The Thunder at the All-Star break last season: 39-14
The Thunder with two games to go before the break this season: 41-12
A better record, while somehow playing 28 of those games without their second best player. That’s kind of amazing. And speaks to three things, I think:
1) Kevin Durant really is that good
2) The Thunder have assembled a much better roster around their two superstars than most of us had previously given them credit for
3) Scott Brooks and his coaching staff have done an underrated job of understanding and adjusting to life without Westbrook, building better habits and tailoring an offense around Durant, without changing too much.
Since the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, they’ve gone from 23 wins to 50, to 55, to 47 (lockout season, which equated to 58), to 60. And if things continue on their current track this season, they’ll see yet another increase, winning 64 or so. (Which means in like 2019, the Thunder will eventually go 82-0.)
And there’s this, too: The Thunder have recovered their margin of victory to +7.5, second in the league to the Pacers at +7.9. Margin of victory has always been one of the best indicators of postseason success, and is one of the reasons it’s such a shame we never got to see what last season’s team was capable of (they had a MOV of +9.2).
But maybe this one is about to give an idea.
1. Kevin Durant (last week: 1)
About a week and a half until Russell Westbrook is set to return. With the All-Star break in the middle of that, it gives the Thunder a little opportunity to take a step back and prep for Westbrook’s return. Though, it’s a bit of a bummer the coaching staff will be in New Orleans saddled with All-Star duties.
But the question is how does the team play, and more specifically Durant? Because without Westbrook, Durant’s usage rate has rocketed to 34.6 percent, up from 29.2. When together this season, Westbrook actually used more possessions than KD, which is somewhat natural considering he’s the point guard of the team. But with the way Durant has dominated and not just maintained his efficiency but increased on it, means maybe Brooks, Westbrook, Durant and everyone else should reevaluate some of that.
As I’ve written before, the fact KD’s using more offense plays a big part in explaining his statistical surge, but he’s also clearly found a comfort zone playing as such a ball-dominant point forward of sorts.
Consider: With Westbrook, 60.3 percent of KD’s buckets were assists, 39.7 percent unassisted. Without him, 33.5 percent are assisted, 66.5 percent unassisted. Durant has clearly changed the way he’s played, creating more and more on his own rather than relying on an offensive set to get him looks.
How does it look when Russ comes back?
2. Serge Ibaka (last week: 2)
Here’s a new streak: Ibaka’s had 11 straight games of shooting 50 percent or better from the floor. And over his last 15, he’s averaging 18.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks while shooting 63 percent from the field.
There’s no question in my mind that Ibaka should’ve been part of the All-Star team. If only as a stand-in for Westbrook. We all know Westbrook would’ve been on the team had he been healthy, but without him, the best team in the West only has one representative. Ibaka’s not a longshot pick, especially when you factor in the defensive level he’s played at this season.
3. Reggie Jackson (last week: 5)
It feels like Jackson hasn’t played all that well recently, but in February, he’s scored double-digits in all five games, is averaging 5.0 assists a game, and is shooting 44 percent. He does have a bad habit of inconsistency, but remember: He’s a backup point guard. He’s playing a bit outside his comfort zone right now.
He was excellent against the Wolves, average against the Magic, and then good again against the Knicks. As long as his confidence is there when Westbrook returns, the Thunder are going to be better off from this with Jackson, in more ways than one.
4. Derek Fisher (last week: 4)
Scott Brooks talking about Fisher after Sunday’s game against the Knicks: “He’s everything you want in an NBA player. He competes. He never cheats the game. He has great experiences. He has five championships, eight Finals appearances. He’s a superstar in his role. And we have many guys like that on our team. That’s what makes us a complete team. But he knows how to play and he understands where to be on both ends of the floor. He’s not the quickest guy in the world. But you make up for that with toughness and desire and determination and heart. And the analytics can never put a number on that. I’m for all the analytics out there. But the thing that I love more than that it guys’ heart and care and commitment to competing for the team, and he does that at a high level.”
Psst, hey Scotty: The analytics are actually backing Fish these days. He has a net rating of +11.9, third on the team. And since Jan. 1, he’s shooting 44.6 percent from 3. His last 10 games, that’s 50 percent from 3. Fisher has played terrifically this season. He’s handled his role, done his job and played his part. Brooks may lean on him too much, and there’s a fear that this good play is earning him more time in the postseason, but at this point, it might be warranted.
5. Thabo Sefolosha (last week: 7)
Quietly, Thabo’s been playing some of his best basketball of the season. He still hasn’t shot the ball all that wonderfully, but over his last 15 games, he’s hitting 41.9 percent from 3, and that includes last week’s awful 1-8 3-point shooting performance.
His defense has been rounding into form, and with the deadline approaching, it’s made him appear infinitely more valuable to the team’s success than before. Two months ago, it was easy to wonder what he really was adding that the Thunder didn’t already have. Now, it’s hard to picture going into the playoffs without him.
6. Nick Collison (last week: 8)
Did you know: Of players playing at least 15 minutes a game this season, Nick Collison leads the league in net plus/minus rating, with a +14.4. You know it.
7. Jeremy Lamb (last week: 3)
Lamb hasn’t scored in double-figures in February. He’s played five straight games without cracking 10 points, which ties his longest drought of the season. He’s only made four 3s in February, and is shooting just 12-36 (33 percent) this month. Blip on the radar, or maybe a young player experiencing a little midseason fatigue?
8. Kendrick Perkins (last week: 4)
I don’t know if this was worth $9 million, but it was worth something.
9. Perry Jones III (last week: 6)
My favorite Perry Jones play of the season came against the Magic, when he put the ball on the floor, spun off his left shoulder and deftly dropped in a smoother runner. It was a moment showcasing his gifts and explosiveness. And it also illustrated what we’ve seen more and more of this season. He’s finding a bit of confidence and playing a lot looser. He’s actually sort of kind of aggressive at times.
10. Steven Adams (last week: 10)
As the trade deadline approaches, a naturally there’s going to be some questions about how could get dealt, and most are going to start with Perk.
But ask yourself this: As excellent as Adams has been this season, do you really feel good going into the playoffs with the potential of facing the Rockets and Dwight Howard, the Blazers and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs and Tim Duncan, or even Roy Hibbert and the Pacers, with Adams are your starting center?
I don’t think there’s any question that Adams has shown he will eventually be the Thunder’s starting 5, and that day could be sooner than later. But in terms of this season in isolation, he’s not ready for it. He’s just a rookie, remember.
11. Hasheem Thabeet (last week: 11)
Is it just me, or does Thabeet have terrific clapping form?
Inactive: Andre Roberson, Russell Westbrook