I can hardly believe it, but with 22 games already behind the Thunder, Oklahoma City is already more than a quarter of the way through the season. That means it’s time for a look at a few things that bode well for the boys in blue and a few things that don’t as we ponder their 14-8 record.
1. The Thunder’s point differential is -0.4 points per game. This is the thing that worries me most about Oklahoma City going forward. The Thunder is one of only two NBA teams with a winning record but a negative point differential. (The other is Phoenix, which sits at 11-9 and has a -0.6 differential.) Plenty of stat gurus will tell you this is perhaps the most important team stat in basketball. OKC has won only three games by at least 10 points and lost four by at least that many, including losses to the lowly Clippers and Raptors.
2. OKC’s most reliable bench scorer is Serge Ibaka. This is great news for Ibaka for this year and for the Thunder going forward. But if James Harden doesn’t figure things out by the playoffs, this will be a recipe for disaster. Ibaka isn’t scoring as a primary option on offense when he’s in the game. He’s hitting his jumper with good consistency this season, and that makes him scary good, but a big percentage of his points are put-backs and can’t-miss dunks and layups made possible by Russell Westbrook’s penetrating style. Ibaka’s gaudy 57 percent FG shooting is nice, but if Harden can’t raise his own percentage from about 36 percent to somewhere around 45 percent, what kind of an offensive upgrade is he really over Thabo Sefolosha? There’s still time, and Harden played too well as a primary scorer in college for me to think he can’t turn it around at some point.
3. The defense sucks. Is it OK if I leave it at that? This is undoubtedly the most-discussed negative development of the year in Oklahoma City.
4. The West isn’t getting any worse. I didn’t think it would, but it would have been fortuitous for the Thunder if I was wrong. San Antonio is defying preseason obituaries that said the Spurs’ contending days are over. The Lakers are the Lakers — and will remain so if Kobe Bryant can stay healthy enough to play through the rest of the season. It turns out Jerry Sloan can coach, because the Jazz are playing well. Carmelo Anthony is still a Nugget. Dallas is playing with purpose. Chris Paul and the Hornets, despite a recent slide, appear rejuvenated. Only Portland has been a true disappointment among teams that figured to contend for a playoff spot. But though it appears an Eastern Conference team or two will sneak into the playoffs with a losing record, that’s not going to happen in the West. OKC can’t have too many more bad losses to teams like the Clippers and Raptors if it wants to feel comfortable about its place in the postseason race.
1. Russell Westbrook. No further explanation necessary. (Kevin Durant, despite his slow start, should be included as well. But it’s time for yet another tip of the cap to Jet Zero.)
2. OKC is winning close games. Do the stat guys care about winning close games? No. They want domination and a positive point differential. But I am of the school that thinks teams will be well-served in April, May and June if they build confidence late in games in November, December and beyond. There’s no stat that will back it up, but you can’t convince me that this doesn’t matter.
3. There’s not nearly as much ground to make up as this time last year. Last season’s turning point came in December with the trade for Eric Maynor as the Thunder was hovering near .500 until about Christmas. But this year, barring a shocking slide during a relatively easy stretch of December games, OKC will enter the new year well above that. In December last season, Thunder fans were only beginning to think about a playoff spot. This year, the playoff spot is Oklahoma City’s to lose.
4. The Thunder has a strong division and conference record. There are plenty of tough games yet to be played, but it’s impossible to be disappointed in a 4-1 division record and 7-5 conference record. Truly, if OKC can continue its relative dominance over Eastern Conference teams, even a .500 record in the division and the conference would leave the Thunder in good shape for a playoff berth. Anything more than a couple of games above .500 against Western Conference teams could mean home court in the first round.