Six days into the 2018-19 NBA season, only five teams have yet to win a game. Two—the defenseless Chicago Bulls and the LeBron-less Cleveland Cavaliers—aren’t exactly shockers. The Washington Wizards have lost two games by a total of five points and were within striking distance in the final minute of both. The Los Angeles Lakers … well, you’ve probably read all about them.
And then there’s the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last season’s 48-win playoff team has grander designs this time around, yet it sits at 0-3 after an opening-night loss to the two-time-defending champs and consecutive pastings by the Clippers and Kings. Yes, the Thunder entered the season without former MVP and focal point Russell Westbrook, but they have had All-Star forward Paul George, rugged center Steven Adams, and a cast of twitchy, springy young athletes with enough energy to power a small metropolis. So: What’s up in Oklahoma City?
The questions got louder after OKC got flambéd Sunday night, giving up 131 points at home to a perhaps fun but still likely quite bad Sacramento team. But while it’s not ideal to be allowing 110.5 points per 100 possessions to start the season—or allowing a dominant 37-point fourth quarter to the Clips on Friday—it’s not all that bad in the context of the NBA’s early-season offensive surge. Entering Monday’s play, the Thunder are 16th in defensive efficiency, smack dab in the soft middle of a 30-team league left catching its breath from a pace being pushed to its breaking point.
The real issue so far has been at the other end, where OKC’s mustered a paltry 98.4 points per 100, dead last in the NBA. The Thunder’s effectiveness there improved with Westbrook’s return Sunday, as they came in at 107.1 points per 100 against the Kings. But even that barely got the Thunder out of the bottom third of the league on the offensive efficiency charts on the young season. In that game, Oklahoma City also missed 30 of its 39 3-point attempts, and non-Westbrook-and-George Thunderers shot a combined 23-for-63 (36.5 percent) from the floor. Again: This came against a Kings team that had opened the season allowing 123 points on 51.9 percent shooting to the Jazz, and an eyeball-emoji-inducing 149 on 58.9 percent shooting to the Pelicans.
Sacramento is the sort of opponent—young, scattered, searching for its best and most consistent lineups—against whom teams are supposed to get their offenses rolling. Instead, the Thunder got rolled, in part because they have to endure the same sort of roster exploration.
Trading away Carmelo Anthony was supposed to provide an addition-by-subtraction boost for Oklahoma City and remove any confusion about whose team the Thunder are (they belong to Westbrook and George) and what kind of team they would be (in sum, Russ + PG + dudes + defense). After spending last season behind the 8-ball following the 11th-hour grafting of Anthony onto a readymade team, this season would be different: Westbrook was locked in for the long haul, George committed to a four-year max the second free agency opened, and everybody was on the same page from the jump, with a full training camp to jell. And then Westbrook needed another knee surgery, and so did defensive linchpin Andre Roberson, and all of a sudden the starting backcourt was Dennis Schröder and Terrance Ferguson, which was definitely not the way GM Sam Presti and head coach Billy Donovan drew it up.
Roberson might not return until early December, removing the Thunder’s best and most versatile perimeter defender from the equation for about a quarter of the season. Westbrook’s back now, which will help matters, but Donovan will still need time to get his team reacclimated to the peccadilloes of life with Russ, and to figure out how to give his jet-propelled point guard the best chance of fueling OKC’s offense.
It’s incredibly difficult to consistently create good looks while running lineups featuring multiple shaky shooters, but as been the case for years—and especially since Kevin Durant headed to the Bay—the Thunder roster just doesn’t afford many other options. Adams and Nerlens Noel are indoor cats who won’t space the floor from the center position. Anthony’s replacements at power forward, Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant, are alternately reputed and hoped-for stretch 4s who have started the season a combined 4-for-22 from deep. Schröder, an inefficient volume-shooting scorer in Atlanta, has opened his Thunder career 14-for-50 from the floor, emboldening opponents to go under screens until he can make them pay for it.
The young guys haven’t been much help, either. Ferguson, the 20-year-old 6-foot-7 swingman pressed into heavier duty one year after Oklahoma City drafted him 21st overall out of Australia’s NBL, has struggled mightily, missing 13 of his first 15 shots. Alex Abrines, a viable catch-and-shoot threat the past two seasons, has gotten off to a similarly slow start, and he left Sunday’s game in the first half with a mouth contusion after colliding with Noel. Rookie guard Hamidou Diallo has been an early bright spot, showcasing athleticism and a nascent scoring touch, but 75 percent of his shots have come from within 10 feet of the rim; like Schröder, defenses will need to see him make long-range shots before they believe it.
The Thunder as a whole are getting up a healthy number of long-range looks—36.3 per game, eighth-most in the league—but they’ve clanged the lion’s share of them, ranking 25th in 3-pointers made and last in team 3-point accuracy. It’s been a similar story at the charity stripe; only two teams have generated more free throw attempts than the Thunder, but only one has made fewer. At the risk of lobbing an NBA Desktop–worthy scorcher of a take, it is exceedingly tough to win games by making shots only directly in front of the basket, especially without an elite defense to force the opponent into a rock fight. This is the model OKC will follow with Roberson, George, and Adams all available to suffocate the opposition. But until Roberson’s healthy enough to make that an option, they’re going to have to figure something else out.
As ever, the Thunder will try to mitigate their offensive math problem through superior athleticism and the application of brute force. Adams, Noel, and Co. will bulldoze their way to the front of the rim to extend possessions; the Thunder are rebounding more than 35 percent of their own misses, an even higher rate than the ones with which they led the league in the past three seasons. They will look to punish opponents for live-ball mistakes, taking advantage of the havoc George and their other long-limbed defenders can wreak and the end-to-end speed of Westbrook and Schröder to generate easy buckets in transition; they’re forcing turnovers at the league’s third-highest rate and rank fifth in points per game off miscues.
They will hustle, and push, and rip, and maul. They will rely on Westbrook, the league’s premier north-south battering ram two years running, and Schröder, who wasn’t far off Russ’s pace as a driver in Atlanta, to collapse defenses and get to the front of the rim, whether to take their own shots or create cleaner looks for others.
Therein lies the problem, though: If the “others” can’t make enough of those looks, defenders will feel more comfortable taking an extra step (or two) toward the paint, thus gumming up the driving lanes that Westbrook, George, and Schröder need to add some electricity to the Thunder offense. It’s a vicious cycle: If the finishers can’t make the game easier for the creators, then the creators can’t make the game easier for the finishers; the result is a nothing-easy slog plagued by miscommunication, missed opportunities, and just plain misses. It’s too soon to push the panic button, but it starts to get too late awfully early in the tightly bunched Western Conference. The first 0-3 start in the franchise’s Oklahoma City history could be a grim omen if the Thunder’s shooters don’t warm up before the weather gets cold.