Do we need to re-evaluate our expectations?
Yes. And no. But mainly yes. We knew the team would be improved this year. We knew they wouldn’t be 4-29 through the first part of the calendar year. But I don’t think many expected to be 18-15 and in the Western playoff hunt. Most every Thunder prediction had the team winning around 35 games. But here’s what’s weird: If the Thunder wins 35 games now, the season goes as a major disappointment. That would mean they’d finish 17-32 from here on out and that would be a bummer.
Expectations are a weird thing because you set them prior to really knowing anything. You say, “If Oklahoma City finishes a win over 35, I’d be pumped.” But at this point, you’d be disappointed. Because of the team playing well, they’ve reset the expectations of the fanbase. It’s not like people are going completely insane and wanting the five-seed in the West and expecting a deep playoff run and if it doesn’t happen they’ll pull a refrigerator on top of themselves. But now 40-plus wins and competing for the eight-seed are within sight. A small taste of winning just brings a bigger desire for more of it. Winning feels good. And when it starts happening, people start thinking of how to win more and more and more… NOW.
So the answer is yes. Expectations have to be altered because anything under 35 wins would be an incredible downer, mainly because of the way the schedule softens. But at the same time, you have to understand the difference in overachieving and just exceeding expectation. Right now, this team is doing both. The talent is there to be good. It’s just a matter of keeping it together for three more months and taking another step ahead.
What’s been the biggest surprise so far?
Obviously the overall win total has been a pretty nice surprise, but the biggest is the December win total. The team posted its first winning record in a month (8-6) in some three years, but that wasn’t the impressive part. What was surprising was the month it happened. December was seen as probably the most difficult on the schedule with a slew of back-to-backs, tough road trips and games against contenders. But the Thunder came out not only above .500, but with room to spare. I for one, was pleasantly surprised.
It’s hard to be sincerely disappointed with really anything when a team is playing this much better than you thought, but I’d point to two things: Jeff Green’s 3-point shot and defensive rebounding. First, Uncle Jeff. Green is such an important player to this team because despite what some people think of him, he understands a role better than anyone on the team. I know some people have visions of a high-dollar big man coming in to replace him and while I wouldn’t necessarily be entirely opposed to it, you have to realize how Green fits. He doesn’t ever take shots away from the star. He defers to Kevin Durant in every situation. He knows his spot and his affect on the game. Some nights, he’ll take a larger role and score 20. Some nights, he’ll shoot just five or six times. And since we’ve tasted winning and want more, it’s easy to look at Uncle Jeff and want more production. But the fact is, with him playing a substantial role, the team is 18-15 with an average age of 24. I’d say that’s pretty good.
But regardless, his 3-point shot has been a buzz-kill. It was a major strength in his game last season as he shot nearly 40 percent from deep. This year, he’s hovering right at 29 percent which is improved from 22 percent, which is what it was two weeks ago. The shot will come back and get better. I’m convinced of it. He’s a good shooter and has shown he can make it on a semi-consistent basis. But, you know, there’s a small silver lining to his three-ball struggling. He’s had to commit a little more to a post game and has showcased the ability to score on the block a little, which is nice.
As for the other, it’s simple: the Thunder allows too many offensive rebounds. Nineteen against Milwaukee. Twenty-three against Houston. And multiple other games around 15. It’s an issue that needs to be corrected or at least, improved. The Thunder is a team that rebounds as exactly that – a team. There isn’t one dominant rebounder. In fact, only two teams have lower leading rebounders than the Thunder’s 6.9 for Kevin Durant (GSW’s Anthony Randolph, 6.7 rpg, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, 6.0 rpg). Again, it’s something that needs to get better if this team wants to seriously compete the next few months.
How much different will the roster look by season’s end?
My guess is not much. Matt Harpring’s contract will likely get moved, but then again, he’s not actually on the roster. The only player I would assume is actively being shopped is Etan Thomas, and I’m not even sure he’ll be traded because Sam Presti might prefer to just let him expire. Potentially a package deal that moves Thomas and a couple young guys (D.J. White, Kyle Weaver), but even still I have trouble really seeing it happen. I doubt Kevin Ollie gets dealt, even with the emergence of Eric Maynor. I think Ollie has been a valuable mentor to both Maynor and Westbrook.
Presti has shown that he prefers to trade rather than compete in free agency, so it seems like someone will get dealt. It’s hard to predict these sort of things. If you had asked me two weeks ago, I would have said for sure that Shaun Livingston would finish the season in OKC. But then again, what do I know? Speculating trades is near impossible to do, especially when the trade wizardry of Sam Presti is involved. For all I know he’ll deal Harping’s contract and a second-round pick for Dwight Howard and Orlando’s unprotected first-rounder for the next six years.
Kevin Durant, legitimately in the MVP discussion?
Yes. Believe it. It might be hard to really wrap your mind around, but he deserves to be in the discussion. Of course he won’t win it (unless the Thunder goes absolutely ballistic in the second half), but he’s fourth in the league in scoring, 11th in PER, is the unquestioned leader of a vastly improved team and leads his team in both scoring and rebounding.
