The OKC Thunder just witnessed their 4 game win streak snapped to the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that was 3-8 in their last 11 games. This was in no way a good loss for the OKC Thunder. Anthony Davis only played 15 minutes due to injury. Kenrich Williams and Darius Miller, below average bench players, started and played 34 minutes a piece. Julius Randle and Jrue Holiday had their way with the Thunder’s defense. Randle had 33-11-6 and Holiday had 32 points and 7 assists. This wasn’t the first embarrassing loss for the Thunder either. In fact, it’s become a trend.
Of their 20 losses, the Thunder have 10 to teams below .500. Pacers have 20 losses with 8 coming to sub-500 teams, but three of those came immediately after losing Victor Oladipo to injury. The 76ers have 21 losses, but only 6 to sub-.500 teams. The Celtics have 21 losses and 9 to sub-.500 teams, but they have been almost as confusing as the Thunder. The Portland Trailblazers, with 23 losses, only have 7 to teams with a record below .500. In general, good teams take care of business against bad teams and hope for the best against other talented teams. Why is it that Thunder can beat Milwaukee or deliver a 28-point beat down to the Warriors and also lose to the Bulls?
Most people like to blame Russell Westbrook when the Thunder lose, and sometimes the blame is fair, but many times the loss isn’t on him. In their 114-112 loss to the Bulls, he recorded a 24-17-13 triple-double (quadruple-double if you count the 10 turnovers). The 10 turnovers aren’t pretty, but it isn’t the reason they lost. In fact, Westbrook made multiple plays down the stretch to keep his team in the game. Including a three and a layup to tie the game. In their most recent loss to the Pelicans, Westbrook had one of his best games of the season. He had 44 points on 18/30 shooting, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists. The one major criticism I do have against Westbrook is his decision making late-game when his team is down.
Too often Westbrook will take a bad three that can cost his team the game. In the clutch, Westbrook is shooting just 30% from the field and 10% from three. Paul George is shooting 40% and 30% in the clutch, yet Westbrook takes more shots than George late game. Although Westbrook has made incredible plays late in the game before, he simply isn’t good at closing out games. Instead of forcing up bad threes and praying for a foul call, I would rather see Westbrook attack the rim and either finish or pass to an open teammate. He is already one of the better passers in the clutch. He currently ranks 5th in assists among players with 10+ “clutch” games. Also, on 2-point shots in the clutch, Westbrook is shooting 39%, not amazing but it’s still an improvement. His bad three-point attempts are what truly holds him back.
Westbrook’s poor play in the clutch isn’t the OKC Thunder’s biggest problem when it comes to their inconsistency. The real issue this team faces is their lack of depth. They are so thin that an injury to any rotational player has drastic effects.
Luckily the Thunder acquired Markieff Morris off the buyout market, as ESPN reported yesterday. This addition should surely help their depth and hopefully improve their play against non-playoff teams. OKC usually loses in the second half of the game, when their stars become tired. When they need the bench to step up, sometimes they deliver but they usually don’t. Nerlens Noel has been a great defensive center but doesn’t offer much on offense. Patrick Patterson has been averaging 15 minutes a game and is scoring 5 points on 38% shooting. Alex Abrines was averaging 5.3 ppg on 36% shooting in 19 minutes a game before missing the last 20+ games and getting waved for personal reasons. Hamidou Diallo, a second-round rookie, has also played significant minutes off the bench.
Also, their sixth man, Dennis Schroder, has been the definition of streaky. Despite the fact he’s highly inconsistent, I believe he deserves to be recognized for 6MOTY. He has had a 32-point performance shooting 12/19 FG and 5/6 from three, but also scored 8 points on 2/15 FG (13%) in a different game. He has 25 games shooting 40% or worse from the field and 20 games shooting 46% or better and scoring 15+ points. There is also a strong correlation between the OKC Thunder’s losses and Schroder’s poor play. He has not shot above 50% in any of the Thunder’s losses and between 45%-50% in just three of the team’s 20 losses. He’s not the only reason they lose these games, but as the team’s best player off the bench, he has an important role. If he’s not playing well, more often than not, the bench isn’t playing well.
