The Curious Case of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the "Now This is Going to be Fun" Lakers
After 19 games, the Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit at 8-11, currently tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the ninth seed in the Western Conference. Coming into the season, many had high hopes for the Thunder, as they had made several big moves in the offseason, which included bringing in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Russell Westbrook re-signed on a massive contract on Kevin Durant’s birthday to show his commitment to stay in Oklahoma City for the long haul. With all of those moves, the Thunder looked to be in a position to contend in the very tough Western Conference this year. However, if the season ended today, the Thunder wouldn’t be in the playoffs.
On paper, the Thunder should be a great team, they have the reigning MVP coming off a season where he averaged a triple-double, and he did that without the help of any other all-star caliber player on the team. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are both significantly better shooters than Russell Westbrook, but he is the best finisher of the trio. That pairing could have the potential to create a lot of open looks for Carmelo and PG. If Russell Westbrook can drive to the hoop, and grab the attention of the defense, he could kick the ball out to the perimeter and the Thunder’s shooters would have open looks from the perimeter.
This however, is not how the Thunder have been playing to this point. The Thunder have relied primarily on playing isolation basketball, where the ball will find one of the big three, and they will dribble the air out of the ball and launch a shot at the end of the shot clock. I think that there is one player to blame for this, and it is Russell Westbrook. Now, as a Warriors’ fan, I am not a big fan of Russell Westbrook, but I am going to try and be as unbiased as possible about this. Westbrook’s style of play from the last year created an atmosphere of selfishness and stat-padding. While he did average a triple-double, it is widely accepted that the Thunder would manufacture ways to get him to 10 rebounds and 10 assists each game, and he essentially tried to run a one-man show throughout the whole season, which resulted in a usage rate of 41.7%, which was the highest in the league by over 7%. Now, Russell Westbrook is third in usage rate, behind James Harden and D’Angelo Russell, but with the addition of two other superstars, his usage rate should be a lot lower.
To Russell Westbrook’s credit, he has done a good job at making sure that Carmelo Anthony and Paul George are getting nearly as many shots as he gets. They all attempt between 18.9 and 16.8 shots per game, but the problem with that is, Russell Westbrook is taking the most shots per game, at 18.9. This season, Westbrook has the lowest FG% of all three of the stars, with 40.1%, including just 31.4% from three. Throughout all three of the big three’s career, Russell Westbrook has the lowest FG% and the lowest 3pt%, yet he continues to take more shots than the other two stars on his team. There have been several occasions where, in the closing minutes of games, Westbrook will get tunnel vision, and will just chuck up threes instead of distributing the ball to his teammates, who are much better shooters than he is.
Of course, this season is still relatively young, and the Thunder still have 63 games to adapt and become the best version of themselves, but this team is starting to feel a lot like the 2012-2013, “Now This is Going to be Fun” Los Angeles Lakers. That Laker team went out in the offseason and added Dwight Howard, who was one of the best players in the league, and Steve Nash, a two-time MVP. Those two would pair up with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in an attempt to get Kobe Bryant his sixth NBA championship. That team ended being the seventh seed in the Western Conference, and got swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs. The team ultimately broke apart and the Lakers began a period of prolonged atrociousness.
Through 19 games, the 2012-13 Lakers were 9-10, so they were slightly better than the current OKC Thunder, but some of their team statistics are eerily similar. Throughout the Lakers’ whole season, their collective eFG% (effective field goal percentage), was 51.2, and right now, the Thunder’s eFG% is 50.2%. In fact, most of the advanced stats between the two teams are either nearly identical or very close.
I think that the Thunder have the potential to be a very good team, but have been bogged down primarily by the play of Russell Westbrook, and another indicator of how Westbrook’s play style hampers the ability of his teammates is the performance of his former teammates, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, on their new team, the Indianapolis Pacers.
Throughout the entire 2016-17 season, people felt sorry for Russell Westbrook, primarily because Kevin Durant left him to come to Golden State. According to twitter, last year Russell Westbrook’s teammates were garbage, and Westbrook was basically playing with a bunch of scarecrows. This offseason, when Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were traded for Paul George, the whole world thought that the Thunder basically stole Paul George. 19 games into the season though, it’s looking like the Pacers might have actually got the better end of the deal. This year, Victor Oladipo is averaging 23 points per game, 7.1 points more than he did last year on OKC. He is shooting 47.4% from the field this year, after shooting 44.2% from the field last year. Most impressively though, his 3pt% has skyrocketed to 46.2%, a full 10% higher than last year, when he shot 36.1%. Domantas Sabonis has also been incredible, averaging 13.3 points per game on 55.8% shooting, while also shooting 45.5% from deep. Last year on the thunder, he averaged 5.9 points per game on 39.9% shooting, while shooting 32.1% from three. The most impressive part about Sabonis’ game this year is that he is also only playing five more minutes per game than he did last year. These two guys playing extremely are definitive evidence that Russell Westbrook’s play style hampers his players around them, and why the Thunder will ultimately end up being disappointing this season.