Following a flabbergasting 94-86 loss on Tuesday to a Sacramento Kings team riding a seven-game losing streak, the expectation was a tense Thunder locker room, with plenty of eggshells deployed around Russell Westbrook. After that kind of game, one in which the Oklahoma City Thunder led 25-10 after the first quarter and then shot some 30 percent afterward, was exactly the sort that one would think would bring short, combustible answers, plenty of eye-fluttering and quick, are-you-kidding-me stares.
Instead, Westbrook was accommodating, spirited and upbeat. He defied any suggestion of panic or worry. Westbrook is nothing if not unpredictable, and these are the type of moments he often surprises. He has spent the past few seasons focused on how to become a better leader, and sensing the expectation of an anxious locker room, Westbrook flipped it on its head.
“I’m not worried,” Westbrook told reporters, “I love nights like this. It does nothing but bring you close, as a unit, as brothers. I’m encouraged by the group of guys we have in that room, and I will be better. Like I said before, I take ownership of how we’re playing, and I will be better. We will be better, so I’m not worried.”
The Thunder’s shaky, inconsistent 4-6 start has started drawing questions, with the Kings game grabbing everyone’s attention. The Thunder are obviously better than the Kings, so when teams lose these kinds of games — like the Cavs in Atlanta last week — it’s a symptom of something else: problems.
Westbrook shouldered the blame on Tuesday, and while he shot 7-of-21 against Sacramento with seven turnovers, he hasn’t been the problem — at all. He’s clearly adjusting to his new teammates, transitioning from a player who set the all-time usage mark to one fitting in and alongside. He’s making the effort, gearing down his usage by about 10 percent, but he has been more than fine. It’s not on him.
The Thunder have cratered in crunch-time. They have the fourth-best scoring margin in the league, but in games that have entered clutch-time (last five minutes of a game within five points), they’re 0-5. They have the second overall defensive rating in the league, but in clutch-time situations, ranked dead last allowing 165.2 points per 100 possessions. A season ago, the Thunder ranked fifth in defensive efficiency in the clutch, which provided Westbrook the freedom to go supernova and win games almost on his own. They were second, only behind the Spurs, in net clutch-time rating. This season, they have a minus-58.8 net rating, dead last in the league.
Defense has been the Thunder’s mantra since they walked in the door at training camp. And, outside of the final few minutes of close games, they’ve lived up to it. That leaves the offensive side as the issue, where they rank 22nd in efficiency. With the star power, talent and intelligence involved, that’s shocking, but it would also lead one to believe that will work itself out. If the Thunder were a disheveled mess on the defensive side with Carmelo Anthony at power forward a clear weak link, the cause for concern would be cranked up. As it stands now, a team with Westbrook, Paul George and Anthony are having trouble scoring consistently. That seems very fixable.
Despite some flashes, the Thunder have lacked consistent rhythm and flow offensively. Billy Donovan keeps coming back to the word “stagnation,” which squares with the fact the Thunder rank dead last in passes per game, according to the NBA’s tracking data. And while Anthony is passing more this season — up 6.5 passes per game from last year in New York, per ESPN’s Ben Alamar — the ball is clearly sticking when Anthony is on the floor.
Anthony is working to adapt to playing as a full-time power forward, transforming his game to more the “Olympic Melo” who has become a bit of a mythical figure — a catch-and-shoot hybrid forward who limits isolation and resists off-the-dribble long 2-pointers. But Anthony hasn’t shaken his tendencies yet, and with possessions getting hung up in his hands, George’s rhythm has suffered.
After the Thunder added George, they had a cohesive, sensible starting five. Westbrook and George as a duo, with Steven Adams anchoring the paint, Andre Roberson returning to his best position and Patrick Patterson slotting in as a switchy stretch 4. Then they pulled off the Anthony stunner, and suddenly they were a lot more complicated.
It was a calculated move by general manager Sam Presti — high risk, potentially high reward. The Thunder with a Westbrook-George focused team made more sense, at least on the immediate level, but probably had a firm ceiling in the Western Conference. Fitting Anthony to the equation made everything more complex, but if they were to have any ambition of challenging the Golden State Warriors, was one they saw they had to make. It probably means they’re going to win less in the regular season as they grind through figuring it out, but likely raises their ceiling. The question is, how long will it take to get there, if they can at all?
Many around the team have been quick to point out the time it took the 2010-11 Miami Heat to start meshing (they started 9-8), or the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers (they started 19-20). (Important to note: Those teams had LeBron James and they played in the Eastern Conference without an all-time team standing above them.) They aren’t so quick to mention a team like the This Is Going To Be Fun Lakers of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard who were dysfunctional and disconnected throughout the season. The Thunder seem very far from that, with players still in their prime and no current injuries to worry about, but making star pieces fit doesn’t always work.
The Thunder’s stars are sticking with saying all the right things. They want to make this work. They see the potential, and how they need the other two to get them to where they want to be. The Thunder are weirdly balanced — Anthony, George and Westbrook are all averaging virtually the same points per game on the same shots per game — but maybe they need a bit more of a hierarchy. There’s not a true organic flow. It’s more of a “this guy hasn’t had a shot in a minute so let’s get him one,” or “I haven’t had a shot in a minute, I should take one.” Donovan wants fewer non-paint 2-pointers, a staple of Anthony’s career. Donovan wants more ball movement and hockey assists, things that have never co-existed well with Westbrook. Both players have to sort out how to make those changes while utilizing George and his slithering off-ball zig-zagging.
They have 72 games left this season. They’ve been trying to say it’s going to take time. They’ve got habits to break, styles to bend, roles to reclassify. They believe it’s going to click, and if superteam history tells us anything, it probably will at some point. But how much longer they need, and how many more ugly losses it’s going to take, is what nobody knows — including them.