The Oklahoma City Thunder are 0-3. On Sunday, the team got Russell Westbrook back after a minor offseason knee procedure. That didn’t keep the Thunder from losing at home to the then-winless Kings while giving up 131 points. Even in a season with some wild scoring numbers early on, giving up 131 points to the Kings at home is a real bad sign.
How worried should the OKC faithful be?
Well, we’re three games in, and the former MVP on the roster has played one game. Patience is a good plan here.
Overall, the Thunder’s defense hasn’t been out of line with the league as a whole. OKC is giving up 110 points per 100 possessions so far, which would normally be among the league’s worst marks, but is actually average (16th) right now. Where the Thunder have fallen way short is on offense. OKC ranks No. 30 in the league in offensive efficiency despite dropping 120 in Sunday’s loss to Sacramento.
That won’t hold: the Thunder had a top-10 offense in 2017-18, and likely upgraded on that end by removing miscast Carmelo Anthony and adding Dennis Schroder. Westbrook’s return just put OKC’s offense back on track — that combo feature him and Paul George is deadly in a way that units featuring just one of the two are not. George proved to be a great fit with Westbrook on offense last season because his lack of ball-dominance requires Russ to spend less time off the ball (where he’s not particularly useful). Once Westbrook is back into the flow, Oklahoma City’s offense should be back near the best in the league.
That defense probably isn’t going anywhere until Andre Roberson gets back, however.
The Thunder had a top-10 defense through the All-Star break last season. In fact, OKC was one of the best teams in the league by point differential despite an underwhelming record (33-26).
But Roberson went down for good at the end of January with a knee injury, and the numbers reflected how deeply his absence was felt. Even as OKC held on in the standings, the defense fell to No. 14 after the All-Star break, reflecting the team’s sudden lack of a second top-line perimeter defender. Given the defensive limitations of Westbrook, Melo, and the parade of wing replacements, losing Roberson took away what had been one of the team’s strengths.
Roberson might be back in December — he was expected to be back sooner, but suffered a setback during training camp. Second-year wing Terrance Ferguson, OKC’s starter at the two-guard through three games, has been an outright disaster so far, shooting 2-15 from the floor on the season and getting roasted by Iman Shumpert on Sunday. He has more fouls than points right now. It’s early, but he wasn’t all that good last year either.
It’s hard to ignore how much better the post-Roberson Thunder were with Alex Abrines playing with the starters than they were with Ferguson last year. (Abrines left Sunday’s game against the Kings after getting elbowed in the mouth). There are two real reasons to use Ferguson as a starter over Abrines: because you believe the reps will help unlock Ferguson’s potential quickly, and because you need Abrines’ shooting ability with the second unit.
But if the current output keeps up, that needs to be revisited. Even if it means starting Jerami Grant over Patrick Patterson to add shooting from a different position to the second unit, Ferguson is quickly becoming untenable.
Billy Donovan never found a perfect starting lineup in 2017-18 because he was unwilling to bring Carmelo off the bench. Now there’s no possible perfect starting lineup with Roberson’s extended absence. That seems destined to cap OKC’s interim defense at average at best. In that case, given that Ferguson isn’t a capable defender as of yet, it would make sense to elevate Abrines to at least get that offense fully on track, assuming Abrines’ issue isn’t serious.
But beyond tinkering at that position and giving Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot a look, there’s not a whole lot the Thunder can do but wait for the offense to come uncorked under Westbrook’s watch and hope for the best with Roberson’s recovery. There’s no sense in panicking now. If this keeps up another week or two? Then you panic.
What that means for the team — A coaching change? A desperate trade attempt involving Steven Adams? — is anyone’s guess.