Sports

Klein ’20: Oklahoma City struggles: growing pains or cause for concern?

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Oklahoma City Thunder was widely expected to be a Western Conference contender this season, buoyed by offseason additions Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Instead, the Thunder has struggled in the early stages of the season, showing inconsistent effort throughout. Saturday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks and Wednesday’s defeat at the hands of the Orlando Magic were Oklahoma City’s worst games yet — with the victories, the Mavericks and Magic improved their records to 5-15 and 9-13, respectively. Oklahoma City continues to lose to some of the league’s worst teams and currently holds a poor 8-12 record. If the season ended today, the Thunder would not be in the playoffs.

Fortunately, the season does not end today, and Oklahoma City still has time to fix its multitude of problems. Foremost is the need for better ball movement, especially in the closing minutes of close games. Russell Westbrook has continued to hog the ball in crunch time, allowing defenses to load up against the point guard. In Oklahoma City’s loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Thunder were down by one point with about five seconds remaining. Westbrook took the inbound pass and immediately chucked up a three that missed. Wild Westbrook will not lead the team to success — Oklahoma City needs to stress passing to role players throughout the game (and not just to collect triple-doubles) in order to build up good habits for when it matters most.

The second issue is three-point shooting. The Thunder is currently hitting 34.5 percent of their long-range shots, a mark that ranks 25th in the league. In such a three-point heavy league, the 25th ranked team will never be able to compete for a top playoff spot. For comparison, the Golden State Warriors rank second, the Boston Celtics 11th and the Cleveland Cavaliers 12th. The Thunder has to find a way to climb back up the ranks — they are sandwiched by two of the NBA’s worst teams in the standings — the Brooklyn Nets in 24th place and Chicago Bulls in 26th.

The last problem is the team’s road performance thus far. The Thunder is 3-8 away from Oklahoma City and its frenzied home fanbase. The team clearly feeds off the crowd’s energy in big games — take the win over the Warriors for example — but has shown difficulty replicating its hectic and intense efforts for away contests. The Thunder was especially lackadaisical in the Mavericks game, scoring only 81 points in total and falling way behind in the second quarter. 

Clearly, the Thunder has a lot to improve upon. But even though the sports media world has collectively soured on Oklahoma City, Thunder fans should not be quite so quick to hit the panic button.

Westbrook may not be passing enough late in games, but he has been conditioned by his famed triple-double hunt of the 2016-17 season. It will take time to adjust from that singular offensive mindset. Additionally, Westbrook must adapt to his two new star teammates. Super teams do not gel in an instant. The Miami Heat started off only 9-8 to kick off the “Big Three” era with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But that team came out on the other side just fine, recording four consecutive trips to the Finals and two championships. The Cleveland Cavaliers, after the return of James and the addition of Kevin Love, began its season with a 19-20 record before the organization traded for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov to help the team turn around. They have since reached the Finals three times and won once. The Thunder should not worry about its record just yet.

The three-point shooting can improve as well. There are a few backup players who have the potential to shoot far better than their current marks — namely Alex Abrines, Josh Huestis and Jerami Grant. If Westbrook can rein in his tendency to shoot threes, then Oklahoma City can at least crack into the 15th rank range — in the middle pack of the NBA. With its athleticism and defensive potential, the Thunder needs to be only average from three to compete.

In the end, Oklahoma City still has a ton of premier talent on the floor, and its dominant 108-91 victory over the Warriors showed the heights that this team can reach. Paul George is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, recording 2.8 steals per game. Carmelo Anthony is finding himself in this new offense — shooting 37.1 percent from three so far, a number that would be his best since the 2013-14 season. Westbrook remains one of the sport’s greatest forces. He recorded 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in the win over Golden State. He can be even better if he just resists the temptation for more triple-doubles. There has been a lot of bad in Oklahoma City, but some good is hidden there too.

Only 4.5 games separate the Thunder from the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. Obviously, there are a bunch of teams that separate them as well, but the season is far,  far from over. A five game-winning streak would silence a lot of the doubts and cement this team in postseason contention. Personally, I would bet on that hot streak coming sooner rather than later.

George Klein ’20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.