Basketball Insider

Thunder Mid-Season Progress Report

Graphic by Geoff Roughface
Thunder Mid-Season Progress Report

Between Kevin Durant (and his mom), Enes Kanter (and his chair), and Russell Westbrook (and his historic season), it feels as if three year’s worth of drama has been crammed into just half of a season.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to take stock of the Thunder’s 32-25 season thus far. And what better time to do that during the all-star break? I know, I know: we’re past the halfway point. It’s not my fault the NBA scheduled All-Star Weekend this late in the season.

I rounded up the opinions (there are many!) of Franchise Thunder insiders and personalities to provide you with The Franchise Mid-Season Progress Report. Special thanks go to Geoff Roughface, Jerry Ramsey, Erik Gee, Jon Hamm, and Andrew Gilman for their assistance.

An important note: these grades are relative to the player’s expectations coming into the season as well as their talent level. Thus, a ‘C’ for Steven Adams might be a ‘A’ for Nick Collison, for example. Pedigree and current talent level matter.

Without further ado, The Franchise’s Thunder Mid-Season Progress Report, arranged in loose order of the player’s impact:

Russell Westbrook: A+ | 31 PPG, 10.5 REB, 10.1 AST, 1.6 STL

What could I possibly write about Russell Westbrook that hasn’t already been written or uttered? Although the ‘he could average a triple-double’ notion practically became a meme after Kevin Durant’s defection to the Bay, Westbrook has, as he has so often done in his eight-and-a-half seasons in the league, proven naysayers wrong. And ‘why not?,’ as Russ would say.

On both superficial and analytical levels, Westbrook’s performance has been worthy of a seat in the basketball pantheon. He leads the league in points with 31.3 per game, ranks third in assists, and 12th in rebounding — one of only two guards in the top 50 (James Harden ranks 20th).

His 15-0 run to close out the Memphis Grizzlies is one of the most incredible feats I’ve seen:

Although his 42% shooting is among the worst such totals in his career, his colossal usage rate (the number of plays which Westbrook personally ends through shot, assist, or turnover) is three whole percentage points higher than the next mark (41.8% vs. 38.7%, held by Kobe Bryant). Part of Westbrook’s poor shooting can be explained away by the utter lack of spacing the Thunder put out on the court in most lineups.

Also of note: despite having an all-time high usage rate, Westbrook’s turnover rate, though still higher than league average, is lower than it was during five seasons of playing alongside the simlarly ball-dominant Durant.

There’s also the fact that Russ is far and away the league’s most clutch player this season:

It would be missing the point entirely to leave out his triple-double habit. According to a recent New York Times profile of Westbrook, his stats, adjusted to fit the pace of fellow triple-doubler Oscar Robertson, would hover somewhere around 50 points, 17 rebounds, and 17 assists. Although comparing the two eras isn’t necessarily productive, it is fun, and provides a bit off additional insight. Regardless: Westbrook’s season has been as proficient as arguably any other player’s ever, and I’m not saying that lightly.

Anything other than an A+ would be cheating the man, and I’m not about to cheat Russell Westbrook out of anything. He might just dunk on me.


Steven Adams: A | 12.2 PPG, 7.9 REB, 1.1 AST, 1.1. BLK

Adams was paid big time in the offseason, and rightfully so: the big Kiwi has as much upside as any other center in the league. Adams’s coming out party was last season’s playoffs, where he displayed a nifty touch around the rim and a a gamut of serviceable post moves in addition to his already solid defensive skill set.

Durant’s absence severely impacted the Thunder’s spacing, and it’s quite notable in Adams’s offensive game. As expected, Adams is averaging a career high in points (14.1), but his rim-running abilities have largely been denied as teams have collapsed their defense, building a wall inside and contesting all shots inside.

Take this game against the Lakers for example. Most of his runs come as a result of the gravity shooters on the perimeter demand:

Adams can’t be knocked for the limitations of his teammates. On the flip side of that, with the addition of some shooting, Adams could become even more effective than he already is.

