Kiwi Steve in the NBA #17: The Many (Fixable) Problems with the OKC Thunder Right Now

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Last time it was a full on look at how Steven Adams has been tracking against the criticism that’s come back his way in recent times. Mostly from frustrated fans, to be fair. This time it’s all about why those fans are frustrated. Because you may recall a moment in history not completely forgotten in which the Thunder were hanging in there for the third seed in the west. Well, right now they’re looking set for seventh or eighth and that probably means the Warriors in round one and that probably means another first round exit in the post-Durant era.

Until beating the Raptors the other day (and then inexplicably losing to the Grizzlies), the Thunder had been on a four-game losing streak, going 5-10 out of the All Star break. It’s gotten them stuck in the murk of a five-team scrap for seeds 5-8 in the west. All five teams within three wins of each other: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Portland, Utah, and LA Clippers. It’s going to be ruthless from here on out. Every wasteful loss could be the one that ruins their chances of getting on a run in the playoffs. And right now the Thunder do not look like a team that can do much in the playoffs.

One thing that’s held them back is Paul George. Their MVP candidate, sure… but he’s also been dealing with issues to both shoulders and that’s never helping anyone. There’s no singular excuse for these things and I’m gonna go through a few of them but we have to start here because prior to the All Stars, Paul George was doing this:

36.3 MINS | 28.7 PTS | 45.9% FG | 40.6% 3PT | 119 ORtg | 105 DRtg

Since the All Stars he missed three games in the middle of the current bum stretch for the team, all the while he shot 36.8% from the field and 31.0% from deep in his first ten games out of the break. Scoring 26 PPG but with more shots, in more minutes, and with some significantly evened out Offensive and Defensive ratings.

The good news is that he’s stepped that up a fair bit in the last few games, particularly his 31 points against Miami, 28 against Toronto, and 30 against Miami - suggesting he’s working towards max health again and let me just say that OKC are 17-2 when PG shoots at better than 50%. Most of his worst shooting games have come away from home, however his best ones are nicely spread out across the country. When PG is at his peak, the Thunder win games. When he’s not… it’s pretty hard to figure out a plan b.

What’s concerning is that he did this last season too, on a lesser scale. Prior to the All Stars he was shooting a sizzling 43.2% from deep and afterwards he dropped to a fairly rubbish 32.4% from 3pt range. And even then he only got it back up that high because he finished well in April. Right now he’s legit playing through injury so dunno if you can call it a pattern but regardless OKC need to rediscover the pre-ASG version of Paul George pretty quick.

On the topic of three point shooting, the Thunder were bossing the perimeter in that second Toronto game. Shot 20/43 from the field… which is considerably more useful than the 13/43 they shot against the same opponents two nights earlier. Across the first month since the All Stars, the Thunder hit 32.1% of their triples across 15 games while allowing 37% back the other way. Only in two of those games did they make better than 40%, while they were held under 30% five times. In the 13 games before the All Stars they shot 41.9% from deep and allowed 33.9%. Think about that a second. It ain’t only Paul George… and it ain’t at all Steven Adams who wouldn’t shoot a three-pointer if your triple-double depended on it (that’s literally happened before). The whole team is in on this slump.

This is OKC in a nutshell this season. From the peaks to the valleys. The same is true of their defence which has worn a lot of jabs lately, but their points allowed average hasn’t really changed at all over the last few months. It’s their offence that has plummeted by an average of 12 points between the 13-2 run before the break and the 5-10 stretch out of it. They have days where they can’t seem to stop a bugger from first quarter to last and there were some words on the big fellas in the Steven Adams focus last Kiwi Steve article. But on the whole that’s not really been the thing that’s dooming them.

In fairness the schedule’s been tough. These last seventeen games have seen them come up against just four teams currently outside of the playoff picture, including seven games against teams currently staring at playoff home advantage. And it gets easier with this Memphis clunker in the rearview as the team begins a five-game home stand which should go a long way to deciding their playoff seeding. Six of eight remaining games are in Oklahoma. Only one remaining back-to-back and it’s their final game away in Milwaukee (the night after hosting Houston). With things as streaky as they have been a nice bulk of games at home against average teams could get OKC going again.

