Last Sunday was the first of ABC's showcase Sunday matinees, which will usually feature the most well-known teams in the league. Three of the teams featured last Sunday are ones even a non-NBA fan knows. The L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics are the reigning conference champions, and they're also the Lakers and the Celtics. The Miami Heat obviously have LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, which makes them possibly the most recognizable team of the decade among non-NBA fans.
The fourth team is one that was barely on national TV last season: the Oklahoma City Thunder. In their introduction to a true national audience, the Thunder gave casual fans the kind of thrills they've been providing diehards for the past year and a half. But the game -- a 108-103 loss to Miami where the Thunder's offense, especially Kevin Durant, stalled in the second half -- was also a microcosm of what has become more and more clear. Oklahoma City is thrilling, but they're also not quite at the point where they can be taken seriously as an elite team.
The Thunder are a good team, don't get me wrong. At 30-17, they are on pace to win 52 games, and they are in good position to win the Northwest Division with the problems the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets are having. But when you think about whether they have cured the issues that bugged them last season, the answer doesn't appear to be yes.
There have been positive developments, of course. Namely, Russell Westbrook, who may be the most underrated player in the game. Westbrook has upped his passing, learned how to get to the free-throw line like a superstar (8.3 attempts/game), improved his scoring efficiency (a four-point jump in his true shooting percentage) and remains an elite on-ball defender. Westbrook showed flashes in the past, but he's put it all together this year, giving the Thunder the two stars they need as a foundation.
On a team level, though, the Thunder are having their issues. For one thing, their record is a bit deceiving. The Thunder's point differential is just +1.5, which puts them down at 11th in the league. They have outperformed their point differential largely on the strength of a 13-6 record in games decided by five points or less, which is nice, but tends to be caused by luck more than anything. Those 13 wins, naturally, include ones over the Pistons, Bucks, Nets, Warriors, Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki, Knicks and Timberwolves, not to mention a double-overtime seven-point home win over the Wizards on Friday, a team that hasn't won a road game all season. If we're projecting to the future, point differential, a stat that predicts the future better than any other stat, doesn't look too kindly on the Thunder.
For another, they've regressed defensively, which is a huge problem. The hallmark of the 2009-10 Thunder was a stifling pressure defense that overwhelmed you with athleticism and made it so help defenders had less ground to cover due to their collective length. The Thunder finished ninth in the league in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions (104.6), and they were even higher most of the year until a late-season swoon. This season, though, the Thunder have tumbled all the way to 17th (108.6), despite having pretty much the same players. The Heat scored 111.3 points per 100 possessions on Sunday, dominating in particular down the stretch.
In particular, the Thunder are soft down low. As Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated noted yesterday, the Thunder are letting teams get into the paint for easy buckets. No team surrenders more shot attempts right at the rim, and teams convert on those attempts at a percentage above the league average. This is not all that different from last year, when the Thunder surrendered the third-most shot attempts at the rim. What is different, though, is that the Thunder are overcompensating and leaving shooters wide open. Via Lowe:
The Thunder rank 24th in points allowed per possession on spot-up looks; they ranked fourth last season, according to the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports. You can often spot the Thunder over-helping from the perimeter, in part because of some bad habits and in part because the help is necessary due to mismatches inside (those maddening switches) and shaky pick-and-roll defense.
There's no way you're competing with the big boys when you can't defend the rim and also surrender too many open assisted perimeter shots. It's almost as if the league has caught on to the Thunder's pressure defense and has adjusted accordingly. Now, it's time for Oklahoma City to adjust.
Finally, many of the supporting players just haven't taken the next step. Durant and Westbrook are brilliant, and the Thunder also has two solid reserve big men in the reliable Nick Collison and the high-flying Serge Ibaka (though Ibaka was heavily criticized by his coach for his performance against Miami). It's also not like the supporting players are bad players either -- Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden and Eric Maynor make up a better cast of complimentary players than many other teams possess.
