The first week is in the books and it’s a 2-1 start for the Thunder, with two semi-gross wins over subpar teams and a horrific loss to a solid Wolves team. Before the season started, 2-1 seemed like a likely start for the Thunder, but the way they’ve played has caused some agitation.
Namely, they aren’t going things better than they did last season, and on the surface, their personnel isn’t as good.
Because of that, there have been plenty of grumbles and rumbles about the team and its direction. But with Russell Westbrook back on the floor — and appearing to be completely the same Russell Westbrook he was before — what’s the big reason to freak? While so many — SO MANY — still focus on trading James Harden, the overlooked fact is that the Thunder moved on entirely fine without Harden last season, posting the best campaign since they’ve been in OKC. Westbrook’s injury derailed it entirely and because of it, we’ll never have an answer as to if they were good enough anyway.
I look at it this way: With Westbrook back, this Thunder team is virtually the same one that won 60 games, finished atop the West and had a near historic margin of victory. Unless you think Kevin Martin was that integral to the team’s success — and he was good, don’t get me wrong — the Thunder should basically be in solid shape to have a similar kind of season. I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: The terror right now is entirely around the Thunder not having Kevin Martin, a player so many fans shook their fists at last season.
Now, I realize there’s a narrative aspect to this in that the Thunder didn’t spend this season so therefore they didn’t improve. But Kevin Durant is a year older and likely a year better. Same for Serge Ibaka, though he’s gotten off to a rough start. Yes, they’re flawed and yes, they’re going to have to rely on some young players to step up, but to me, I don’t see why Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson can’t replicate Martin’s production, and maybe even then some. The question is, can they do it in the postseason and that, is a very valid worry.
It’s amazing what having an elite player back on the floor can do. The Thunder went from looking like a mediocre roster with one great player to now having apparent depth and a bevy of assets at Scott Brooks’ disposal. Just placing Westbrook back on the floor has made OKC’s starting five a strength again, and boosted the bench in a big time way. The margin for error is razor thin for this Thunder team and there’s no scheme of system to fall back on if things go south again.
But having Westbrook back fixes a whole lot of what ailed the Thunder. They’re basically back to where they were last season, and if the development continues, that may be all they need anyway.
Week 1 player power rankings:
1. Russell Westbrook
He’s on top just by virtue of being back. But he also changed the way the Thunder looked, and played. Westbrook obviously makes the Thunder a lot better, but his unpredictability makes them a whole lot more fun, too.
2. Kevin Durant
So, with the expectation Westbrook would be out a month, I predicted KD would average 34 points a game for those few weeks. Westbrook only missed two games and in Durant’s first week, he put up 42, 13 and 33 (29.3 a game). The difference though in the third game from the first two was so obvious, though. Durant’s scoring came in that natural way, like you didn’t even notice it was happening. The game against Utah was a little forced, with just 9-24 shooting and a parade to the free throw line. The game against the Wolves shouldn’t be spoken of ever again.
But against the Suns, it was that simplistic, deadly, silent scoring that makes KD so good. Just 19 shots to get 33 points, a good percentage from the floor, better looks to choose from and an easier path to getting it. The opposition obviously influenced some of this, but Westbrook makes Durant better. It’s pretty clear.
One area to watch: Three games, three assists for KD. Is that because he’s not creating all that well, or is it because his supporting cast can’t make anything?
3. Reggie Jackson
So Jackson didn’t get six weeks to statpad, but I’m not backing off his Sixth Man campaign. We saw how much more effective he was in his bench role against the Suns, and we also saw Scott Brooks intent to play Jackson a lot with Westbrook. I’ve been saying this for more than a year now, but I think the Thunder are going to use Jackson as a Harden-lite, obviously not as good, but in a similar role. Let him run the second unit, let him play with the closing lineup and let him handle the ball some.
If you remember, it took a while for the Thunder to really start trusting Harden in crunchtime situations to run the offense, so I wouldn’t expect Jackson to do a ton in the fourth quarter offensively, at least not right now. But having three attacking wing players on the floor gives OKC’s closing lineup so many more options. You can run pick-and-roll with Westbrook and Durant, then counter it to the other side with Jackson and Ibaka, with either another big on the floor, or maybe Jeremy Lamb or Derek Fisher to space. That’s a pretty good group.
4. Nick Collison
Ah, another season of these, which means another season of trying to figure out 25 different ways to say that Collison had a solid week. Because that’s what he was — solid.
