One of the biggest winners of the off-season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have stumbled to an 8-12 record through the first quarter of the regular season.
GM Sam Presti rebuilt the Russell Westbrook-centric roster from last season by trading for weapons in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The team also signed veteran bench players like Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson to stabilize the second-team.
With all the changes, this iteration of the Oklahoma City Thunder should not be below .500. What issues have the Thunder faced so far, and are they fixable?
The Current Woes of the Oklahoma City Thunder
Overall Thunder Offense
Through 20 games, the Thunder have the league’s 22nd-ranked offense rating (102.6 points per 100 possessions). Their defense is ranked third overall; OKC is only allowing 100.2 points per 100 possessions. By using these two figures, OKC has a net rating of 2.4, good for eighth overall.
With a stifling defense and a high net rating, the numbers look as if the Thunder are on pace to win around 50 games as they were projected to by most media outlets. OKC would have to go 42-20 to reach 50 wins.
However, the offense, at this juncture, is not good enough to rack up wins.
The new big three in OKC (Russ, PG, Melo) attempts a total of 53.1 shots a game and 20 three-pointers. On these shots, these three post an overall percentage of just 41.6% from the floor while shooting well on threes (37.5%).
OKC starts Steven Adams and Andre Roberson at the other two spots. Adams is a good pick-and-roll player but does not offer much outside the lane. Roberson, a lockdown defender, provides next to nothing on the offensive end.
The entire team ranks 28th in field goal percentage and 25th in three-point percentage. The offense revolves around isolation play from the stars, as the Thunder average 20.8 assists a night (25th in NBA).
The league defines “clutch-time” as less than five minutes to go with the score within five points. The Thunder have been horrendous in clutch situations this season in a sample of 37 minutes. In 10 games that have come down to clutch time, OKC is 1-9.
On offense, the Thunder drop from 102.6 to 96.5 points per 100 possessions. Even with this regression, OKC only moves from 22nd to 23rd on offense, so the drop-off is not precipitous.
Their shooting percentages, however, do take a nosedive. The Thunder are shooting only 36.1% from the floor and 21.2% from three in clutch situations, both in the bottom-7 of the league.
The weirdest part of these issues is that the Thunder defense hemorrhages points in close games. In clutch minutes this year, OKC gives up 138.7 points per 100 possessions(!!!!!), dead last in the league. Compare that number to the 100.2 points they allow overall, and the issues become clear.
The clutch net rating of -42.2 ranks only above the hapless (and obviously tanking) Dallas Mavericks.
What Is Really Happening
Effectively, OKC allows opponents to parade to the free throw line in clutch situations by fouling at an unreal rate. Per 100 possessions, OKC gives up 22.4 free throw attempts in a regular game. In the clutch, that number balloons to 65.1 attempts per 100 possessions.
All those extra fouls allow teams to take advantage of OKC’s tentative defense late in games. Opposing teams shoot almost eight percent better from the field in the clutch when compared to what the Thunder give up overall.
Teams turn the ball over less in the clutch as well because OKC cannot be as aggressive on the defensive end.
What Can The Thunder Do?
Honestly, there are some real issues that could linger all season. The team plays an iso-centric attack that allows the game to become stagnant. Coach Billy Donovan should do all that he can to incorporate more ball-movement and off-ball action into the offense. The onus comes down to the players, however.
On defense, OKC has to find lineups that include enough positive contributions on both sides of the floor. The back end of the roster does not include much versatility; the team has to choose if they want a defense-only Roberson or an offensive-minded Alex Abrines. (Side note: a Roberson/Abrines hybrid would do amazing things for OKC’s struggles.)
With a positive net rating, the numbers say the OKC record will normalize at some point. However, there is some added noise in the numbers because the Thunder tend to have huge margins in their wins while losing close games.
No matter what happens with OKC, they will be a story. Either they gel and eliminate their late-game issues and surge to the top half of the West, or they struggle up until the All-Star break and complete chaos ensues at the trade deadline.
Pay close attention to the Thunder during the coming months. It is assured you will be entertained.