Finally, after 196 grueling days in anticipation of the most critical season in Thunder history, the NBA season begins anew. Finally, we get to breakdown Billy Donovan’s substitution patterns. Finally, we get to debate whether Dion Waiters can make the leap from talented prospect to reliable contributor. Finally, we get to see whether Enes Kanter learned how to play defense. Finally, we can truly move on from the injury-debacle known as last season. And finally, we get to watch the Thunder play real basketball in games that matter.
- Win vs. the San Antonio Spurs, 112-106 on October 28
- Win at the Orlando Magic, 139-136 (2 OT) on October 30
- Win vs. the Denver Nuggets, 117-93 on November 1
- Loss at the Houston Rockets, 105-110 on November 2
THE BEST PLAYER
Russell Westbrook. Last season, Westbrook had a career-season, the type of season that merited serious and substantial MVP consideration. Four games in, and Westbrook is picking up exactly where he left off, as the Thunder’s best player.
In year’s past, Westbrook was notoriously inefficient, taking over games by sheer force of will and unmatched athleticism (oh, and volume). But so far this year, Westbrook has been incredibly efficient. He’s shooting 52% from the floor, 38% from three, and 84% from the line, with a stellar TS% of 61% (which would be, by far, the highest of his career). Importantly, half of Westbrook’s shots have come at the rim, and he’s converting those shots at a 61% clip. Really, if not for Steph Curry scorching the earth with a blowtorch, Westbrook would have a strong case for player with the best start to the season.
THE WORST PLAYER
Kyle Singler. Donovan seems to really like Singler. After a DNP to start the season, Singler averaged 16 minutes over the next three games. Singler repaid Donovan’s confidence with his best Perry Jones impression–that is, being on the basketball court but making little positive impact. Representative of Singler’s struggles, NBA.com’s advanced metric called PIE (player impact estimate) gave Singler a negative 6.5 for his efforts. When your shooting splits are 17/20/50 with a TS% of 23%, math is probably going to brand you with a negative label.
What is most perplexing is that Donovan has favored Singler over Anthony Morrow. Donovan has said that he likes Singler’s versatility, that he can play the 3 or 4 when the Thunder go small, but it’s frustrating to see one of the NBA’s best sharpshooters getting the 10th-man treatment, while Singler, who still hasn’t remembered he used to be able to shoot the basketball, gets the lion-share of the backup SF minutes. But I digress.
For fun, though, I’ve included this GIF of Singler getting his alley-oop attempt thwarted by Kenneth Faried. Wait, what? Singler alley-oop?
Honorable mention: Kyle Singler’s hair. Seriously, I have no clue what you call that haircut. In my most introspective moments, I like to imagine the conversations that Singler has with his barber. “Hello, barber. I’d like a new look for the season.” “What do you have in mind?” (Singler shows the barber a hand-drawn sketch of his current cut.) “Is this real life?”
THE BEST PERFORMANCE
Russell Westbrook vs. the Magic. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wills his team to victory like Westbrook. At the start of the fourth quarter against the Magic, the Thunder trailed by 18 points. Westbrook then went on to shoot 5-5 from the field, including the biggest three pointer of the night, a heave from near half-court that tied the game with less than 1 second left. Westbrook followed up his fourth-quarter barrage by scoring 14 of the Thunder’s 22 total points in the two overtime frames, giving the Thunder just enough to edge the spunky Magic, 139-136.
Oh, and just for posteriety’s sake, Westbrook’s line for that night? A cool 48 points in 48 minutes to go along with 11 rebounds and 8 assists.
THE WORST PERFORMANCE
Billy Donovan vs. the Rockets. I feel weird giving this dubious distinction to the coach, but the first four games of the year hasn’t really instilled a lot of confidence that Donovan has corrected the issues that plagued the Thunder last season, namely turnovers and poor defense. Moreover, Donovan is still tinkering with rotations, to the point that a large number of humans in the northern hemisphere were wondering what exactly Donovan was doing against the Rockets; his most glaring crime leaving Morrow on the bench when the offense stagnated in the second half. But that wasn’t Donovan’s only sin. Donovan left DJ Augustin to waste possession after possession on the offensive side (while getting burned on the defensive side) for far too long while Westbrook sat with four fouls. (Augustin had 4 of his 6 turnovers in the second half). And he didn’t adjust to the Rockets dictating the match-ups by forcing a switch so that Harden got his choice of dance partners (be that Singler or Serge Ibaka).
It’s far too early to draw any conclusions on Donovan, but I definitely got the sense that he was uncertain how to handle the Rockets’ guard-heavy lineups. Like former coach Scott Brooks, Donovan relied on switching on every screen. The problem is that a player like Harden, who has the ability to create effortlessly in isolation, will exploit those switches time and time again. When the Rockets are getting exactly the match-up they want, maybe it’s time to rethink the plan of switching by default. But, hey, we’re four games in to the season. Let’s just not let this happen again, okay?
Dishonorable mention: Thunder’s ability to protect the ball against the Rockets (and Spurs, and Nuggets, and Magic). Through four games, the Thunder are averaging 21 turnovers per game. (Consider last year the Thunder averaged 15 per game). That’s good (err, bad) enough for most in the league. The turnover-terror reached epic proportions against the Rockets with 24 turnovers, including 9 (nine, people, NINE!) in the third quarter alone.
THE BEST PLAY
Russell Westbrook’s putback dunk.
There are no words. Wait, scratch that, there are a ton of words that could apply, but let’s just be succinct and call it the best play of the week.
THE WORST PLAY
Representative bad Thunder defense.
I mentioned the defense has been lacking, right? Well Exhibit A is this head scratching play against the Magic. I can only assume that the team was so engaged in doing absolutely nothing, that no one had the capacity to pay attention to Tobias Harris wide open in the paint.
WEEK IN PREVIEW
- Vs. the Toronto Raptors on November 4, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. CT (FSOK)
- At the Chicago Bulls on November 5, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. CT (TNT)
- Vs. Phoenix Suns on November 8, 2015 at 6:00 p.m. CT (FSOK)
Follow John Napier on twitter at @ajohnnapier.