But despite their youth, they haven't really gotten better from last year. Harden continues to be an efficient scorer, but he's been invisible far too often, with a usage rate (17.5 percent) that is more the kind you see from role players who don't have his shot-making talent. Some of that is playing more with Durant and Westbrook, but a lot of that is because he isn't getting to his spots on the floor as easily. On a team that needs a third scorer, Harden needs to be more trigger-happy. Sefolosha and Maynor continue to be self-checks from the perimeter, with Sefolosha in particular somehow shooting worse from all perimeter shooting distances than he did last year. Thabo's defense is helpful, but he gives just as much back, if not more, if he can't shoot.
And then, there's Jeff Green. Green has a good reputation, because he's a favorite of Durant's and because he's a guy who has no ego and plays out of position. But he also hasn't improved one iota in three years, and in fact, may be silently killing the team. Green's shooting, which should be his saving grace, has been horrendous this year. He's down to 28 percent from three-point range, and has an effective field goal percentage (which weighs threes) of 46.8 percent this season, both way worse that what he's posted in the past.
If he's not shooting well, what exactly is Green doing? He's certainly not rebounding, that's for sure. There are 47 forwards (not just power forwards, mind you) that currently play over 30 minutes a game, and only nine of them grab a lower percentage of available rebounds than Green. Those nine? Carlos Delfino, Danilo Gallinari, Rashard Lewis, Richard Jefferson, Danny Granger, Dorell Wright, Hedo Turkoglu, Tayshaun Prince and Travis Outlaw. All of those players, with the possible exception of Lewis at times, are small forwards. That makes Green the worst rebounder among all players who get big minutes at power forward.
Maybe he's doing the little things that helps teams win, then? Well, not exactly, at least when it comes to things that help his team on the court. Only one of the Thunder's best three lineups that has played at least 60 minutes together this season includes Green in it. Last year, the Thunder's top two lineups that played at least 60 minutes together also didn't include Green. Green's two-year adjusted plus/minus, which accounts for how well your team does with you on the court as compared to with you off it, adjusted for quality of competition, is an abysmal -8.11. In general, the Thunder have been average with Green out there and spectacular with him on the bench. Plus/minus data is noisy, but this is Year 2 of a trend.
The Thunder are ultimately in a tough spot, with both Green and the state of their team. Green is a free agent, and the Thunder have to weigh several factors when making up their mind. Do they keep him and risk dooming themselves to below-average performance at a key spot on the floor, or do they lose him and risk pissing off Durant and their entire culture of youth? It's a tough question, and one they can't really solve into the offseason.
In the meantime, Oklahoma City needs to strongly consider a trade for more size. They have the luxury of letting their young core develop, but time flies in this league, as the Portland Trail Blazers can tell you. Right now, the Thunder have two of the best players in the league, and their interior defense needs a massive improvement to take advantage of that top-level talent. The Thunder have assets beyond their rotation players (Cole Aldrich, Morris Peterson's expiring contract and first-round picks), and it's time they use those to make an upgrade to win now.
Until they do, they're stuck in the same spot they were last year: entertaining and dangerous, but ultimately, not good enough to hang with the big boys.
Stan Van Gundy Face of the Week
This is clearly a capture in the middle of Van Gundy making a different face, but it's also fitting given the loss the Magic suffered on Monday to the Grizzlies. Stan doesn't even want to watch the way the game ends, and I don't blame him.
Other shots of the week
Anthony Tolliver has a strange way of celebrating big shots.
The Wizards are now 0-24 on the road, and this picture of coach Flip Saunders gazing to the sky is pretty symbolic of how much despair he and the team is facing right now.
This needs some Romance on the Hardwood captioning, y'all.
Kobe seems very impressed by the graphic to the left.
DeMarcus Cousins is a mysterious young man. He gives boring, snarling post-game interviews in one breath, then gives Kings color commentator Jerry Reynolds a birthday kiss on the cheek in the next breath. My favorite part of this shot is Grant Napear's reaction on the right.
Maybe this is why Jim O'Brien was fired.
Eddie House with a horrible rendition of Sam Cassell's Big Balls dance.
That's what bloody KG looks like.
John Wall loves the snacks.