Roughly 15 percent of the season has been put away, or about three weeks. For the Thunder, there were some pretty significant changes and questions coming in. From chemistry to rotations to just how they’d play, two days before the team’s first game, there was a major speed bump.
For the most part, they’ve pretty good integrating things on the fly. There have been some frustrating nights, but there does appear to be a solid sense of direction. And there also is a ceiling to this team right now that it doesn’t seem like they’re anywhere close to touching.
Where do they stand though? What are the early takeaways and lessons?
1. What’s the most encouraging thing through 11 games?
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Defense. The Thunder have always been an outstanding offensive team, but have suffered in the games where either shots didn’t fall or they couldn’t get in a rhythm. And while OKC’s never been a poor defensive team by any means, it hasn’t exactly been a calling card. The Thunder consistently holding opponents to around 40 percent shooting and under 95 points a game. It might have more to do with the opponents than anything else but if this defense is for real, they can overcome some of the future worries about crunchtime offense and such.
Patrick James, Daily Thunder: The passing. From Kevin Durant on down, it looks like the Thunder are intent on sharing the ball more, especially in recent games. That has to be one of the ways OKC makes up for the playmaking it lost in the James Harden trade. Players are going to have to play that John Wooden style of basketball more often — passing the ball ever closer to the basket for the easiest shot possible. The Thunder just put up 31 assists two games in a row. For this team, that’s incredible, and they will be tough to beat when that happens.
Ben Golliver, SI.com: The health, productivity and overall fit of Kevin Martin. Losing James Harden and leaving a roster crater would have been disastrous. Acquiring Martin as a short-term plug for that spot was an intelligent play by Sam Presti, and it’s worked out very well. 53.6 (!) three-point shooting. Five free throw attempts per game off the bench. Per-minute scoring that is commensurate with his averages during his better years with the Kings and Rockets. That’s all encouraging, as is the fact that he hasn’t missed a game yet due to injury. After all, the biggest question mark about his being the centerpiece of the trade package was his health. Are there still some fourth quarter kinks to work out? Sure. But Martin has been encouraging because the possible downside of the alternatives — he misses time due to injury, he can’t get his shot going with new teammates, he plays too passively as he gets adjusted to a new group — all carry huge repercussions. (By the way, Kevin Durant averaging double figures in rebounds is pretty dang encouraging too.)
Young: Offensive consistency. At times, the Thunder are their usual breathtaking selves. They run, they score, they play loose with a certain swagger. But then there are the times where the ball still dies and it becomes an isolationist society with Westbrook and Durant taking turns. With three of the very best offensive players in the league in Westbrook, Durant and Martin, along with Serge Ibaka who is solid offensively, there’s absolutely no reason OKC shouldn’t be in the top three in offensive efficiency by season’s end.
James: Wimpy atmospheres at home. Part of it is that the Thunder have spent a large portion of home games giving their fans little to cheer for. OKC has played sluggishly often through 11 games, and it has reflected itself in a sluggish crowd. Maybe it’s just because it’s early in the season and the fans are struggling even more than the players to get over the Harden trade. But for the most part, the Peake isn’t as loud as it has been during previous regular seasons, and people are more willing to leave even the relatively close games early. Let’s hope this is just a blip, because that’s part of what makes Oklahoma City a special spot in the NBA.
Golliver: I suppose it’s the starting five not putting up the type of numbers you would expect from a five-man unit that brings everyone back after a run to the Finals. Going small — also known as not playing Kendrick Perkins — has been a preferable approach, and that’s the direction Brooks has gone late in games. As long as the best lineup is on the court to end games, and the winning record is significantly above .500, I don’t see a major urgency in tweaking the starters, at least not yet. It’s definitely possible that the most “distressing” thing is not actually the whole starting lineup but really just Perkins and his ability to impact games.
3. Grade the Thunder through the first 11 games.
Young: I’d give them a B. They’ve mostly won the games they should and have dropped a few they shouldn’t. But that’s an NBA season. There have been some obvious worries arise and there are things to pay close attention to, but Kevin Martin has slid into his role pretty effortlessly and the team’s chemistry clearly hasn’t been severely upset. They could be better, but luckily, there are 71 games left.
James: B. Thanks to the passing and 8-3 record, it would be hard to justify anything worse than a B, even though not being able to beat a good team yet has been troubling. But it’s obvious the Thunder in no way deserves an A, not when you basically play a stinker at home against the Grizzlies and sort of labor through other games that shouldn’t have been close. Still, it’s hard to argue with 8-3. Winning at that clip means you’re probably one of the top seeds in the West. So the Thunder have been solid, but there’s plenty of room for improvement before they’re playing to their potential. And, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, it appears the potential is still pretty high.
Golliver: B+. There’s plenty of room for improvement; even still, 8-3 and No. 1 in the Northwest Division, with a two-game lead, is nothing to sneeze at. All of the hypothetical worst case scenarios — locker room explodes without Harden, bench becomes worthless without Harden, Martin doesn’t fit in, etc. — just haven’t developed. The most important part of this early season was steadying the ship and the Thunder have succeeded on that front.