5. Serge Ibaka
What’s wrong with Ibaka? A guy that finished fourth in the league last season in field goal percentage (57.4 percent) has made just 11-40 (26.7 percent) through three games. In the first two games, the issue was rather obvious: He was forcing. He was trying to be a lot more aggressive with his offense, looking to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. And because of it, he was taking some bad shots. Last season, Ibaka was effective from two places: at the rim (77.8 percent) and from midrange (47 percent from 16-23 feet on 3.6 attempts a game). This season, he’s just 1-8 inside of five feet and 2-9 from 5-9 feet. He’s taken 13 attempts from 16-23 feet, making five, which is an acceptable percentage. Ibaka’s just not finishing inside.
And through a little bit of film work, on those 16-23 foot jumpers, the first two games they were mostly contested and not often off a pass. Against Phoenix with Westbrook back, Ibaka got a couple clean midrange looks, and dropped them.
Another thing: Some of SportVU’s data became available for public consumption on NBA.com last week and while it’s insane to draw any big conclusions from three games worth of numbers, there’s something worth watch for Ibaka. On the surface, he’s rebounding well to begin the season, hauling in 9.7 a game and 11.3 per 36 minutes. Pretty good. But via SportVU, Ibaka is averaging 7.3 uncontested rebounds a game and per game is averaging 14.7 rebounding chances. That tells me two things: 1) Ibaka isn’t in great position to rebound a lot of the time and 2) he’s not really attacking the glass so much as he’s had some good luck of the ball falling to him.
Again, this is three game’s worth of information, but it’s something to pay attention to.
6. Jeremy Lamb
He’s not James Harden. He’s not Kevin Martin. And for now, he’s not going to play anything close to their roles either. Lamb saw 17 minutes against the Jazz, 21 against the Wolves (many of them in garbage time) and 16 against the Suns. He may see his time increase as the season goes along and Brooks develops more trust in him, but Lamb is mostly a bit player for now.
And so far, I think he’s played really well. He set a new career-high of 16 against the Wolves (something Grant Long hilariously dubbed his “coming out party”) but I thought his best performance was against the Suns. Five shots, all good ones and two big buckets in the fourth quarter. If he can string together consistent games like that, Lamb will be fine. I don’t know if he’s going to grow into a significant player or anything remotely close to backing people down on the Harden stuff, but the Thunder don’t need him to be an All-Star or a Sixth Man candidate. He just needs to do his job.
7. Steven Adams
Fifty minutes for Adams through three games and so far, nothing to invalidate the things we were all so encouraged by in the preseason. He’s under control, he’s paying attention and he’s doing his job.
Another thing: Per SportVU, he’s got a 73.3 percent contested rebound percentage. That’s crazy high (comparatively, Dwight Howard’s is 25.5). Again SMALL SAMPLE SIZE THEATER HERE, but it does appear that if Adams is in the area of a rebound, he gets it. He’s got great hands, and he really secures rebounds.
8. Derek Fisher
You have to give Fisher credit. He’s in incredible shape, and he does have that knack for making things happen. How he gets used and how much he plays will influence a lot of how I feel about him this season, but Fisher has a place on the Thunder’s bench and he’s been productive. And he may end up being the only guy on the second unit that can make a 3, so there’s that too.
9. Thabo Sefolosha
Just 2-10 from 3 so far. And if he’s really the Thunder’s second best 3-point shooter on the roster (40 percent the last two seasons!) OKC’s going to be in some serious trouble.
10. Perry Jones III
Signs of not being terrible! Here’s to hoping he can keep his spot in the rotation. Because he’s never going to be productive for the Thunder if he doesn’t play. That’s science.
11. Kendrick Perkins
Who knows what he meant by the tweet, but it’s pretty obvious that all is not well in Perkland. His play hasn’t been anything overly bad through three games, but it’s just been pretty much the same. Which isn’t great. It’s too early to really tell what his defensive impact has been, but in terms of raw numbers, he had eight rebounds against the Jazz, then one against the Wolves and one against the Suns. His time was trimmed to only 16 minutes against Phoenix and while I don’t think there’s anything to read into there because the Suns were small all night, it wouldn’t shock me if Perk’s minutes get cut down to around 20 this season.
Part of the reason I’ve always sided with sticking with Perk was because there was never a great alternative. Now the Thunder appeared to have one in Adams, and it’s making Perk look more expendable than ever. A lot of the supposed value of Perk is as a leader and a chemistry guy, but I think those things go hand-in-hand with him playing. I’m not so sure Perk’s going to maintain those late night pick-me-up phone calls if he’s not feeling his importance on the floor.
12. Andre Roberson
Nobody is more excited for the 66ers to start their season than Roberson.
13. Ryan Gomes
14. Hasheem Thabeet
Thabeet should really start wearing hideous plaid jackets for the rest of the season.