The Thunder will be through roughly 10 percent of the season by the time the horn sounds late tonight against Portland. Seven games of a season isn’t quite enough to make any definitive judgments or even spot obvious long-term trends, but it’s getting pretty close.
It has definitely been long enough to see things to be scared of, and also things to be excited about. There are bad things that ought to change in the Thunder’s favor over the long run. And there are even a few good, if so far fleeting, surprises that have at least a chance to help bring the kind of dynamism or spark needed to get Oklahoma City into true Western Conference contention. There are also bad things that just might stay bad, but those have already gotten plenty of attention. Let’s take a look at a few of the things that could break the Thunder’s way as the season moves forward.
BAD THINGS THAT WILL CHANGE
— More than one player will start shooting better than 30 percent on 3-pointers. Kevin Durant leads the Thunder beyond the arc at 31 percent on 11-36 shooting, with James Harden next in line at 24 percent on only four buckets in 17 tries. The team as a whole is only shooting 20 percent on 3-pointers. That would be a historically low percentage if it bears out over the entire season. Which means it won’t.
The Thunder may not ever be an elite 3-point shooting team this season. Other than Morris Peterson, who will spend most nights wearing a tie, Harden is the team’s career leader in 3-point percentage at 37 percent. Nary a proven elite-level shooter on the roster. And Durant may have the best potential to reach that status, which would make him even more lethal but would ultimately not be as useful to the team as having that type of shooter elsewhere on the floor. But there’s no way the Thunder shoots this poorly from beyond the arc through the spring.
— Cole Aldrich will get his tooth fixed. I mean, I’m just assuming. And I should say that to me, the missing tooth is a good thing and it would be a shame if he fixes it. I must state unequivocally that I hope he does not. It was chipped in a February 2009 game when he was still a Kansas Jayhawk and knocked out in practice soon after. But he’s supposed to be getting his first big-time NBA paycheck any day now, so you have to think he’s getting it fixed. It just seems like one of those things you do eventually just to get your mom and/or girlfriend to stop telling you that you look stupid. Not that I have any experience with anything similar.
Otherwise, Aldrich has gotten off to a decent start this season. His use so far is similar to how Serge Ibaka worked his way into the lineup during the first part of last season. So if Aldrich can show the same kind of improvement as Ibaka did, good things will happen. Mrs. Patrick James would like to note that she was displeased with Aldrich’s defense when he didn’t properly challenge a couple of shots by Nate Robinson on Sunday, but otherwise Aldrich has been an active defender and a hard worker.
— Durant and Westbrook will cut turnovers. Right now, the Thunder’s two best players combine to average about eight turnovers per game. While neither of them has exactly been known as a premier caretaker of the ball so far in their careers, each has matured to the point where it’s not unreasonable to think these early-season numbers will come down.
The Thunder’s ball-movement, spacing and effort on the offensive end showed improvement in the Philadelphia game Wednesday. Surely Oklahoma City will pile up more solid offensive efforts like the win against the 76ers, and accumulate fewer poor outings like Sunday’s game against Boston. If the team as a whole can operate more smoothly, it seems like it would be easy for Durant and Westbrook to eliminate at least one turnover per game apiece.
— Nick Collison will ride again. At least I hope he will. What the heck is going on with the man’s leg anyway? There was no hint anything was wrong with him coming into the season, but he was quickly limited with the leg injury and has yet to suit up for the Thunder.
Plenty was written in this space and others about Collison’s value to Oklahoma City as a defender, rebounder and scrapper. The man was clearly key to the Thunder’s team defense, especially on the second unit. Perhaps the solution to many, if not all, of the Thunder’s defensive issues could be solved simply by getting Collison back into the rotation.
POSITIVE SIGNS OF THINGS TO COME?
— Kevin Durant isn’t the team’s leading rebounder. It’s good that Durant is a good rebounder, and he could probably be even better if he played a little closer to the basket in some lineups. But the fact he finished last year as the team’s leading rebounder was more an indictment of the other post players’ rebounding skills than something that shows just how good KD is.
Part of why he finished the season as the best rebounder last year was that he played more minutes than everyone else. With Ibaka (8.0 rpg) playing more minutes this season, you’d think he’ll stay ahead of Durant (7.0 rpg) in rebounding like he is now. If Jeff Green (7.2 rpg) can inch up his rebounding statistics just a little more when he returns from injury, that would help out as well.
— Thabo Sefolosha went 4-4 on 2-point shots Wednesday against Philly. I’m fully aware that Sefolosha has been in the league long enough that it is highly, highly likely that he is what he is. But it’s games like Wednesday’s against the 76ers that leave me thinking that maybe, just maybe, he could be more useful on the offensive end.
Sefolosha went 0-2 on 3-pointers, and at this point it’s clear he should stop taking them. He supposedly spent the last two summers working on that corner shot, but it’s not working and it’s not going to work. But I still can’t figure out why he shouldn’t be able to get three to five buckets per game just slashing to the rim. And if he’s able to get to the rim that frequently, you’d think he’d get two to four free throws per game as well. It’s maddening to see him camp out in the corner, watch his guy sag off him and not be able to punish defenses by using him as a shooter because he can’t shoot. So why not use him a different way? How much better would the Thunder be if they could get even 8-10 ppg from Thabo?
— Ibaka is inching toward double-double territory. Air Congo is sitting at about 11 ppg and 8 rpg through the Thunder’s early schedule. If he improves at a pace even close to last year’s as the season goes on, averaging 16-10 or even 18-12 doesn’t seem to be outside the realm of possibility. In November 2009, there were games Ibaka didn’t play in at all, but he was a crunch-time defender by the spring. Any progress similar to that must be a scary thought for Oklahoma City’s Western Conference rivals.
What else is out there that you guys see?