Adams must be commended for improving his free throw shooting by almost 10%, up to 67% from last year’s 58%. In an age where big men somehow still struggle with free throw shooting at the abject detriment of their team, he clearly worked to improve this part of his game.

Steven Adams has arguably been the Thunder’s most consistent option (outside of Westbrook, of course), and I think that deserves a gold star or two.


Victor Oladipo: B+ | 16.1 PPG, 4.4 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.2 STL

Victor Oladipo was never meant to be the second fiddle. He wasn’t even really meant to be the third — that piece was Al Horford. Not that I feel bad for him: the events that transpired allowed Vic to cash in to the tune of $84 million after playing just three games in a Thunder uniform.

That’s not say that Oladipo couldn’t handle the pressure, though. He was number one in Orlando. The difference was that he wan’t used to winning.

But now, comfortable in his position, Oladipo plays a serviceable Robin to Westbrook’s Batman. He’s streaky scorer by nature, but he’s improved the consistency of his outside shooting (35% is a career-high), something the Thunder need desperately from him. Oladipo is also making two-pointers at a career-high clip: nearly 51%.

What the Thunder can expect on a nightly basis is lockdown defense and athletic plays like this run out from Oladipo:

His ability to create havoc on defense plays right into the Thunder’s fast-break mentality. As Andre Roberson, Oladipo, and Westbrook continue to cultivate chemistry, OKC’s fast break attack will be deadly, provided that the core sticks together. No guarantee, as we’ve seen first hand, though.

Oladipo has certainly exceeded expectations, but he certainly has a ways to go to earn his large contract. He’s only 24 and clearly enjoys playing in Oklahoma City, so don’t be surprised if Oladipo continues to rise.


Andre Roberson: C+ | 6.6 PPG, 5.1 REB, 1.0 AST

Andre Roberson is the most controversial and mercurial player the Thunder have. There’s no argument that Roberson is the team’s defensive lynchpin. There’s also no argument that Robes is an offensive black hole.

Offensively, Roberson has, if anything, regressed from last season, clearly trying to embarrass me for writing that there was a possibility of him taking home most improved player. Whatever, I get it, ‘Dre.

Not only has Roberson shot seven percentage points worse (24%, down from last season’s 31%) from range this year, but his two-point shooting has also taken a dip (down to 58% from 60%). His real plus minus (ESPN’s metric that adjust plus/minus for other factors, such as teammates, opponents, etc.) is -1.89 — 310th in the league.

Roberson certainly gets docked for his offensive struggles — and rightfully so, since spacing has been so critical for the Thunder — but his defensive has been flat-out awesome. As Thunderous Intentions breaks down, the Thunder is one of the league’s best defensive clutch teams, and Roberson is a huge part of that. He’s continued to harness his physical gifts — his size, wingspan, and speed — while gaining the valuable experience that comes one game at a time.

Ben Dowsett, guest of The Franchise Basketball Insideer show as well a writer for Basketball Insiders puts his defensive impact well:

‘In two matchups, Roberson has held newly minted All-Star Gordon Hayward to 13-for-31 shooting. In a game against the Knicks, Roberson held Carmelo Anthony to 4-for-19. George went 7-for-20 against him recently during a really strong run of play, including just 2-for-9 from deep.

If the only Rockets games you’d seen this year were against the Thunder, you’d wonder how the hell James Harden got all this MVP buzz: Roberson has stifled him to the tune of an alarming 16-for-45 shooting in three matchups (barely 33 percent).

In a weird way, constantly being tasked with such a tough assignment makes things simpler for Roberson.’


Enes Kanter: C+ | 14.4 PPG, 6.7 REB, 1.0 AST

Enes Kanter was well on his way to straight A’s before he broke his arm punching a chair in frustration on the bench. In a way, the incident encapsulated Kanter’s tenure in the league so far: he’s a fantastic player on the court, but once he steps off of it…

Before the infamous incident, Kanter had been playing some of the best ball of his career. The undisputed leader of the bench unit, Kanter harnessed his passing skills and the second unit’s offense ran through him. It seemed as if Billy Donovan had finally figured out the puzzle that is the bench mob.

