Inconsistency has become the theme of the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder.
By now the factors are well known. Paul George. Carmelo Anthony. New faces with different roles. The pieces that should flourish are flawed. The weaknesses that have surfaced have yet to be corrected to a satisfactory level.
Of course, we are only 30 percent into the season. There is ample time for a team led by the reigning MVP in Russell Westbrook to change this theme. The lowest expectation of optimism can be described as thus; at some point this team will realize it’s incredibly talented and start winning games.
While the Thunder have been inconsistent, strangely enough there are consistencies discovered when watching this team. The obvious strength lies with the defense. Oklahoma City has leaned on their length, athleticism and ability to out-physical most teams in order to win or stay in the majority of their games. Putting the defensive numbers in perspective paints a less optimistic picture.
While Oklahoma City’s defensive numbers for this particular season are impressive and elite, they are not special when looking at recent history, and even if they were, you are not winning a championship as a one-sided team in today’s NBA.
Currently, the Thunder rank second in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 101.3 behind the Boston Celtics at 101. Over the last 10 seasons, the Celtics’ current rating would rank dead-last of the previous teams who led the NBA in defensive rating in their respective seasons. Also in the previous 10 seasons, only two teams — the 2007-08 Celtics and the 2014-15 Warriors — both led the league in defensive rating and also won an NBA championship in the same season.
This is going to make a strong playoff run, let alone a shot at a NBA Finals, difficult.
The Warriors are great due to their flexibility, versatility and balance on both sides of the floor. Previous champions have had similar adjectives attached to their résumés. What the Thunder have is a great foundation. Something to depend upon while they tinker with the on-the-court chemistry and offense as a whole. However, if they want to hover around .500, then they can be dependent that their defense will keep them in almost every game. That is not the goal.
So what needs to change?
That’s simple: The offense needs to not only improve but become substantially better. What can they possibly do?
The options have been floating around ever since Anthony chuckled at The Oklahoman’s Erik Horne and replied, “Who, me?” at a question insinuating that the former New York Knick might come off the bench at Thunder Media Day. Would Anthony as a sixth-man actually improve Oklahoma City. The numbers make a case, albeit not exactly a home run case.
Billy Donovan has played lineups consisting of Westbrook and George without Anthony a total of 857:32 minutes this season. The Thunder are plus-5.1 points better when this happens. This fuels the thought that Oklahoma City and general manager Sam Presti were better served with only taking George in the offseason and forsaking a shot at Anthony.
Especially when you compare lineups of Westbrook and Anthony (only plus-1.4 better) and Anthony and George (pus-3.5). The Thunder are better without Anthony on the floor according to some numbers.
That thought process is flawed. Are the Thunder better with only Westbrook and George on the floor? Yes, but not by a wide enough margin to make serious improvements.
Anthony coming off the bench would not be the cure all Oklahoma City fans are looking for. You would then be asking Alex Abrines to improve his defense on the fly or take away Jerami Grant’s spark plug factor away from the reserve role that has become a positive for this team.
Trading away Anthony — when it is undetermined if you could get some quality assets in return to help this season — is not the answer either. If the Thunder are going to prevail from their dynamite summer, they have to work to win for this season first.
The true answer has always been the same. Get better. Both simple and difficult.
Little things like moving off the ball — something Westbrook and Anthony struggle with — to force the defense into mismatches. Feeding the hot hand — Anthony was on fire in Philadelphia before the Thunder let an 11-point lead with five minutes to go turn into a triple-overtime thriller; Anthony only took four more shots the rest of the game.
The difficult task is going to be the big three actually making it all happen.
If Oklahoma City is going to realize it’s potential, Anthony must remain in the starting lineup. A bench unit with Anthony leading the way would not fix the problem but continue its symptoms.
One time for those not paying attention. Oklahoma City has time to right the ship. They are winners of seven of their last ten outings and appear to be close to breaking through the .500 hurdle. They sit at the seventh seed in the West and are only two games back in the loss column to the Minnesota Timberwolves and the fourth seed.
This team has the talent to go on a tear. 7-3 in your last 10 games is difficult to navigate in the NBA. All it will take is another great 10 game stretch and there will be a different attitude surrounding this team.
It is all up to Westbrook, Anthony and George.We invite you to follow Thunder Digest on Twitter and like Thunder Digest on Facebook. Our Podcast is on iTunes. We also have a Thunder Digest Instagram account if you love fun Thunder photography!