NBA at the break: state of the Thunder

The Good

Russell Westbrook: So in case you haven’t noticed, Westbrook is a Greek god. All it took to complete his apotheosis was to average a triple-double — the second player in history to do so after Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 — while leading the league in scoring and performing so many dizzying feats of athleticism that he’s almost lulled us into thinking that he’s doing something in the realm of normalcy.

That’s really the most amazing about Westbrook: he makes everything he does look so damn easy. When he shrugs off picks, drives past his defender and finishes at will over a seven-footer, all before the viewer at home even has time to blink, we forget that that’s supposed to be freaking impossible.

If it wasn’t for his old teammate James Harden similarly lighting things up in Houston at a more efficient rate, Westbrook would be a shoo-in for MVP. Depending on how the Thunder close out the season, he still might get there.

Enes Kanter: If the Sixth Man of the Year award wasn’t reserved for the highest scoring ball-hogging two guard that happens to come off the bench, Kanter might actually have a shot at it. In his second season as the Thunder’s go-to second unit scorer, the big Turk is averaging 14.4 PPG and 6.7 RPG on 56-percent shooting from the field, all in just over 21 minutes per game.

He’ll likely always be a defensive liability, but dumping the ball into Kanter on the low block is about the only offensive play the Thunder have right now besides letting Westbrook do his thing.

The Bad

Steven Adams: I’ll admit I probably placed outsized expectations on Adams during last year’s playoff run when I anointed him a future star. Looking back at his stats, I was shocked to see he only averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds when the impact felt more like 20-15. Still, with the elite pick-and-roll awareness he demonstrated in the postseason and his Grizzlies-esque, hard-nosed, in-your-face defense in the paint, I would have expected Adams to have made at least a mini leap in 2017.

Instead, the Kiwi Phenom’s progression has stagnated. Without Kevin Durant to spread the floor, defenders are clogging the paint and neutralizing his rim-running, and any slight uptick in his stats can be attributed to receiving more minutes. If Oklahoma City hopes to get anywhere with this core, Adams needs to be more than just a role player.

Victor Oladipo: The big haul in the blockbuster Serge Ibaka deal, Oladipo never seemed like a great fit next to Westbrook. He has never been a great shooter off the catch and when he played for the Magic, Oladipo often handled the ball almost as much as nominal point guard Elfrid Payton. Russ is one of the most usage-heavy players in history, what he needs is a consistent bomber from deep, not a guy who’s going to receive minimal attention when he’s not holding the rock.

The Ugly

Andre Roberson: Roberson’s favorite movie is Good Will Hunting. His favorite scene is the one where Matt Damon indignantly asks Robin Williams, “what’s wrong with laying bricks?? That’s an honorable profession!” I like to believe that Andre saw the film when he was a kid and took that scene’s message to heart, because laying bricks is all the guy does on the court.

Here are some numbers for you: he’s shooting 43.7-percent from the field, an abysmal 24.1-percent (on 2.5 attempts per game) from three, and 43-percent from the foul line. That last number isn’t a typo by the way and yes, you are remembering correctly that Roberson is a perimeter player. When you can look at Rajon Rondo and say to yourself, “man, I wish I could shoot like that guy,” you know you’ve got a problem. Roberson’s stout defense has been enough to justify his offensive ineptitude in the past but he’s never before looked quite so hopeless on that end.

And lest we overrate his one above-average NBA skill, it’s important to note that while Roberson is long and quick, he’s not exactly on, say, Kawhi Leonard’s level.

Semaj Christon/Cameron Payne: Not even Westbrook can play all 48 minutes, which means that somebody has got to come in and run point in his absence. If only it was anybody else besides these two. Payne, the Thunder’s promising 2015-16 rookie, missed the first few months of the season with a fractured foot, so the backup PG duties fell on Christon.

You may have noticed that Semaj’s first name is “James” spelled backwards. This was likely the universe’s way of telling us that he would be the exact opposite of LeBron James, only we were all too blind to see it. Of course, it quickly became obvious when Christon proved himself totally incapable of running an NBA offense in even a limited capacity.

Naturally, Thunder Nation rejoiced when Payne finally returned, thinking that they would finally be rid of a point guard who couldn’t shoot, pass, or defend! But Payne wasn’t about to let himself be upstaged in the Oklahoma tabloids and made it a point to regress in every facet of his game in his sophomore season.

If it’s any consolation, I wouldn’t be too worried about Payne for the future. He’s just 22 years old, has already shown flashes of competence, and is coming off a major injury. For the time being though, watching these two run the show is a scarier proposition than most horror movies.

What To Expect in the Second Half

With the exception of the 8th seed, currently being contested by a half-dozen sub-.500 teams who would all be swept by the Warriors in the first round anyway, the other seven playoff teams in the Western Conference are set; all that remains at is seeding.

They currently sit in the seventh spot with a 32-25 record but have a reasonable chance to rise as high as fourth, behind only the contending trio of Golden State, San Antonio, and Houston. Will they get there? Anything can change with a surprise deadline move or a freefall from one of the teams ahead of them but the smart money is on “no.”

Oklahoma City has already outperformed its Pythagorean Win-Loss expectation by four wins and history tells us that a regression to the mean is more likely. As for any hope of a matchup with Kevin Durant and the Warriors or a potential trip to the NBA Finals? I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

With the possible exception of a certain green team in Boston and a recent injury to Kevin Love, there has been nothing to upset the overwhelming probability of a Warriors-Cavaliers trilogy in June.

Unless the Thunder can acquire some more shooters to stretch the floor or Adams fulfills his potential and transforms midseason into 2012 Tyson Chandler, they are probably looking at a first round meeting with San Antonio, and that means a first round loss.

Post Author: tucollegian

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