The Thunder have fared alright without Kanter, going 4-6, but also playing some of the league’s best teams in the Warriors, the Cavaliers (twice), and the Spurs.

Kanter’s impact, at least statistically, is basically a wash. While on the floor, the Thunder score 108 points per 100 possessions — a pretty impressive clip. Defensively, though, the Thunder give up 108 points per 100 possessions. Not exactly a convincing statistical argument for the Turkish big man making $17.1 million this season. He essentially cancels himself out.

Kanter’s impact on this squad can’t be wholly quantified, though. Yes, his bad defensive play essentially cancels out his top-tier post offense, but his impact as a scoring option can’t be overstated on a team that desperately needs scorers. He’s a limited player, but having him available is certainly better than not. Remember: everything is relative.

He’s a consistent scoring option who Russ has confidence in, and that can’t be undervalued,


Jerami Grant: C+ | 6.1 PPG, 2.8 REB, 0.6 AST, 1.1 BLK

The Jerami Grant experiment has worked out pretty well. Sam Presti’s immediate turnaround on Ersan Ilyasova was something of a head-scratcher — especially considering that Grant’s skillset was a bit redundant on for the Thunder –but Grant has proven that he’s more than walking slam dunk.

The Thunder desperately need shooting, and Grant stepped up just like Oladipo did in immediately boosting his shooting to the tune of 14%. Now, at 38%, Grant can be relied upon to knock down a shot from outside.

Grant can still dunk and block shots as advertised, and he may have earned himself a statue in Oklahoma City with this poster over Kevin Durant:

He’s limited offensively, but the Thunder coaching staff can add some moves to his arsenal with a full offseason of work. Plus, he has one of the best defensive players in the league in the league to learn from in Andre Roberson.

Encouraging stuff from Grant, but we need to see more.


Alex Abrines: C | 5.4 PPG, 1.1 REB, 0.5 AST

¡Sí señor! I predicted before the season started that Alex Abrines wouldn’t be able to carve out consistent playing time due to his wiry frame. And, in a way, that’s true — there doesn’t seem to be any method to how Billy Donovan uses the slight Spaniard. He averages just 14 minutes per game. Oftentimes, either Anthony Morrow or Abrines gets the burn, not both.

He’s surprised me in his time on the court, though. His frame hurts him at 6’6″, 190 lbs. — for comparison, Steph Curry weighs the same at 6’3″ — but his shooting ability is too valuable for Donovan to wholesale disregard.

Abrines has shot 38% this season, and there’s reason to believe that could go up as Abrines gets used to the league, fills out his body, and has an offseason or two to put in the work.

Speaking of surprises — who thought Abrines could do this?

We haven’t seen enough of Abrines to give him a thorough evaluation, but there’s reason to believe that he’ll be a fantastic NBA player (and even perhaps a starter) in the coming years.


Domantas Sabonis: C+ | 6.1 PPG, 3.7 REB, 1.1 AST

Domantas Sabonis is a SINO — a Starter in Name Only. Donovan trots him out against the the best bigs in the league, but then reigns him in the rest of the game. A starter averages 30-35 minutes per game; Sabonis plays just 22 per. It’s quite rare for a rookie to get the chance to bang down low against the league’s best power forwards, but its valuable experience for the young guy out of Gonzaga.

His averages are meager (six points per game, four rebounds, one assist), and his impact has been diminished in the latter part of the first half of the season. He started off shooting the three ball at a 44% clip in his first 30 games, but a dreadful shooting slump has brought his average down to 32%. Overall, Sabonis is shooting 40%.

He’s a rookie; it happens. The fact that Sabonis has been able to maintain his spot in the starting lineup has been impressive. The fact that Sabonis has already endeared himself to his teammates with his basketball IQ and attention to detail means good things are in the pipeline. Like all young bigs, patience and a bit of assembly will be required.


Anthony Morrow: D | 5.8 PPG, 0.7 REB, 0.5 AST

This has been a tough season for Anthony Morrow. A devastating shooter when he’s in rhythm, Morrow is hitting threes at just a 29% clip on three attempts per game. Last season, he took the same amount but made over 9% more.

