Have The Oklahoma City Thunder Lost Their Identity?


It seems the Oklahoma City Thunder are suffering what can only be described as an identity crisis. A record of 9-6 is hardly a crisis, but it’s been a struggle to say the least. It’s easy to say that Kevin Durant‘s absence has made things difficult, but his return won’t cure the issues that have plagued the Thunder through the opening stretch: they don’t know who they are.

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There has been brilliant performances despite these early season problems. The opening night win over the Spurs or the dismantling of the Nuggets, Suns and Wizards. But between those impressive displays there was the 122 points the Grizzlies dropped last week, the second half collapses against the Rockets, Raptors and Bulls and the anaemic offensive displays against the Knicks and Celtics. It’s not panic time, but it is fair to worry.

In the past what has bailed out the Thunder in these situations was their defense. Look at the team’s rating in previous years:

The Thunder perimeter defense needs to get back to doing this. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

This is a big problem. There are a lot of factors at play but defensive intensity and effort is at the forefront. Perimeter defense has been horrendous apart from Andre Roberson (on court defensive rating of 98.0) and they are merely funnelling players into the interior defenders.

This is not an issue when Steven Adams (97.9) and Serge Ibaka (102.3, whose stats are skewed by sharing the floor with Enes Kanter) are on the floor, but the likes of Kanter (105.6) cannot be expected to cover for the errors made defending the perimeter.

Kendrick Perkins

didn’t do a lot of things, but his defense was a big part of the Thunder in past years. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Teams are scorching the Thunder from deep, shooting 38 percent thus far against them. 105.2ppg is way too many for a team to be conceding on a nightly basis. They say defense wins championships and while in modern basketball you need a versatile, balanced but efficient offense to win, you also need to be able to defend at an elite level. Right now Oklahoma City cannot do that.

Perhaps the loss of Kendrick Perkins is bigger than first thought? Whilst his production is not something the Thunder ever came to rely on, they certainly relied on his defense. One of the best post defenders of his era, the now Pelican was never a rim protector. But he was an elite team defender, always knowing where to be and when on the defensive end.

Nick Collison has inherited that mantle now and is an excellent role model for the likes of Mitch McGary, Adams and Kanter. However he’s not as demanding and strong as Perkins was, who expected maximum effort from his teammates. It’s not Durant’s leadership style to demand the same, and Russell Westbrook cannot do that when he himself is one of the players who must lift his defensive contributions.

These issues though, while damning are not problems that cannot be fixed. Against Dallas they got stops when they needed them, and this was a promising development especially when playing Rick Carlisle‘s incredibly well drilled offense.

Billy Donovan is still learning his team’s best rotations and fits within the system he is trying to implement, and they are second in offensive rating at 106.8 despite missing Durant for the last 6.5 games. They can put up points when they need to, but that’s no good if you can’t stop them being put on you in return.

One of the best strength’s of the team in season’s past was the way the defense fed the offense. Blocks, steals and the Thunder’s ability to force bad shots with their crazy length led to run outs which almost always led to good offensive opportunities. See below:

That’s not happening as much now because those points scored against them are resulting in more half court offense. The Thunder are getting better at that, but the growing pains from the new attempts at more ball movement are causing more turnovers than ever. It will get better, but it needs to soon.

Right now Oklahoma City wouldn’t stand a chance against the likes of Golden State, Cleveland and San Antonio. Those teams get it done at both ends and do so at an elite level. In a league where teams are getting more and more efficient, you can’t afford not to be a top 10 defense at minimum if you want to make noise in the playoffs.

Luckily we are still in November and there’s almost 70 games to sort these issues out. Despite their struggles, as a result of today’s win the Thunder sit 4th in the Western Conference bloodbath. That shows the potential this team has. But they need to sort it out to rediscover their identity and soon, or we’ll be talking about another season of potential that’s been wasted in Oklahoma City.

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