The Oklahoma City Thunder hold a (4-6) record through 10 games which isn’t great, but considering their strength of schedule, isn’t too bad. After last season where the Thunder underperformed, winning 49 games with Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the roster, the narrative around the organization was that Billy Donovan wasn’t the guy for the job.
Not so fast. This season Donovan has a younger, more receptive group of young players and it shows. They are willing to learn. Through 10 games, the Thunder made it clear that they’re a defensive-minded team. They rank 11th in the NBA in defensive rating. Other than the Orlando Magic who are sixth, the Thunder are the only team in the top 15 with a winning record and that’s something to pay heed to.
This is contrary to what we’ve ever seen from the Thunder since they’ve been in Oklahoma City. They’ve always had a strong offense (with limited ball-movement), and a subpar defense, excluding a couple of years in the mix. This season, it seems as if this team is better balanced with a very good, pesky defense and an offense that’s centered around ball-movement and teamwork. Donovan is to thank for that, but is anyone giving him as much credit as they giving criticism through the first 10 games last season? You know the answer to that.
This team fights. They’ve lost six, but five of those came to teams that were in the playoffs last season and are expected to be this season. Three of those five have serious championship aspirations. Through OKC’s six losses against this elite competition, their average margin of loss is 5.8 points. These losses are coming in the final possessions of the game.
The only thing that’s holding the Thunder back right now is the fact that they don’t have a ‘closer.’ They don’t have someone that will take over the game in the final minutes yet. Chris Paul could have been that guy three years ago, but he’s not as productive as he once was. That has never been Danilo Gallinari’s strong suit and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a 21-year-old in his second year. The Thunder are in a weird spot right now when it comes to that, but later in the season when roles are better defined, and players are more comfortable in those roles, these final possessions will pan out differently.
Gilgeous-Alexander has increased his points per game two-fold, from 10.8 points to 21.2 points per game. Hamidou Diallo has increased his point production from 3.7 points per game to 9.5 points while providing some electrifying defense. Lastly, since Darius Bazley has gotten the green light and the confidence to be more assertive on the offensive end, he’s found his stroke. He’s shooting 40 percent from 3 through the first 10 games of his career.
More about Bazley; it shouldn’t go unnoticed that he spent a substantial amount of time guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo during Sunday evening’s game. He held his own against the reigning MVP. That was until the second half when Giannis proved to be too much for the 19-year-old rookie.
The moral of the story is that the Thunder have something special brewing and it’s progressing a lot faster than anyone expected. If this team stays intact, with no major trades or injuries, an expected rebuilding season could turn into a fight for the playoffs.
They are luckily enduring the toughest stretch of their schedule right now. Ten of their next 15 games are against playoff teams. Their next five are against the Pacers, 76ers, Clippers, and Lakers twice. That’s a grueling schedule and just like now, OKC’s record probably won’t be pretty. I’d predict a (6-9) record after the next five games but after this initial fourth of the season passes, OKC will be battle-tested and ready for an easier stretch of the season.
One thing that’s certain: Billy Donovan IS the guy for the job.