So, yeah, it’s been a struggle for Morrow. Look, I’m the world’s biggest Anthony Morrow fan. When he’s hitting, there are few shooters who excite me more — perhaps it’s his lightning fast release. Maybe it’s the fact that Morrow is every Thunder player’s biggest fan, so seeing his teammates give it back to him is a ton of fun.

Unfortunately, if he’s not hitting shots, Morrow doesn’t bring much to the table besides a veteran presence. It’s been a tough season, and to his credit, he’s handled it as the consummate professional we’ve gotten to know well over the past two-and-a-half seasons.


Joffrey Lauvergne: C+ | 5.7 PPG, 3.7 REB, 1.0 AST

Joff has been one of this season’s great surprises. Speaking of surprises: do not be surprised if Lauvergne ends up as OKC’s next iteration of Nick Collison.

The French forward makes the correct plays most of the time, has excellent instincts, touch, and confidence, and perhaps most importantly, knows his role.

Say it with me: a role player who knows their role is infinitely more valuable than a starter who doesn’t.

His averages are meager, but that’s not the point — Lauvergne’s role isn’t to fill up the box score. His role, like all role players, is to provide a positive contribution and minimize the negative. So far, surrounded by a bench unit that hasn’t quite gelled together, Lauvergne has been as consistent as any other bench player.

Like Oladipo and Grant, Lauvergne also dramatically improved as a three-point shooter as soon as he came to OKC: this season, it’s 35%, up from last season’s 25%. If Lauvergne can be depended on to knock down a three-ball every once in a while, he’ll make a long career in this league.


Cam Payne: D | 5.3 PPG, 1.5 REBS, 2.0 AST

A Jones fracture is not the way that Cam Payne wanted to begin his breakout season. Payne missed a substantial part of the first half of the season, and he hasn’t shown much in his return.

Averaging about four more minutes per game, Payne has only marginally improved his scoring, rebounding, and assisting numbers. Not only is Payne struggling to shoot from deep (31%), but also from two-point range, making just 35% of his attempts.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a second year player, but Payne showed flashes of pure basketball awesomeness last year, and I haven’t seen a glimpse of anything like that this season.

Check back in, though: Payne may just be poised for a redeeming post-All-Star break run.


Nick Collison: C+ | 1.1 PPG, 1 REB, 0.6 AST

There isn’t much to be said about Mr. Thunder himself in his 13th season except that he appears to be on the tail-end of his playing days. He’s averaging career lows in minutes, points, and rebounds, but lets face it — that’s not why Collison is here.

Nick Collison is here because he belongs here, and it will be an absolute travesty if he decides to retire elsewhere. Collison is here to provide an example, to provide guidance for the youthful Thunder core, to be a locker room presence. It’s safe to say that, as always, Collison has done his job.


Semaj Christon: C | 3.2 PPG, 1.4 REB, 2.3 AST

I was quite impressed with Semaj ‘Backward James’ Christon in Cam Payne’s absence. His shooting splits of .342/.190/.478 speak for themselves, but then again, no one ever pegged Christon as a scorer.

Instead, Christon did a fine job of running the point for the second unit. Christon is unselfish (perhaps to a fault), and that may work against him — maybe a bit of aggression would help his shooting totals a bit. For a rookie, though, Christon played pretty well. His game certainly isn’t above reproach, but for what he is, Christon has been just fine for the Thunder.


Kyle Singler: F | 2.2 PPG, 1.2 REB, 0.4 AST

Kyle Singler’s tenure in OKC has been rocky. His 2.2 points per game doesn’t warrant the 10 minutes per game he gets. At some point, you have to wonder: who does Kyle Singler have compromising photos of?

Considering that the average for PER is 15, Kyle Singler is less than one-third of an average NBA player at 4.5 PER. I know that’s not how statistics work, but you believed me for a second, didn’t you? That’s the power of Kyle Singler.


Josh Huestis: Incomplete

We simply haven’t seen enough of Huestis this season to grade him. That said, it is disappointing to see him unable to crack the rotation even occasionally, as Billy Donovan loves tinkering with lineups.


 

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