Then, of course, there’s Russell Westbrook. Old Rusty Buckets himself. Because with PG struggling, Russ has actually really stepped it up, shooting at an almost reasonable clip all of a sudden. The assists and rebounds take care of themselves with this guy. Steals as well. It’s his shooting that’s always been the question mark. The funny thing is that while Paul George was off killing it, Russ was shooting like they’d put a lid on the basket. Hence he’s trending towards his lowest PPG since 2013-14… but he’s leading the league in assists with 10.4 per game.

Yet since the break that assist figure has dropped to 7.9 as he’s taken (and made) more shots. Including 35.4% from 3pt range, which is extremely useful all of a sudden (and it’d be even better if he hadn’t gone 0/7 from range against the Warriors). He had been heading for some all-time dud figures from outside comparative to the rest of his game so this recent trend is very welcome. Granted, he’s shooting 64.6% from the free throw line since the break which means it’s ain’t a complete improvement.

And they’re not winning games with this version of Russ either, suggesting this shooting renaissance isn’t enough. Probably something to do with the role players tumbling backwards. Terrance Ferguson, Dennis Schroder, and Jerami Grant had been doing great things at the start of 2019. Here are the numbers for each from Jan 1 to ASG, and then since that point…

Ferguson: 47.4% FG | 43.9% 3P | 10.1 PPG vs 39.2% FG | 32.4% 3P | 6.8 PPG

Schroder: 44.4% FG | 44.3% 3P | 15.5 PPG vs 38.4% FG | 29.7% 3P | 15.4 PPG

Grant: 51.0% FG | 39.3% 3P | 14.3 PPG vs 44.8% FG | 40.6% 3P | 13.8 PPG

Decent from Grant, to be fair. He’s missing more from the mid-range but he’s kept the pace up from range. The other two are more concerning. Schroder’s been scoring lately, including 25 against Memphis, but he’s needing more shots to get to the same figures. Those post-ASG numbers are Russ numbers and there’s already one Russ on this team.

There’s some teething going on here as Billy Donovan really seems to be shrinking his rotation down to seven main guys. Those three plus the big three plus Markieff Morris who, since All Stars, is doing nothing interesting on offence but he’s still settling into the team, to be fair. He’ll be a crucial bench defender in the playoffs if it comes to that.

A casualty in there is Nerlens Noel which should come as a benefit for Steven Adams and his minutes. If Morris starts playing more as the backup centre then we’re looking at a tactical shift for more shooting rather than a straight backup centre trying to chew up on those limited mins. All the traditional five mins will be Steve’s. Noel will get his moments when the matchups are right but know that against the big sides it’s Steve who’ll be expected to play the bulk.

Gotta say too that none of this is affecting Kiwi Steve in the best way. He’s actually had a nice spell of games with really solid defensive numbers, getting multiple blocks in four of the last six and a fair few steals in the process. Yet his shooting numbers are just rank average. Started off missing five in a row in one of the Toronto games and he had a shocking 1/7 against Memphis. These are simply not things we see from this bloke. Add in his continuingly poor free throw shooting and it’s hard not to think that hand is still bothering him from way back. Or there’s been a flare up. Something’s going on because while these other factors are all contributing to the team slide, and while Adams’ defensive impact has been greatly underestimated along the way lately, his offensive game has been poor by his standards. He’s better than this. The Thunder are better than this too.

The good news is that they’ve proven that they all can do it. Every one of these recent slumps, you get one or two things trending back towards where they should be and they’ll all get into the swing again. Steven Adams included. Paul George is getting double teamed like crazy and other guys aren’t making shots. They start making shots and George will get more space to thrive. Shooters in general making shots give Adams more room to thrive. Westbrook too, who loves a dash to the bucket.

I know they’ve dropped off in defence too but you miss shots and you’re hit in transition with your lads not set, that’s always going to make it harder to keep teams from scoring. Much easier when they’re out in front of you, beginning possessions under the basket. The issue is more their horrific offensive efficiency (worst in the NBA since the All Star break according to The Ringer/Cleaning the Glass). But as with everything, it’s all linked. A minor adjustment in one area could have a major impact elsewhere.

Therefore gonna leave the last word with Kiwi Steve. This was after defeat to Miami Heat, with Westbrook suspended and Adams fouling out early…

The Oklahoman: “Just not disciplined stuff. That’s why they were getting a bunch of paint touches. A couple of miscommunications.”

