The week after the NBA All-Star break, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed to be in a relatively good place, despite constant yet wavering adjustments to their regular lineup. Out of the break, OKC won two of three, and all three came against quality opponents, Dallas (W), New York (L), and Memphis (W). Since then, the Thunder are 0-2, and both of those losses were equally ugly.
A 123-102 loss to the Chicago Bulls and a 116-93 loss to the streaking Atlanta Hawks may be all a part of Sam Presti’s elaborate plan to tank, but this isn’t characteristic of the team we’ve witnessed through most of the season.
Against the Bulls, OKC’s defense suffered, and subsequently, their offense followed suit. They gave up 123 points to a team that’s essentially on the same level as them. The biggest difference is Chicago’s star player, Zach LaVine, being an established all-star, while OKC’s star player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, is attaining stardom as we speak. They are a slight step ahead. Regardless, the Bulls as a team shot 51.1 percent against OKC. LaVine notched 40 points on an ultra-efficient 15-of-20 shooting, Lauri Markkanen hit 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting, and Thaddeus Young scored 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting.
OKC fell to the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday night. Atlanta’s an inferno, winning seven-straight games and sitting in the Eastern Conference’s sixth spot. Though, despite not having Darius Bazley and Mike Muscala in the lineup, OKC could have won this game if they prioritized defense early in the game. The Thunder spotted the Hawks 25 points to their eight before their bench, for the second-straight game, went on a 14-5 run to regain some semblance of control over the game.
While it’s promising to see a young bench be a bright spot on a team like the Thunder, it’s also concerning to see the team’s starters underperforming to start games. That fast start got Trae Young (who scored 10 points early) confident, and that confidence trickled down to Bogdan Bogdanovic and John Collins, which made it impossible for OKC to catch up. OKC trailed by more than 10 points from mid-first quarter through the game’s duration.
Young finished with 23 points on an efficient 9-of-15 shooting, while Bogdanovic connected on 23 points off the bench on 9-of-14 shooting. Collins scored 19 on 8-of-11 from the field. If a team’s big three shoots 26-of-40 overall, then unless you have a big three (or four) to counter that, you likely won’t win.
The problem isn’t necessarily OKC’s offense. Yes, the offense has been struggling, but if you haven’t noticed, when the Thunder are flowing freely offensively, they’re often locking up on defense and forcing turnovers on the other end. The two go together, especially for the Thunder.
Both issues arise from the starting lineup, which is the biggest problem. And as frustrating as it could be for Thunder fans, the starting lineup is out of sorts because of the lineup’s constant changes. Against Dallas, there was no Bazley or Lu Dort. The loss to New York was without Shai, Bazley, and Muscala. They defeated Memphis without Bazley, Theo Maledon, Dort, and Al Horford. They didn’t have Horford, Bazley, Dort, or Muscala against Chicago and were missing Muscala and Bazley on Thursday’s loss to Atlanta.
OKC’s starting lineup hasn’t been stable, but for the most part, outside of Muscala, the bench has been and has only gotten better with the addition of Ty Jerome. That’s all evident if you’ve watched a game recently. Will things get better? Maybe, or maybe this is what the Thunder will be through the rest of the season. Mix-matching lineups, seeing who’s who. That’s what this year is all about.
If you’re a Thunder fan, I’d sit back and enjoy each player’s individual talent while piecing together what this team could be in the future.