The Thunder have put one full month in the books, winning 13 games in November, the most in the month since the team moved to Oklahoma City. (The franchise record for wins in a month is 14.)
I mentioned it after the game against the Jazz, but considering the situation, that’s nothing short of impressive. Or outstanding.
It was just two days before OKC’s first game of the season when the Thunder shook the roster up entirely by trading James Harden to Houston. The fears, the worries, the questions all poured in. Especially after the Thunder’s shaky 1-2 start.
Now they’ve won 13 of 15. Some perspective though: It’s been with one of the easier schedules in the league, yes. But again, think back to a month ago and the anxiety that came with dealing Harden. People knew the Thunder would remain good, but the amount of time to sort through things was the question. And evidently, it took three games.
Consider: Last season the Thunder finished second in offensive efficiency, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions. After 18 games this season, the Thunder are third in the league, scoring 110.1 per 100. OKC’s effective field goal percentage is up, true shooting percentage is up and the assist rate is way up (by 4.6!). It’s only a month of data, but by virtually every measurement, the Thunder’s offense better this season than last.
Four big reasons: 1) Kevin Durant is playing at another level right now in terms of offensive efficiency; 2) Russell Westbrook is distributing and creating better than ever; 3) Serge Ibaka is a legit offensive weapon and 4) Kevin Martin has fit in gorgeously. Now, I think the Thunder probably would be in a similar situation statistically with Harden simply because Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka’s growth were natural and to be expected. But that’s the point — the Thunder have grown organically as we expected them to, and have reached a new level.
On to the player rankings:
1. Russell Westbrook (Last week 3)
It’s early, of course, but there’s some light MVP buzz building around Westbrook. Mainly for this reason: When people assume one thing is one way and a player proves them wrong by exceeding that expectation, it becomes a narrative. And the narrative with Westbrook has been about his supposed selfishness, except he’s blowing that noise completely apart right now.
He’s averaging a career-high assist number, but not just that, he’s clearly understanding and running offense better than ever. He still forces up some bad ones and has some wild turnovers, but it’s all becoming more and more forgivable.
Check out Westbrook’s week: Four games, 16.8 ppg, 9.5 apg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 spg. (And 5.0 turnovers per game, which obviously isn’t ideal.)
I’ve said it before, but I think the best measure of Westbrook isn’t actually his individual stats. But the team’s. Because everyone understands that raw talent and power of Oklahoma City’s roster. With two of the league’s most efficient and gifted scorers on the roster in Durant and Martin, the Thunder are built to succeed. And the only thing that could potentially hold the Thunder back from scoring effectively would be Bad Russell. So as long as the Thunder are chugging along offensively — which again, they are, better than ever — then you’ve got to tip your cap to Westbrook and say job well done.
He’s had to take on more of an offensive responsibility without Harden and has responded exceptionally well. That was the big fear of the Harden trade. No one questions Westbrook’s desire, competitiveness and ability, but sometimes it’s all a bit misguided. And with more of a burden falling on him to make the Thunder engine run, there was nail-biting as to if he’d handle that well. So far, so outstanding.
Is he an early MVP candidate? Absolutely. No question. Not ahead of Kevin Durant quite yet, but he should be in the conversation.
2. Kevin Durant (Last week: 1)
KD’s week was a less than his usual ridiculously impressive self simply by default. His stupid team kept blowing people out and taking away his minutes and thereby, stats. He still managed to average 25 ppg on 60.7 percent shooting (34-56). How? Because he’s Kevin Durant and that’s just what he does. He scored 12 points on 4-6 shooting while I was writing that last sentence.
(Also, take note of KD’s turnovers recently. They were an early blemish on Durant, but he’s got them under control. Since the Clipper game on Nov. 21 where he turned it over six times, KD hasn’t turned it over more than three times in a game. He’s averaging just 2.2 over his last six games.)
Take note of this though: With Durant on the floor this season, the Thunder are averaging 114.2 points per 100 possessions and 102.1 with him off. That’s a +12.1 difference. (For reference, the Heat are averaging 116.1 with LeBron on the floor versus 106.7 off, for a difference of +9.4.) But bigger than that, with Durant on the floor the Thunder’s defense is considerably better. As in a 103.2 defensive efficiency with KD compared to a 114.5 without him. No player this season is making as big a difference overall in terms of points per 100 possessions as Durant is.
Want to mention this too: The Thunder were expected to use KD a lot more at power forward this season with smallball lineups. How’s that gone? With 67 percent of his minutes coming at small forward, his PER is 23.1. With the 14 percent that have come at power forward, he has a PER of 45.9. I’ll email Hollinger and ask, but that seems pretty good.
3. Kevin Martin (Last week: 2)
After a few dodgy outings, Martin responded by averaging 16.8 a game this week on 46.8 percent shooting. And more than that, especially over the last two games, Martin appeared to have a lot more confidence and comfort in his role. He attacked more, looked for his own a bit and seemed to be finding a little of that natural scoring touch outside of just spotting up for 3s.
The Thunder really weren’t close in their four games this week, so the major question about his involvement went unanswered. But the more he’s involved — and involves himself — the more he’s likely to be part of crunchtime. Martin is very clearly a “flow” player. A guy that needs to be included and get touches if he’s to remain effective.