I don’t know if the Markieff Morris addition will suddenly solve all of there problems, but it’s a good first step. He will likely take Patterson’s minutes, which is great for the OKC Thunder. Not only has he been putting up terrible stats, but he has a -14.5 on-off rating. The Thunder are 14.5 points better when he’s off the court compared to when he’s playing, that’s an insane difference. Morris is a much better scorer and more efficient than Patterson. He isn’t a great defender, but he is still an upgrade over Patterson. Morris will certainly provide the Thunder better depth, which hopefully will lead to more consistency game to game.
An MVP Candidate on the OKC Thunder?
There is no way I can write an entire article about the OKC Thunder without mentioning Paul George. He is having a career year and is a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s averaging 28.9 ppg (nearly 7 more than last year) on the highest eFG% of his career (54.6%). He’s tied his career high in 3P% at 41% but is attempting 9.6 threes a game, a career high by a large margin. Additionally, he is averaging a career-high 2.3 steals a game, which leads the league. Usually, averaging 28.7 ppg on great efficiency along with 8.0 rpg, 4.1 apg, and 2.3 spg, while leading his team to a top 6 record would make him a front runner to win MVP. Unfortunately, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden are also having career years.
Giannis is averaging 27.2 ppg 12.7 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.6 bpg, and his team has the best record in the NBA. He’s been insanely efficient, shooting 58.1% from the field and has a 59.7 eFG%. For reference, prime Shaquille O’Neal averaged 29.7 points per game and 13.6 rebounds per game on 57.4 eFG%. Giannis’ rebounding and efficient scoring are insane. He’s also a mobile and talented defender who can play all 5 positions. Despite his inability to shoot threes, no team has been able to stop him from scoring. Giannis is obviously tough competition for George, but PG edges out Giannis in a few categories. He is a more well-rounded scorer, while averaging more points per game, and is a better perimeter defender than Giannis. If the Thunder find a way to finish top 2 in the West, George would win my vote over Giannis.
Still, most fan’s favorite for the MVP award right now is James Harden. Harden is averaging 36.6 ppg on 54.6 eFG%, 6.7 rpg, 7.7 apg, and 2.2 spg. While the jokes about Harden’s defense are no longer true, his steals per game are slightly misleading. Harden is a good defender in the post and on-ball, but he still gets lost as an off-ball defender. With Harden, his defense isn’t what people really care about. Right now, Harden is on a 31-game 30-point streak, the second longest in NBA history. Ever since Chris Paul‘s injury in December, Harden has been unstoppable. In that stretch, he’s averaging 41.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg, and 7.0 apg. His constant trips to the free throw line are annoying (he’s averaged nearly 13 free throw attempts a game during this stretch), but even without them, he would be averaging 30.5 ppg.
George’s only real argument over Harden is his team’s record and his defense. Only 3 players have won MVP without their team being a top 4 team in the NBA. Those players are Moses Malone (twice), Michael Jordan, and Russell Westbrook. No player has ever won MVP with his team below 7th best besides Westbrook’s 2016-17 Thunder team. Currently, Harden’s Rockets have the 10th best record in the NBA. Even as CP3, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon return from injury, it’s a long shot for the Rockets to become a top 4 team. Furthermore, Paul George is a DPOY candidate, while Harden is just average on defense. This only slightly strengthens George’s MVP case since NBA fans and voters place more importance on offense than defense.
If the season ended today, I doubt Paul George would win MVP, but there are plenty of games left for him to change that. The OKC Thunder may struggle from inconsistency as a team, but George has shown up nearly every game. As the season progresses, the Thunder need to get their former MVP, Westbrook, to take fewer shots and get their current MVP candidate, George, to take more. This, along with improving their bench, should reduce their inconsistent performances. The OKC Thunder are an exciting team with the potential to make noise in the playoffs, but they also have plenty of problems to fix. That said, I’m excited to see how they finish out the season and if George can secure his first MVP.