Typically, by the quarter mark of an NBA season, playoff teams are shaping up and looking like playoff teams. The season-opening jitters are out of the way and the best of the best and the worst of the worst are showing their true colors.
That isn’t the case, at all. At least in the Western Conference. Teams that were expected to be playoff teams are at the bottom of the conference and teams that were supposed to be at the bottom of the conference are currently playoff teams.
As for the Oklahoma City Thunder, they are (13-7) on the season, which is essentially a complete flip from last season through 20 games where the Thunder sat at (8-12). On paper, the Thunder shouldn’t be doing this. After adding Carmelo Anthony to the roster last season, the Thunder were supposedly one piece away from being a championship contending team. As that experiment failed, Thunder GM Sam Presti went on another hunt for talent. Weirdly, it felt like a rebuilding season was among us. Well, OKC’s ‘rebuilding year’ has started out spectacularly
What’s the difference, though? Why is the team that lost a future Hall of Famer better this year?
1. Russell Westbrook has an elite backup that maintains the offense while he sits.
OKC’s core, or better yet, big three consists of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams.
Swapping Dennis Schröder for Anthony provided the Thunder with an elite, starting-tier point guard to serve as the backup for a top-tier point guard in Westbrook. That provides a monumental mismatch against the vast majority of NBA team’s backups. Schröder also has the ability to maintain the pace of Westbrook off the bench.
2. OKC’s role players are built for Westbrook and Schröder as well.
Schröder isn’t the only Thunder that fits in the Westbrook system. Most of the bench does as well. As mentioned, Schröder maintains the pace of the game when Westbrook is on the bench and OKC’s rotation does the same.
They are built for Dennis and his style of play, which by association, means they are built for Russell as well. Picking up a late second-round draft pick off a trade from the Brooklyn Nets, Hamidou Diallo has proven to be more than the ‘project’ player Oklahoma City expected him to be. He fits faultlessly with this team because of his utter athleticism, physicality and defensive mindset.
The same goes for Nerlens Noel, who the Thunder picked up during the offseason from the Dallas Mavericks. Just like Diallo, his pure athleticism and defensive mindset makes him a match made in heaven for the Thunder, even when he’s not scoring. Noel takes the pressure off Steven Adams, which allows him to rest on the bench while Noel and the rest of OKC’s reserves keep the team afloat.
3. The Thunder have a defensive identity, with just enough offense.
Westbrook is a capable defender, George is an elite defender, Grant is a strong defender and so is Steven Adams. The starting shooting guard position, whether it’s been Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson, or Diallo is the weak spot defensively, but all three players are still above-average defenders. The point is OKC’s starting core is great defensively and they’ll only improve once Andre Roberson returns from injury.
Once again, the new blood on the team echoes that culture. Schröder, a player that doesn’t have a defensive reputation, has risen to the occasion and provided pesty defense thus far and the same goes for Diallo. We’ve already mentioned what Noel offers, exclusive defense.
As of game 20, the Thunder are third in defensive rating and give up the fifth-least points in the NBA, yet score the second most points in the league, behind the star-studded Golden State Warriors.
4. Chemistry and ball-movement.
There’s ball-movement in OKC! Something we haven’t seen in years. The hero ball mentality has become endangered and this new brand of basketball is developing by the game and it starts with Westbrook. Of course, he has his moments, that’s who Russell is but as a whole, you can see him trying to change. He’s playing the way his team needs him to play.
With ball-movement, each player has an opportunity to make something happen, which is what basketball players cherish most. Each player on the Thunder plays a vital role in the team’s success and that alone has helped the chemistry grow over just one-fourth of the season.
5. The dead weight has been cut.
Everybody on the Thunder roster can get buckets or at the least make an impact on the game. From Abdel Nader to last year’s backup point guard Raymond Felton, Deonte Burton, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, each player can impact the game when given a chance and that’s something they didn’t have last year with Kyle Singler, Josh Huestis, and Dakari Johnson.
It’s clear the Thunder are a different team this year in all the right ways. They are currently fourth in the Western Conference and just one game behind the Los Angeles Clippers for first. With a (13-7) record, they are on track to go (52-30) on the season, four games ahead of last season’s record but optimistically thinking, this team isn’t the best they can be yet. Their defense will improve with a 2016-2017 NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection in Roberson still waiting to get back into the lineup off injury. Their offense hasn’t reached its peak yet either, and OKC’s young core is just getting started.