- Thanks to a slightly reined-in Russell Westbrook, top-of-his-game Paul George, and budding supporting cast, the Thunder have been one of the best teams in the West. What does their current success mean for the rest of the season?
Only a few short months ago, the Jazz handed the Thunder an embarrassing first-round playoff defeat. Russell Westbrook descended into hero ball to try to save the series. Paul “Playoff P” George missed 17 of his last 21 threes. And life came at Carmelo Anthony incredibly fast. The roles were reversed Monday night. The Jazz came to Oklahoma City and were handed a sound defeat, as the conference-leading Thunder led wire-to-wire in a 122–113 victory. OKC is now 17–4 after its 0–4 start, and the team is looking better than it’s been at any point over the last three seasons.
The Thunder’s success starts on the defensive end. OKC has the No. 1 unit in the league on defense, with a starting five filled with athletes who are capable of harassing anyone at their position. Russ is Russ, meaning his gambles can be frustrating, but his activity helps lead to deflections and steals. George, Terrance Ferguson, and Jerami Grant give the Thunder length and switchability on the perimeter, with George especially shining among that group (more on him in a second.) And Steven Adams is a brick wall in the paint, while being nimble enough to guard most any pick-and-roll combination.
PG is not only the best defender on the team, he is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’s currently averaging 2.2 steals per game, and he’s in the jersey of the opponent’s best offensive player practically every night. OKC as a team has a 100.1 defensive rating whenever George is on the floor, which is better than its own league-leading mark of 101.6. While many players on the Thunder bring something to the floor defensively, George is the most fluid and most versatile. He can truly shut down multiple positions, and do so seemingly with ease. He’s simply indispensable on that end of the court, and he’s arguably the biggest catalyst for all of OKC’s success so far this season.
Offensively, the Thunder are middle of the road, but there are a couple encouraging signs. Let’s start there. George is averaging a career-high 8.9 three-point attempts per game, and connecting at a nearly 37% clip, that’s good. Overall, PG is averaging a career-high 24.3 points per game with a 51.6% effective field-goal percentage, great marks for a “secondary” superstar.
MAHONEY: First-Quarter NBA Awards
I was skeptical of OKC bringing back Jerami Grant to play the four, but he’s shined in that role. Grant is shooting 37.8% on catch-and-shoot threes this season, a significant improvement on the 29.4% he shot on those in 2018. Grant is also shooting about two more threes per game compared to last year. It’s a relatively small number, but every inch of space he adds gives more room to Westbrook in the paint.
Elsewhere, Dennis Schroder has been a volume if not necessarily efficient scorer off the bench, but he’s a welcome upgrade over Raymond Felton in that area. Schroder has also closed games, and OKC has a 119.2 offensive rating when him, PG, and Russ are all on the floor—while maintaining its elite defense. Terrance Ferguson is far from being a consistent three-point shooter, though he has stretches where he, uh, stretches the floor.
We haven’t talked much about Russ yet, and truthfully, he continues to serve as something of a Rorschach test. Everyone will look at his stats and draw their own conclusions. There are some positives, however. Westbrook is again averaging a triple-double, but his usage rate is at a three-year low, nearly 10 percentage points lower than it was in his first post-KD season. Westbrook is not to be confused with an efficient player, but his number of pull-up shots is also at a three-year low. Pull-up jumpers accounted for at least 50% of Westbrook’s field-goal attempts in the previous two seasons, now they only make up 40.4% of his shot profile. Russ is trading those jumpers for catch-and-shoots and more buckets within 10 feet, which is good.
Westbrook still shoots too much. Even while averaging his fewest field-goal attempts since his last year with KD, Russ can cut back. He’s converting a ghastly 21.8% of his threes, yet still chucking up 5.1 of them a game. Asking him to change is useless at this point, but Westbrook has made some strides since his martyrball MVP campaign, and the current version of him is more useful to a contender than the 2017 version.
The question I must ask now is, what does all this mean? Are the Thunder really one of the best teams in the West? Here’s where their success leaves me. The defense is legit, and should theoretically only get better if/when Andre Roberson finally returns to action. Last year, OKC’s defense fell apart without Roberson. So the Thunder have made a serious improvement on that end, with Grant being a huge upgrade over Melo in the starting unit. (Sorry for the stray, Melo.)
A top-flight defense can take you places, even with a so-so offense. Just look at last year’s Celtics. And the Thunder do have the offensive talent to hang around in a playoff series with George and Westbrook. But I don’t think this season is the time OKC will transform into a contender. The supporting cast is still very green, the outside shooting is too inconsistent, and Russ needs to be tied to a chair and forced to watch every single three he’s bricked through his first 17 games. Adams’s effectiveness varies when teams play small, and I’m not sure the Thunder have enough two-way players to counter faster, rangier lineups in the postseason.
The long-term outlook, however, is arguably more promising. The NBA is going to look completely different after next summer. Kevin Durant is almost definitely leaving the Warriors. Golden State will still be a force, but it’s unclear who else will be a part of the West’s politburo by then. The Thunder have a headstart with two superstars already locked in. Russ’s game is going to age fast, so the window is already small. But with a younger supporting cast than previous years and continued tinkering from its two best players, OKC seems to have built something sustainable. A lot of that hinges on Russ’s game not falling off a cliff, but that’s still a big step forward for a franchise that looked broken the last time we saw them in the playoffs.