Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Let’s Progress…Together – Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder used to be in Seattle and I live in Seattle, so it seems like a good place to start previewing teams. And if you read my posts during the playoffs last season, you know I had a mostly-healthy fascination with the Thunder and the inexplicable decision making of their sparkplug point guard, Russell Westbrook.

Six months later and I still see Russell as the lynchpin of this organization’s development. They’re one of the few (possibly only) teams that return their entire roster from last year—a team that won its division and made it to the Western Conference finals. Oh, and four of the top seven in their rotation are under 24-years-old. If you’re an Oklahoma City fan, you have every reason to be frothing at the mouth when you think about the potential of this team.

But it goes back to Westbrook. I watched OKC play throughout last season and have heard/read their fans saying that no one should be surprised with Russell’s playoff performance; that’s just Russell being Russell. And to an extent, I agree. His decision making, or lack thereof, has driven Americans batshit crazy since he entered the league in 2008 (he’s started 229 of 246 games in his young career). It’s easy to dismiss his mistakes as a consequence of being a developing youngster learning through failure (the old Jordan way) and all we can do is hope that’s the case. On the surface, Russell may have been as Iverson-esque as he’s been for the duration of his career, but he just did it less efficiently while increasing his volume:

Westbrook Stats Regular season Playoffs Change
Field-goal   attempts/game 16.95 20.18 +19%
3pt Field   Goal attempts/game 1.26 2.82 +125%
Usage Rate 31.6% 34% +2.4%
Field-goal   Percentage 44.2% 39.4% -4.8%
PER   (performance efficiency rating) 23.6 19.6 -4
eFG%   (effective field goal %) 45.4% 41.4% -4%
TS% (true   shooting %) 53.8% 49.9% -3.9%
Turnovers/game 3.9 4.6 +17.6%

The regular season-to-playoff drop-offs are disturbing and indisputable. Russell’s shot/pass selection was always suspect, but it got worse when it mattered the most. With creative geniuses, we accept the mistakes alongside the eye popping, text-message inspiring tip dunks, but for the 2011 playoffs, we saw both from Russell, just far too many of the turnover/missed shot variety.

This year will be a telling one in the Thunder’s evolving catalog. While the rest of the league’s stars spin off to form super-friend mini all-star clusters, Oklahoma City’s faced with the opposite conundrum: Too many youngsters desperate for individual acceptance; aka too many cooks in the kitchen. In the 80s, this group would’ve stayed together for a decade and won a couple titles at the least. And if Westbrook and Durant were on separate teams, they might be banging down doors to play alongside each other. As it stands though, these guys seem like a break-up waiting to happen. Kevin Durant plus Russell Westbrook plus Serge Ibaka plus James Hardenit’s great to watch, but based on math alone, it doesn’t feel sustainable. Whether our imagined Westbrook versus Durant rivalry come to fruition or Harden’s beard decides to take him to more fertile hardwoods or the salary cap decides Sam Presti just can’t afford Ibaka; something’s got to give. Even The Beatles broke up once.

On their darkest days, they remain one of the three best teams in the west. Give them a healthy Kendrick Perkins and 66 games to gel and anything less than a conference finals appearance is a letdown. But a little growth and a little “get by with a little help from my friends”, and they’re a contender. Given their youth and what the average 24-year-old is doing at this age, the awesome expectations for this team could be their demise or the sentiment that drives them to unified success.

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