With Russell Westbrook, we know who and what the Thunder are. They’re athletic, they’re fast, they’re explosive. They play with flash, sizzle, style and an aggressive attacking nature.
But without him, who are they?
There’s always a lot of talk about Scott Brooks and the Thunder lacking an offensive “system,” especially during this stretch without Westbrook. And while yes, a structured system would help the Thunder have a bit more offensive identity and understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish, I think the whole “get a system!” battle cry is a bit of a red herring. People lean too much of belying that there’s no system rather than focusing on the fact that one of the league’s five best players is missing.
Because when Westbrook plays, system or structure be damned. Often times, the more reckless and improvised the Thunder are, the better. It’s an area I think Scott Brooks doesn’t get near enough credit for in that he’s been able to identify how his team — when at full strength — best plays. And instead of overcoaching them and trying to crack a whip to get them to play within a box he’s designed, he’s given them an offensive framework that they can use as a foundation. But not one they have to exclusively adhere to.
You can’t argue with the results. The Thunder have finished as a top four offensive team the last three seasons. Their offensive rating has gone up season over season since they came to Oklahoma City. So what is there really to change?
When people scream “they need a system!” I think of when Jerry and Kramer are talking about tax write-offs. You don’t even know what a system is. Could they be better? Obviously. Especially without Westbrook. And that’s where the lack of a based structure hurts them, because so many of the sets and plays they run and rely on aren’t nearly as effective without Westbrook. It’s not a coincidence that the pick-and-pop they run with Ibaka works better when Westbrook is the ball-handler. Or that a screen-and-roll with Westbrook and Durant is more effective than a Jackson-Durant one.
Comparing the Thunder to the Spurs and pointing out how San Antonio just plugs players in and it works because of Pop’s system is silly. If Pop had the Thunder’s current personnel, he might be doing things far differently. Each roster is different, and it’s up to each coach to figure out why.
What I think the Thunder could use more of, is something to get them back to an identity, especially when they’re missing players. Not so much a system, but a philosophy to rely on. The one they use now is, “Do what we do as if nobody is missing and just do it better.” That hasn’t proven to be all that successful. So something like a distinct small-ball plan, or four-guard lineups, or whatever might let them play with a little of that recklessness they thrive with when Westbrook’s there.
1. Kevin Durant (last week: 1)
Durant before the Milwaukee game: “I’m not doing enough to help them. I’m shooting too much. I’m shooting too many 3s. I’m not helping them out at all. So it’s not on them. … I’ve been thinking these last few games in order for us to get it going I have to do it all offensively. But, nah, we have to do it together. It’s a great learning experience for me.”
In the last nine games, Durant’s had two 30-plus shot attempt nights, when he had only four total in his career previously. So he’s definitely shooting more.
But the question obviously is, shouldn’t he be?
It’s a fine line to toe for Durant. On one hand, he clearly has to do more, has to take on more responsibility. Westbrook’s out, so KD has to pick up some slack. But on the other, isn’t it more about his teammates picking up said slack? Durant is going to give you 25-30 points every night just by lacing up his sneakers. What are we asking of him? To average 40 a game during this stretch?
I think Durant’s best approach is to just play naturally. Because any time KD starts to try and force things, when he tries to carry the world, it shows. But when he trusts himself and his own game, he’s unstoppable.
2. Jeremy Lamb (last week: 2)
Lamb’s bounce-back against the Bucks was impressive. His overall week wasn’t fantastic or anything and the current state of Thunder should explain how he’s No. 2 with only averaging 7.1 points on 30.5 percent shooting. But what I liked so much about the way he played last week was 1) how he competed in Utah despite a terrible shooting performance and 2) how he responded against the Bucks with 17 on 6-10.
Also, here’s a random thought I want to get on paper: Lamb should be the second unit point guard. At least for now until Westbrook returns or the Thunder make an addition. Derek Fisher just can’t adequately run a team anymore. Fisher’s role is best suited to off the ball, as a spot-up guy on the perimeter. Lamb is great in the pick-and-roll and a very willing passer. Run everything through him when Jackson or Durant aren’t on the floor.
