Why are the Thunder a Better Team Than Last Year?
Why are the Thunder a better team then last year?
Overrating how good Russell Westbrook actually is After a disappointing season last year seeing the Thunder fall to the Utah Jazz lead by rookie Donovan Mitchell in the first round, there were many questions surrounding the team such as did the addition of Carmelo Anthony result in more negative impacts then positive and how much the Thunder’s lack of shooting affected them. Judging by the success they’ve had this year so far, the Thunder’s problems weren’t caused by having enough talent, it was more because of the playing style of Russell Westbrook. Despite having back to back seasons averaging a triple double and earning an MVP along the way, Westbrook’s style of play hasn’t being as effective as it looks and is a good example on why stats don’t show everything. Don’t get me wrong 31 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds are great numbers but looking at how he got those number on an efficiency perspective makes them look worse. During his MVP season he shot 42% from the floor which ranked second last compared to MVP winners, only Allen Iverson who led the 76ers to the finals that year shot lower than Westbrook in an MVP season. Westbrook also shot 34% from behind the arc, and averaged 5.4 turnovers per game. During Westbrook’s MVP season the Thunder finished 6th in the western conference which was the lowest ranked team with an MVP since Moses Malone with the Houston Rockets back in 1982. You could easily make the argument that Westbrook’s MVP season was more due to the fact that everyone hated Kevin Durant joining the Warriors then Westbrook’s actual play. The MVP throughout the years has always went to the best player on one of the top teams. That’s why Steve Nash won it on back to back years averaging 18 points and over 10 assists because he was the best player on a Phoenix Suns team that finished first and second in the Western Conference from 2005-2006. Kobe Bryant averaged 35 point in the 2006 season but didn’t win the MVP because the Lakers only won 45 games that year. The main point I want people to get is that despite how great stats are in the NBA they don’t determine everything and at the end of the day it comes down to watching them play.
The Thunder are better with Paul George as their number one option The Thunder right now are tied for first in the western conference with Denver and despite Westbrook having a poor season the Thunder have found success due to Paul George. Westbrook over the years have never been an efficient player but it seems like this years he’s got even worse in that category. Currently, he’s making 23.6% of his threes (second lowest in his career), shooting 42.3% from the floor (third lowest in his career), 60.8% from the free throw line (worst in his career), and 4.5 turnovers per game (third worst in his career). Out of the 35 players who are taking more than 15 shots a game this season, Westbrook is dead last in true shooting percentage at 49.0 and ranks below players like D’Angelo Russell and Andrew Wiggins. His inability to make shoots on a consistent basis has been such a problem that it’s caused his team be a much better when he shoots less. The question you’ll probably start asking is how is Paul George having a career year despite Westbrook struggling? George’s success is mostly if not all due to Westbrook taking a backseat for the first time in his career. Westbrook is still averaging a triple double this season but he went from averaging around 21 shots per game to 18 this year which is lower than George who is shooting 19 per game. Westbrook taking a backseat comes at a great time because he’s simply not shooting well at all this year. These reduced shot attempts have also resulted in an increase in usage rate for George going from 24.7% to 27.6% and is averaging a career high 26.1 points per game, 4.5 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting his typical efficient way. With George improving on offense, having the fourth best defensive rating, and the 17th best efficiency rating in a western conference that seems to get better by the day, it’s hard to make the argument that the Thunder shouldn’t run through George as their number one option. This Thunder team can be a legit contender because most of the problems we had for them last year are being answered. Paul George is playing at an MVP level, Westbrook is taking a backseat and even though it might be frustrating for him it benefits the team, and they have a bench now with rim protector Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroeder who’s one of the best scorers coming of the bench. We knew they were going to be great on defense but now they rank 11th in offense so they don’t need to grind out as many low scoring wins.
Westbrook improving on defense and shot selection I know I’ve been hard on Westbrook (for valadle reasons) but I’ll admit there has been some improvement in his game that has helped the team. The first and main one is defense. This year he has a career high and is leading the league in steals at 2.7 per game and ranks first in defensive rating at 96.2. Despite struggling on offense Westbrook has backed it up with amazing defense. Another improvement he has made is shot selection. Westbrooks isn’t a good shooter in general and it doesn’t help that he takes a ton of mid range jumpers (the worst shot to take) but this year only 26.1% of his shots are taken between 10 feet and the three point line instead of 39.8% last year. He’s not shooting great this year but at least he’s not taking the same amount of bad shots as he did in other years.
Finding the right power forward and being a more balanced team Ever since trading away Serge Ibaka the Thunder have tried to find the right power forward but it looks like they might have found the one this year. The Carmelo Anthony experiment was a disaster and Patrick Paterson hasn’t looked the same after having left knee problems and can’t make enough threes on a consistent basis to be in the starting lineup. Jerami Grant so far this year looks like the answer the Thunder need at the power forward spot. With Grant, Steven Adams, and Paul George they are plus 13 in 373 minutes with Westbrook and plus 14 with Dennis Schroder. I said this about Grant before the season and I’ll say it again now, if he develops a decent to good three point shot he’s the kind of guy who could be in the league for 15 years. He’s so athletic and great on defense right now but he would be even better if he had a jump shot. The way he’s playing right now with little to no jump shot is fine but to put the Thunder in that “elite” team section he’ll have to develop a shot. What’s crazy about the Thunder right now is their tied for first in the western conference despite being ranked 16th in 3-point attempts per game (31.4) and ranking 29th in 3-point percentage (31.9%). If their defense wasn’t so great this season it wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t in the playoffs because of how bad their shooting is in a league that relies on threes. The one concern I have for the Thunder is it’s really hard to grind out wins based on defense on a consistent basis. In today’s league to be a contender you have to have at least a top 10 offense (the Thunder are ranked 11th) to compete because your not going to be able to get four tough defensive wins against teams like Denver, Golden State, and Houston. The Grizzlies got off to a hot start this year because they had the number one defense in the league but they eventually dropped because they had one of if not the worst offenses. Unlike the past two years, the Thunder now have a legitimate bench. They traded away washed up Carmelo Anthony for 25 year old Dennis Schroder who’s averaging 15.4 points and 4.4 assists and signed defensive minded center Nerlens Noel to a bargain 2 two year contract just under 4 million who’s currently averaging 1 steal and 1.5 blocks in just 14 minutes of playing time. The last person to average over 15 points and 3 assists off the bench for the Thunder was James Harden when he won sixth man of the year back in 2012 which was the last time the Thunder made it to the finals. Schroder can do some of the things Westbrook can when he’s on the court and the Thunder this year are only -0.4 in the 629 minutes Westbrook has been on the bench and went 5-1 when he sprained his ankle in November. These numbers may not sound amazing, but comparing it to past years when Westbrook went on the bench and games instantly started going downhill, it’s a huge improvement for the Thunder.