Adams said the issues are correctible in the Thunder’s final 11 games before the playoffs. He explained Monday’s problem as so: If the power forward goes up to screen, the Thunder wants to switch defenders. If the screener slips and doesn’t screen in pick-and-roll, there’s no need for a switch. The Thunder was pre-switching. The issue was similar at times against Golden State on Saturday, only the Warriors were hitting the Thunder with passes through tiny windows in the air instead of gaping windows on bounce passes.

“They’ll hit that pass, get downhill, and it’s pretty much (expletive) from there. It’s that and small things. The small things lead to layups and paint points. We’ve got to clean them up. It’s not like we’ve got no chance to clean it up. It’s fixable.”

That’s it right there. Lots of little things like that. All fixable. There’s plenty going wrong at the moment but it’s all fixable. Just gotta, you know… fix them.


Old Man Thunder

Okay then, let’s get reminiscent of the good times now. When a team retires a jersey number, you know that number was worn by somebody special. Somebody who probably made numerous All Star games, who won multiple championships, who led the league in scoring once or twice… Nick Collison actually did none of those things. He averaged 5.9 points per game in his career. But for 15 years in Seattle and in Oklahoma he was the very example of a perfect teammate. Selfless and enthusiastic. He is Mr Thunder.

He’s also one of the major mentors of a certain Steven Adams too…

Erik Horne/Oklahoman: “According to Adams, Thunder players called Collison “The Wizard,” because of the now-retired forward’s passing mastery. Dribble handoffs. Backdoor brillance. Without prompting, Adams made a reference to Collison’s paring with a certain left-handed maestro who was moved to Houston. Pull up the videos, Adams said. “He’s just amazing when it comes to the two-man game,” Adams said of Collison. “If you go back and look to him and James Harden, just stupid.” Perfected in his pairing with Harden but established as a staple of his game long before, Collison’s ability in the two-man game quickly became the stuff of Thunder legend. When Collison has his number retired before Wednesday’s game against Toronto, memories of his passing acumen will flow through Chesapeake Energy Arena.”

Immortal words from Steve: “It was beautiful. It was really, really good. Really good from the organization, too, to retire his jersey. It says a lot about them… I miss the old bastard.”

Tell you what though, things weren’t anywhere near as chummy when Serge Ibaka rolled up. Didn’t realise there was much going on there although Serge did kick Steve in the nuts last season. Accidental and there were no hard feelings but… dunno, guess Steve just doesn’t say g’day while the game’s in progress. Especially not after Ibaka’s just closed out dirty on Dennis Schroder.


BOX SCORES

at INDIANA PACERS (L 108-106):

34 MIN | 17 PTS (8/14 FG, 1/2 FT) | 8 REB (3 OFF) | 1 AST | 4 TO | 3 PF

vs GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (L 110-88):

33 MIN | 9 PTS (4/7 FG, 1/4 FT) | 9 REB (7 OFF) | 1 AST | 1 STL | 2 BLK | 2 TO | 1 PF

vs MIAMI HEAT (L 116-107):

25 MIN | 10 PTS (5/6 FG, 0/2 FT) | 12 REB (4 OFF) | 3 AST | 1 STL | 2 BLK | 2 TO | 6 PF

at TORONTO RAPTORS (L 123-114):

40 MIN | 4 PTS (2/7 FG) | 7 REB (7 OFF) | 2 AST | 1 STL | 2 TO | 3 PF

vs TORONTO RAPTORS (W 116-109):

33 MIN | 9 PTS (4/9 FG, 1/2 FT) | 5 REB (4 OFF) | 1 AST | 2 STL | 3 BLK | 1 TO | 2 PF

at MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (L 115-103):

31 MIN | 2 PTS (1/7 FG) | 8 REB (6 OFF) | 4 STL | 2 BLK | 1 TO | 2 PF


NEXT WEEK

vs INDIANA PACERS, Thursday at 1pm (NZT)

vs DENVER NUGGETS, Saturday at 1pm (NZT)

vs DALLAS MAVERICKS, Monday at 8.30am (NZT)

vs LOS ANGELES LAKERS, Wednesday at 1pm (NZT)


SLAM DUNKS

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