After two easy weekend victories over bottom-feeding Western Conference foes*, the Oklahoma City Thunder occupy first place in the Northwest Division. Their 8-3 record ties them with Miami for sixth-best in the NBA, while their plus-6.5 point differential trails only the Knicks, Clippers, and Grizzlies.
*110-95 over the Hornets on Friday, 119-109 over the Warriors on Sunday
The reigning Western Conference champions are obviously off to a decent start in the year 1 A.J.H. (After James Harden), and yet some knowledgeable folks grumble that the team is underachieving.
It is time to more closely examine some early trends in OKC, in hopes of reaching a firm conclusion about where the Thunder is headed. Beginning with the positive . . .
The Leader: Kevin Durant’s scoring average has dropped a full 3.5 points per game off of last season’s pace, alarming some of his devoted fans. Those worrywarts need to look a little closer.
Durant’s always-accurate shooting has jumped a level since last season (49.6% to 51.2% from the field, 38.7% to 44.4% on threes, 86.0% to 88.7% from the foul line). His rebounding average has jumped by 25% despite no increase in his minutes played. His assists, steals, and blocks are all at career-high rates, while he is fouling less than ever (just 1.3 infractions per game). He recorded his first career triple-double against the Warriors on Sunday, but more are coming if this well-rounded attack continues.
Durant still scores easily when needed, but his commitment to contributing in other areas should serve as an inspiration to every talented young superstar.
The Floor General: Russell Westbrook still takes too many ill-advised three-pointers (connecting on just 27.9% of his 4.3 attempts per game), and his scoring/shooting numbers have plummeted.
Thinking fans should take a moment, though, to appreciate Westbrook’s growth as a floor leader. He has already seemingly run more perfect pick-and-rolls in 11 games this year than in his previous career combined. The numbers offer proof: he is putting up a career-high 8.5 assists per game, after averaging just 5.5 last season with the same playing time.
The X Factor: Serge Ibaka’s increased confidence has shown itself clearly in his offensive improvement. This blog has expressed skepticism about his oft-ballyhooed marksmanship in the past, but he has exploded as a shooter/scorer this season. His midrange accuracy has more than doubled since last season, leading to a hugely improved scoring rate and skyrocketing shooting percentages.
The Thunder’s three most important players have shown obvious signs of maturation after the crushing disappointment of the 2012 NBA Finals. Why, then, are pundits worried?
The Competition: OKC’s three losses include two against teams that may stand in their way en route to this year’s Finals. The Thunder lost a heartbreaker to San Antonio on Opening Night, and the Grizzlies administered them a thorough pounding last Wednesday. They’ve beaten their lesser opponents, but quality teams have exposed a few weaknesses.
The Lineup: Devoted 82games.com readers know that the Thunder starting lineup is among its least effective five-man units. The most potent groups include Durant at power forward alongside Nick Collison or Serge Ibaka and three perimeter players. This shouldn’t be so difficult, but Scott Brooks seems determined to keep things traditional.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.