie Jackson can’t hit a three to save his life. But they all have the potential to cover those flaws, and they all have the potential to be very legitimate NBA players. The sheer fact that they’re able to hold their own with Nick Collison and provide an entirely different style of play than the starters is evidence enough to me.
Smith and Schlecht: Cautiously optimistic. Love what I have seen from Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams. Adams still has a ways to go, obviously, but he is the future starting center and a guy who could actually average a double double (unlike any Thunder center, EVER). Reggie has the potential to be the best backup PG in the league, and looks great finishing games with Russ. I need to see more from Lamb, but so far his play has been decent. Perry is just on the fringe of being in the rotation, and I honestly don’t understand why. He’s another guy that can come in and hit shots and make a positive impact on both ends.
5. Are there any trends in the first 10 games that worry you moving forward.
Roig: There are two trends that worry me in this young season. The first one is our lack of consistent 3-point shooting. On a team with penetrating attackers (Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson), having consistent 3-point shooters will be necessary for offensive spacing. If not, the paint gets packed and the driving lanes aren’t as available. The second trend that worries me is the inability to form any semblance of offensive rhythm from our starters. The Thunder consistently find themselves down at the end of the 1st and 3rd quarters, and depend too much on the bench and small ball line-ups to bring them back. This may prove to beneficial later in the year as the young bench players continue to build confidence, but it may also come back to bite us in the collective rear when we find ourselves down by too much to come back from.
Young: There are a few habits that are bothersome like the perimeter defense and the slow starts and the stale execution. But the Thunder have proven that they seem to sort themselves out as the season goes along, so I’m not overly worried about those things quite yet.
Friedman: Slow starts. Oklahoma City has had this bad habit for a few seasons now, and this year is no different. The Thunder always seem to be in a hole heading into the third and fourth quarter. Westbrook realizes it, as he said, “Most of that is my fault. We’ve got to start games better.” Maybe the Thunder are just trying to make the games more entertaining for the fans.
Benbrook: Foul trouble. The Thunder only have four viable bigs in Perk, Ibaka, Collison, and Adams. The post play of the NBA has improved over the last couple of years, and the Thunder will still need to go big in crunch time against some teams. With Perk being injury-prone (he missed a lot of games in 10-11 and 11-12), seeing Steven Adams and Nick Collison get into serious foul trouble is rather disconcerting. We saw the worst-case scenario against the Clippers, where Perk’s absence, Ibaka’s ejection, and the foul trouble of Collison/Adams forced the Thunder to give big-time minutes to Hasheem Thabeet and Ryan Gomes. Both of them were complete defensive embarrassments. If one player gets hit with an injury, the Thunder aren’t too far off from facing this same scenario again. And that prospect is very scary, especially come playoff time.
Smith and Schlecht: Not really. This team will be completely different in June, when it matters. Rookies, aren’t rookies anymore. Guys like Lamb, Jackson, and PJ3 will have defined their roles and will be more comfortable with the team. Serge is putting up a monstrous season so far, and let us not forget, we have two of the best players in the world. I don’t think the three point shooting will be a huge issue going forward.
72 more games to go…