One week into the NBA season and we already have plenty of surprises and storylines from around the league. Nik Stauskas is an early all-star lock. The Nuggets look like they might be the best regular season team ever and Nikola Jokic looks like he might be the best player ever after notching a 30-point, perfect from the field (11-11 shooting) triple-double. Luka Doncic, DeAndre Ayton and Trae Young are three future MVP winners in the making.
Obviously, those are overreactions, but hot takes like these and the events that inspire them are a big part of what makes the NBA so enjoyable. Thankfully though, there are plenty of things about basketball that are less subjective. For instance, there are only two remaining winless teams in the Western Conference. Both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers, two of the hottest preseason picks to be playoff locks, are 0-3 as of Tuesday evening.
While the general idea here can apply to L.A. (that they’re bad at shooting) the Thunder’s issues are much more obvious and also less expected, which is why they are a much more interesting team to analyze. So what exactly is going on in OKC?
What is the problem?
In a word, shooting is the issue for OKC. Or more precisely, a lack thereof. Oklahoma City came out in their first game of the season without former MVP Russell Westbrook or 2018 DPOY candidate Andre Roberson and sort of held their own against Golden State. It was a loss on the road 100-108. The team fought hard and looked like they were really ready to get after it this season with a scrappier, younger, more athletic squad since the divulsion of Carmelo Anthony from the roster. Instead, they went on to get creamed by the Clippers in game 2 and let the Sacramento Kings score 131 points on them in their home opener, which was also the game that Russell Westbrook made his return. It’s not been a hot start for OKC.
Their offense has generated shots and free throws at a decent clip, but converting those chances into points is a different story. The league averages for Free Throw, Field Goal and 3-point percentages are 75.7%, 45.5% and 35.8 %, respectively. The Thunder’s team averages in those same categories are 66.7%, 39% (!), and 23.9% (!!!). If you’re unfamiliar with those kinds of numbers in NBA basketball then let me help you out; those are BAD.
Russ has only been back for one game so, while we’re quick to critique his play, it’s tough this early in. Outside of him, Paul George is really the only player on the roster who is playing generally positive basketball. He has the best 3-point percentage on the team (32%, which is still bad for a player of his caliber) outside of Hamidou Diallo and Deonte Burton who are both 1-of-2 from behind the arc this year.
And finally, with the extended absence of Andre Roberson due to injury, the Thunder have had to fill in that spot in the starting line up with a player who was originally slated for a rotational role. They chose young Terrance Ferguson as the beneficiary of that open slot. Unfortunately for T-Ferg and the Thunder, it seems that getting starting responsibilities is a little too much for him. He’s shooting 1-11 from the 3-point line and is 25% from inside the arc, which makes his effective FG percentage 16.7%. Once again, BAD. No one can play in the NBA, let alone start, if you’re making less than 20% of your shots.
And while this is slightly tougher to quantify, especially since Westbrook has played one game and Roberson has played none, the defense isn’t great either. It’s more of an eye-test on the defensive end for this team, and the eye-test says that effort is lacking. It feels like the Thunder are just getting out-hustled, out-schemed, and out-performed every night on both sides of the ball and it shows in the wins column.
How Do They Overcome?
There seem to be two major things that the Thunder must do in order to start turning this around. The first is just to stay healthy. The Thunder could be this year’s “get hot right before the playoffs and win 12 straight” team. Last year it took them about two months to really get rolling and just before Roberson got hurt they looked like a force to be reckoned with as they were one of the few teams with a top 10 offense AND defense. Once he’s back, if the Thunder can avoid truly blowing it these first two months of this season, they could be in good shape to knock off a team like the Nuggets or Jazz in the first round of the playoffs.
But first, they have to get there. And a 0-3 start in a LOADED Western Conference means their margin of error is smaller than maybe it would be for a team in their position in the east. The immediate solution is to reallocate minutes between Diallo, Ferguson and Abrines.
It’s clear that Ferguson can’t handle the starting spot right now. His confidence is down as evidenced by his offensive numbers and he’s never been a good defender. He’s not physical and even though he’s done well off the bench in the past, defending a starting NBA guard is a whole different ballgame than guarding a backup.
Abrines is bigger and marginally stronger, he’s currently shooting better than Ferguson, and can play better defense. His defense isn’t great by any means, sure, but he’s had his share of impressive defensive possessions and last year made a big leap on that side of the ball. If Abrines gets Ferguson’s minutes, Ferguson gets Diallo’s minutes, and Diallo gets Ferguson’s minutes then those players will all be in roles better suited for them and that help to balance the team more throughout the course of a game.
Side note: Are we sure part of the problem isn’t Billy Donovan? That can be an article of its own for a later date perhaps.
The good news for OKC is that they have an easy excuse in that the players who establish their offensive and defensive identities, Westbrook and Roberson, are not up to speed. The bad news is that a healthy Roberson does not mean a sudden resurgence in shooting capabilities. He’s a notoriously bad shooter himself so it would almost certainly need to be a return to DPOY candidate-type form for him if the Thunder are to make a push without adding a shooter.
There is one crucial factor that we’ve failed to mention thus far and that’s because, really, this is the obvious cause of the Thunder’s woes. They are 0-3 this season, which is a coincidence because they are also 0-3 since the retirement of Hair Jordan himself, Mr. Nick Collison. It’s not shocking that you lose a couple of games after the first guy who will have his jersey retired at the Chesapeake arena in OKC decides to hang it up. So problem solved?
Look, its a long road ahead for OKC and there are outcomes ranging all the way from a top-4 playoff seed to missing the playoffs entirely. Who would have thought a team that isn’t healthy and has trouble scoring would be 0-3? Some things in this world you just can’t predict.