The Oklahoma City Thunder are 6-4, which means they are on pace for about 49 wins this season. Kevin Durant leads the league in scoring. If the playoff started today after an absurdly short regular season, they would be the seven seed in the West.
That coming after a season where they won 50 games, Kevin Durant led the league in scoring and they were the eighth seed in the West. That was followed by a summer where the Thunder decided to stand pat and not make any big free agent moves, not to make any dramatic roster changes.
So why does it feel like the Thunder are a disappointment?
Because of you and me, because of our expectations. Our unreasonable expectations (we warned you this would happen). All of us saw how dynamic they were in pushing the Lakers in the first round last season. We saw Durant dominate the world this summer, with Russell Westbrook by his side. All that led to this feeling that they would take another gigantic leap forward.
That almost never happens. If you bring back the same team you had last season, then you are what you were last season. Really, after a breakout year just remaining the same in the face of a “sophomore slump” is a step forward. Not the leap people wanted, but a step.
What is frustrating is you can see where these Thunder really could be better. Where they really could take that leap, mostly because this year feels like a regression on the court.
However, that really isn’t measured until the playoffs. Last season the Thunder started out 7-7 but figured it out by the end of the season. That could happen again if a few things come together.
On offense, the Thunder are still good, but it is coming with Durant and Westbrook more in isolation. Durant is averaging 28.4 points per game, Westbrook 23.5, but some of the movement — both ball and player — have been gone.
What is keeping the offense going is free throws — they are getting to the line more (per field goal attempt) than any team in the league. Then once there they are hitting a ridiculous 88.1 percent of their free throws as a team — the 89-90 Boston Celtics hold the current record at 83.2 percent. OKC is five points ahead of that. What all those free throws mean is the Thunder are still attacking.
What they are not doing well is defending. Last season they gave up 104.6 points per 100 possessions, this season that has jumped to 112.5, 29th in the league. They are allowing teams to shoot a higher percentage, they are creating fewer turnovers (which really hurts them because the Thunder are so dynamic and get such easy baskets in transition).
The biggest problem is in the middle — opposing teams are getting five more shots a game right at the rim than they did last year. In today’s NBA you need someone to protect the paint, and maybe this year’s draft pick Cole Aldrich can be that guy someday, but he is not right now.
The Thunder could help their cause by starting Serge Ibaka. They did with Jeff Green out against the Jazz last game, Ibaka had four blocks and the Thunder beat a hot Jazz team. When Green returns he needs to play, but it may be time to bring Nenad Krstic off the bench. You don’t lose any offense (he had 22 points against the Jazz) and what he brings on defense is needed.
It’s a step in getting this team back to the potential we all expected of them, what we hoped of them. But maybe we should reign in those expectations, too. This week they play Boston then Milwaukee on the back-to-back. Things are not getting easier for these Thunder as they try to improve. And improvement might look a lot like standing still sometimes.