Martin’s actually been a pretty terrific clutch player statistically speaking for OKC this season (per 36 in the clutch, he’s shooting 80 percent from the floor, 4.2-of-5.3, including 100 percent from 3), he just hasn’t had much opportunity.
For instance, his usage rate is a respectable 21.1 percent. But in the clutch, that drops all the way to 9.0 percent. (Compare that to last season in Houston where his usage in the clutch was 25.8 percent.) KD’s usage in the clutch this year is 36.2 percent. Westbrook’s is 34.2 percent. Heck, Serge Ibaka’s is 12.3 percent. Point is, Martin has to be involved more in those crunchtime situations.
4. Serge Ibaka (Last week: 4)
Nobody took a bigger beating statistically from OKC’s blowouts than Ibaka. He went from averaging 15.1 ppg to 14.3. Just six against Charlotte, 12 against Utah and five against New Orleans.
But, that game against the Rockets was as good as any he’s played this season. The numbers tell it fine: 11-of-13 for 23 points with nine rebounds and six blocks.
Now, the Ibaka-or-Harden thing was never actually a thing because the Thunder never approached that as “choosing” either player. But in a default way, the Thunder did choose, and they picked Ibaka at 4/$49 million over Harden at 4/$60. I realize it’s quite the knee jerk reaction to base anything off that one game, but at least in terms of the sample size we have, if it actually was a choice, it appears the Thunder might’ve gotten that one right. Especially because it doesn’t look like Ibaka is close to scratching his ceiling yet.
Fun side story: After the Rockets game, reporters were circled around Thabo to ask him about his defense on Harden. Ibaka’s locker is right next to Thabo’s. One reporter asked Thabo something like, “I know he’s standing right there, but what does Serge knocking down those jumpers do for the offense?” Ibaka, hearing the question incredulously, and jokingly, popped off, “Have you not been watching me?”
5. Nick Collison (Last week: 5)
Just for fun, Collison’s per 48 stats are 15.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 3.2 apg on 63.4 percent shooting. No player in NBA history has ever put up those kind of numbers. Just saying, Scotty.
6. Kendrick Perkins (Last week: 7)
Perk put it bluntly after the Jazz game in responding to his critics. “Just check my winning percentage since I’ve been here.” So I did. Since the Thunder acquired Kendrick Perkins, the team is 80-30 (regular season). That’s a winning percentage of 72.7. That’s roughly equivalent to a 60-22 record. (With Perk as a starter, the Thunder are 73-26, for a 73.7 winning percentage.)
Obviously, Perk’s choice of words in saying “MY winning percentage” probably wasn’t the best seeing as that 72.7 has a whole lot to do with the fact he plays with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Still, his point remains. The Thunder have been better with Kendrick Perkins — in terms of won/loss) — than without.
7. Thabo Sefolosha (Last week: 6)
Thabo’s still hitting 45 percent of his 3-pointers this season, a year after hitting almost 44 percent. I think this is becoming A Thing.
8. Hasheem Thabeet (Last week: 8)
Thabeet’s surprising solid production notwithstanding, he definitely endeared himself to Thunder fans by mixing it up with James Harden a bit in Houston’s visit to OKC.
I don’t want to take away from the encouraging play by Thabeet, because props to the guy, for real, but what does it say about a former No. 2 overall draft pick if people are getting excited about 3.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game? Both are career highs, which is something, but still.
Also: If you’re one of the people asking if Thabeet should start in front of Perk or if he makes Perk expendable, pump those brakes. I’m as happy about Thabeet’s contributions as anyone, but if you feel comfortable with Thabeet defending Al Jefferson or Dwight Howard or Marc Gasol for 35 minutes, raise your hand. That’s what I thought.
9. Eric Maynor (Last week: 9)
There’s no denying the disappointment there’s been around Maynor early this season, but I think there were encouraging signs Saturday against the Hornets. Maynor attacked with some comfort, created looks and made a few plays. I think part of this is that people got it in their heads that Maynor was some kind of playmaking wiz that was going to completely light up the world off the bench. He’s a good player. But let’s not overstate him here.
10. Perry Jones III (Last week: 12)
I’m as guilty as anyone with this, but rewind to when Jones fell into OKC’s lap during the draft. Everyone was excited, everyone couldn’t believe that kind of talent dropped to the Thunder who were picking 28th. And yet, here’s Jones, 16 games into the season, and having made essentially zero impact.
Now, making a judgment on a young player early on, especially without seeing him play, is irresponsible. But there was a certain expectation that Jones could possibly have a real impact on the floor this season. Evidently not.
11. Reggie Jackson (Last week: 10)
Subtracting the extended garbage time minutes against Charlotte, three games, 10 minutes, zero points this week. I still think Jackson has some kind of future on this team, I just don’t know what it is.
12. Jeremy Lamb (Last week: 11)
Those two 3s sure were pretty, weren’t they?
13. DeAndre Liggins (Last week: N/A)
Liggins was in Saturday’s game against the Hornets for precisely eight seconds before he dove on the floor for a loose ball.
Inactives: Daniel Orton