Should the Thunder’s Slow Start be Cause for Concern?


The first three weeks of the season haven’t gone exactly as planned for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team has won only six of their first 11 games, and has gone without a win against an NBA team for over a week (not including Friday night’s win against the 76ers for obvious reasons).

But things might not be as bad as they seem at first glance for the Thunder. The five losses have come against teams that made the playoffs last season and expect to make it this season. Houston (lost by five), Toronto (five), Chicago (six) and Boston (15) all played incredibly well against the Thunder, and Memphis (eight) deserved to win that game based on their gorgeous uniforms alone. (Editor’s Note: …and the incredible play of first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, Mario Chalmers)

While the only quality wins are probably opening night’s game against San Antonio and last week’s game against Phoenix — Washington was without Bradley Beal in Oklahoma City’s 24-point win — there are positive signs for the Thunder, despite the less-than-stellar start.

Offensively, the Thunder have been humming right along. Based on offensive efficiency, the Thunder rank second in the NBA, scoring 110.2 points per 100 possessions (behind only Golden State’s 113.3 points per 100 possessions, per Moreover, the Thunder are performing well in several specific areas on the offensive end.

According to’s “play type” data, Thunder ball-handlers are scoring 0.81 points per possession in pick-and-roll situations, which is tied for 9th in the league (Golden State leads the league scoring 1.01 points per possession). This makes sense as Russell Westbrook is one of the best pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the league, and it’s the type of play Westbrook runs more than any other.

The post-up is one of the most inefficient ways to score in today’s game, but the Thunder are using it to their advantage so far this season. The Thunder are the most efficient team in post-up situations, scoring 1.05 points per possession. However, the Thunder are using the post-up sparingly as it makes up only 6.2 percent of their possessions (Memphis leads the league as the post-up makes up 15.1 percent of their possessions). Oklahoma City has three of the best post-up options in the league, as Kevin Durant and Enes Kanter are two of the most efficient players in the post, and Westbrook is arguably the best post-up threat in the back court in the league.

The team also scores 1.28 points per possession on cuts, behind only Boston (1.38) and Portland (1.33). While this is something the team could stand to do more frequently — the team scores on cuts on only 5.4 percent of their possessions compared to Golden State’s 10.5 percent — the team is incredibly effective when using it.

Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, the Thunder have slipped from previous years, but the framework of a good defense is visible.

3-point attempts allowed is normally a better indicator of a good defense than 3-point percentage allowed. Teams can normally force opponents off the 3-point line but not always force them to miss difficult shots. This is the idea Billy Donovan had when he became the head coach this summer, and the team is responding to his coaching on that end. The Thunder have allowed the second-lowest percentage of shots from the 3-point line, allowing opponents to shoot threes on only 23.6 percent of their shots (Golden State leads the league at 21.9 percent).

The issue currently is those 3-point attempts are going in at a higher rate than average. Opponents are shooting 36.6 percent from behind the 3-point line against the Thunder, while the average team is shooting 34.1 percent (Memphis’ 70.6 percentage on Monday night probably didn’t help that). If that number regresses closer to the league average, the team’s defensive rating should rise closer to the top.

The team’s rim protection remains a strength as long as Serge Ibaka is playing major minutes. Opponents are shooting only 55.1 percent in the restricted area, the fourth best mark in the league. Both Ibaka and Adams have done an admirable job protecting the rim as Adams is allowing opponents to shoot only 45.8 percent at the rim while defending 7.5 attempts per game. Ibaka is his usual dominant self as he’s allowing opponents to shoot under 41 percent while defending almost 9 attempts per game. According to Nylon Calculus’ rim protection metric, Ibaka is saving 4.67 points per game, a number that puts him in the top-15 in the league along with players that are mostly centers.

As long as a few of the unlucky happenings start to regress closer to the mean, the Thunder should start winning some of the close games they are currently losing. However, there are a few things the team needs to improve upon.

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There are only a few holes offensively, but Oklahoma City is turning the ball over on almost 15 percent of their possessions, the second-highest mark in the league. The teams that have a similar percentage as the Thunder are the 76ers, the Kings and the Bucks, none of which are known for their elite offenses.

The 3-point rate for the Thunder is below league average. The team’s 3-point attempts make up only 25.5 percent of their shots, compared to the league average of just under 28 percent. Part of this can be explained by the team’s habit of playing two big men on the court at all times, and Ibaka is shooting fewer threes than he did last season. But with Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Ibaka, Kyle Singler and many other capable shooters (although some might only be capable in terms of volume, not efficiency), the team can stand to shoot more from the outside.

Other than a few small issues offensively, the team doesn’t have much to worry about. Defensively, however, is another story.

While the team allows one of the lowest percentages at the rim, they also allow the opponents to shoot the highest percentage of their shots at the rim. According to, the Thunder allow opponents to shoot 29.3 percent of their shots at the rim, far higher than the league average of 24.7 percent. No matter the percentage opponents are shooting at the rim, a shot within three feet is always one of the most efficient shots in the game. While Adams and Ibaka are doing their best to deter potential drivers, there’s only so much they can do from the inside.

Wing defense is an issue with the Thunder, as the only above average defenders on the wing are Durant and Andre Roberson (also known as the player I talk about far too often). Both players were out in Monday’s game against the Grizzlies, and it was obvious in the team’s defensive production. Stopping players from scoring at the rim starts on the perimeter; if a player can’t get to the rim, then he cannot score at the rim. Currently, the Thunder are allowing opponents to put too much pressure on the interior defense, which allows for more opportunities for the Thunder’s defense to break down.

Overall, the team hasn’t lived up to the expectations placed on them before the season. But if anyone is selling their Oklahoma City Thunder stock 11 games into the season, I’ll be the first one to buy.

Next: Can Kyle Singler Live up to OKC's Expectations?