3. Serge Ibaka (last week: 4)
Ibaka only played two of the Thunder’s three games this week, but posted solid averages of 12.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. And his absence against the Jazz was extremely felt.
I think what we all want to see from Ibaka during this timeout without Westbrook is for him to “step up.” But I don’t know if that’s exactly fair, because Ibaka’s game is pretty reliant on his teammates around him stepping up. I actually think Ibaka has performed well without Westbrook — the numbers back that up — and while maybe there was an expectation he’d average something like 18 a game during the absence, that was never reasonable because of how important Westbrook is to that.
4. Reggie Jackson (last week: 3)
Jackson scored 20 against the Jazz, then 13 against the Nuggets, but dropped a total stinker against the Bucks with only two points on 1-8 shooting. And he was essentially benched in favor of Derek Fisher in the fourth quarter.
Jackson has been decent, but not great in Westbrook’s place, which has been bad for the Thunder, but maybe good for the Thunder.
Because with each poor game he plays as a starter, maybe that’s a dollar less he’ll be owed.
5. Derek Fisher (last week: 7)
This is the kind of week it was for the Thunder.
But hey, you’ve got to give credit where it’s due. Fisher deserves kudos for making the Nuggets score not look so reprehensible, then for making plays and hitting some shots down the stretch against the Bucks.
Only problem is, I fear this will be a license to play him more.
Consider: Fisher played 12.7 minutes a game in November. Then he went up to 15.3 in December. In January? He’s currently at 22.5.
6. Nick Collison (last week: 5)
Collison is obviously one of the best charge-takers in the world, for a lot of reasons. But one thing I’ve noticed about the way he takes them is that he lets out a guttural scream every time he’s absorbing contact.
So I wondered: Is yelling when taking a charge an important technique to it?
“Not at all,” Collison said. “I do it as more of a thing to avoid pain. I feel like if I yell, it doesn’t hurt as much.”
Yes, Nick, I believe that’s backed up by science.
“I never took karate, but I feel like it’s the same thing as when they hit the board and they’re like ‘haaa!’ It’s more like if I’m going to get hit, it’s my reaction to yell before the impact. I don’t really do it to get the refs attention, because they’re going to make a call.”
7. Thabo Sefolosha (last week: 10)
Coming off six straight single-digit games, Thabo EXPLODED for 14 points on 16 shots with four assists against the Bucks. Thabo’s had five double-digit scoring games this season, compared to 21 last season. Last year, he had 29 games in which he hit more than one 3. He’s only done that five times this season. Last season, he had only 24 games in which he didn’t hit a 3. He’s already at 14 for this season.
8. Steven Adams (last week: 8)
Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Adams bumps LeBron James going for a rebound. LeBron inexplicably throws an elbow to Adams’ face, gets ejected, and breaks his arm elbowing The Funaki’s iron jaw.
It’s gonna happen.
9. Kendrick Perkins (last week: 9)
Goal for this season: Perk is 0-12 from 3-point range in his career. I want to see his first career make.
Also: Did you know Perk is playing the fewest minutes a game (19.2) since his second in the NBA (19.6)?
10. Perry Jones III (last week: 6)
Jones played 45 total minutes this week and put a total of four points, five rebounds, zero assists and three blocks. Jones has an incredible ability of looking like he’s doing things on the floor, while actually doing pretty much nothing.
11. Andre Roberson (last week: 12)
He went down to the D-League for a couple of games before being called back up on Sunday. Nothing special from those games, but he did score four points against the Nuggets!
11. Hasheem Thabeet (last week: 11)
I just want to say, I really enjoy Hasheem Thabeet being on the team. Dude is so jolly and positive while not coming off as a complete fraud while doing it.
But that doesn’t mean I think he should play.
Inactive: Russell Westbrook