If Oklahoma City seriously competes for a playoff seed down the stretch and even makes it, I bet Durant finishes in the top six. He’s going to be an All-Star and he’s catching the attention of a lot of people, especially with his scoring 30 or more points for seven straight games. He’s beginning to make The Leap and step into the top tier of elite NBA players. Oh, and he just turned 21 three months ago.
Russell Westbrook, All-Star?
I know what you just said. (Spits out water) What!?!? Are you serious? Come on now. He’s not going to be one, but if he follows up with a January similar to his December, he should at least get some consideration. He really looks like he’s getting it. Instead of inconsistent one-good-game, one-bad-game performances, he’s stringing together a bundle of solid games. And it just feels like he’s understanding his role, sensing the moment and figuring out how to play his position.
He’s sixth in the Western Conference in assists per game and his assist-to-turnover rate is comparable to everyone above him not named Chris Paul. He’s also third in the league among point guards in rebounds a game. And get this stat: He’s one of two players in the league averaging at least 15 points per game, seven assists per game and five rebounds per game. The other guy? Some dude named LeBron James.
Again, Russ isn’t going to Dallas. There are just too many awesome point guards in the West (Steve Nash, Paul, Deron Williams, Jason Kidd and even Baron Davis). Westbrook’s achilles is his field goal percentage (which is bad, don’t get me wrong) but he’s been a fantastic playmaker and after a slight slump in late November, he’s definitely on the right path.
Will the starting lineup remain the same throughout the year?
This is a tough call. I’m going to say yes, but I could see Serge Ibaka taking Nenad Krstic’s starting spot at some point. I know most thought James Harden would supplant Thabo, but I don’t see that happening. Harden’s minutes are coming up and leveling with Thabo’s, but Sefolosha is just too valuable to take out of the starting lineup. He brings energy from the start and I think having Harden’s offensive spark off the bench is a good plan for now. I like sending Durant to the bench around the start of the second quarter, only to have Harden come in and sort of handle the offensive load for a few minutes. It doesn’t always work, but I think it’s a good plan.
Who will make the most improvement from here until the end of the season?
Four guys are prime candidates to make serious strides from here until the end of the year. First, Serge Ibaka. At the rate he is improving, he might be Hakeem Olajuwon by the end of the year. Of course I kid, but considering how far he’s come in just 33 games, think about where he’ll be in another 49.
Next, James Harden. Harden has steadily gotten better, but regressed a bit late in December. He was still productive, but he just struggling shooting a bit and didn’t create as well as he had earlier in the year. But he’s just a rookie. He’s got a lot to learn. He’s improved rapidly and has filled a role really well. He’s shooting the 3 pretty well (34 percent) and is getting to the line alright (3.2 times a game). He’ll start finishing some of those tough drives and start getting calls on others. From here until the end of the year, Harden will take some major steps in the right direction.
Thirdly, Kevin Durant. He’s improving every game. He’s getting closer and closer to being a complete player and not just a volume scorer. In just three months so far, he’s gotten a ton better rebounding, defensively and even with his floor leadership. Another three months will some important games sprinkled in for him to learn from and he might be in the Wade/LeBron/Kobe/Paul discussion. Seriously.
Last, Russell Westbrook. Like I said before, he’s starting to get it. He’s going to slump again and he’s going to have some bad nights. But his field goal percentage is going to start coming up. I bet he finishes the year around 41 or 42 percent. His assists numbers are getting consistent and he’s beginning to understand how to create and distribute. He’s not a traditional point guard and never will be, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be productive and an important player from that position.
KD’s turnovers: Big issue or small issue?
It would appear to be a big one. He’s had 22 turnovers his last four games, including a seven spot against Milwaukee. He’s second in the league in turnovers at 3.8 per game, only behind Monta Ellis’s 4.3. Don’t feel too bad though. LeBron averages 3.6 a game, Steve Nash 3.7, Deron Williams 3.5 and Dwyane Wade 3.3. So while yes, the turnovers are an issue and need to come down, it’s not like he’s alone on the list. Playmakers tend to turn it over more because they’re trying to make plays. It’s natural. To get some of the really, really good, you have to deal with a few dumb passes, dribbling off the foot or losing it out of bounds on a tough dribble-drive. Again, I’m not dismissing it, but I wouldn’t flip over it.
What’s a realistic win total now?
I did a quick run-through on the schedule and guessed a win or loss and I pegged the Thunder going 26-23 from here on out. Granted, that could be way, way off, but it seems somewhat reasonable. That would have Oklahoma City finishing 44-38 and likely in the hunt for a playoff spot. January gives opportunity to make a little headway as well as February and the beginning of March. I saw OKC getting up to around 10 games over .500, but a late March stretch of San Antonio, Houston, Portland, the Lakers, (Philadelphia) and Boston, all in a row is scary. Like could be back-breaking scary. The good news is, the first four in that run is at home and the Thunder might steal one. But they might lose five of six too.
The best part is, we’re actually discussing potentially meaningful games. This time last season, we were debating whether or not it was better to win or lose. There will be no tanking talk this season. Expectations were higher to start with, and now they’ve been taken up another notch. I don’t know how it’ll finish or if I’ll be right about a single thing I mentioned above, but let me tell you, I’m pumped to find out.