Are We Starting To See The Real Oklahoma City Thunder?


It’s been a mixed season in Oklahoma City. After opening with three wins (including an impressive first up defeat of the San Antonio Spurs) the Thunder dropped three in a row. Three more wins followed and in the process Kevin Durant was sidelined with a hamstring strain.

Fans panicked that the team was heading down a path similar to last season, when their star man wearing the number 35 missed 55 games through injury. This time round he sat out six games, as the team chose caution with his return. The Thunder went 3-3 through his absence, including bad home losses to the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics.

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Analysts and fans started to question the team, and the season wasn’t even 20 games in. A new coach in Billy Donovan had arrived while new teammates acquired last season were still trying to integrate; Durant had barely played with some of them and others not at all. The adjustment period was always going to take time learning new schemes on both ends of the court while Donovan learns the NBA ropes, not to mention discovering his best rotations and lineups. That is something that is certainly still a work in progress.

For teams like the Thunder, that’s what the early part of the season is all about. They experiment in November and December so that they’re not doing so in April onwards. A few losses here and there in the season’s opening are always going to be favourable than when it really matters.

Since Durant’s return against the Jazz however, the Thunder have become something resembling their true self. They’re 10-3 in that span, good for third in the league. Donovan is starting to work things out and the team is gelling heading into the new year.

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In the 14 games before and during Durant’s injury the Thunder posted an offensive rating of 107.5, already making them an offensive juggernaut. Since his return this has jumped to 109.0, third in the league behind the historic Spurs and Golden State Warriors.

Defensive inconsistencies plagued the Thunder early in the season, with a 101.8 rating placing them in the middle of the pack defensively. In the last 13 games though they are second in the league, only trailing the Spurs with a 95.9 defensive rating. That is incredible progress that shows an improved understanding of the more conservative scheme Donovan employs.

To place these improvements within context we can take a deeper look into a few of the improvements and impacts the team has had on both ends of the court. The team has a net rating of +13.1 per 100 possessions, third in the league.

The Thunder have actually been crashing the offensive boards less, down from a league high 32.3 percent to 27.1 percent (fourth in the league). This is actually a good thing however, as this trade off is helping their transition defense which had been an issue through the early parts of the season. It also hasn’t stopped them being the second best rebounding team in basketball, collecting 54.2 percent of all available rebounds.

Defensive focus has been key to the Thunder’s recent improvement. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive improvement can be seen through the team’s change in true shooting percentage, from 55.2 percent (fourth in the NBA) to 57.4 percent (second in the NBA). These changes can appear to be small, but it is those differences that seperate the very good teams from the best in the game.

A secret to this success could be found in a surprising slowing of the pace for the Thunder. Earlier in the season they averaged 101.2 possessions per 48 minutes, and this has slowed to 96.3 through the last 13 games. Perhaps Donovan has realised the exposure on his defense playing at a faster pace, whilst the team has improved it’s half court offense.

Issues still plague the Thunder and there is no doubt about that and they certainly still turnover the ball far too much. Elite teams will punish that every single time. Also through nine of their losses Oklahoma City have lost seven of those games by six points or less. Additionally in seven of those the Thunder have led at some point in the fourth quarter.

You realistically could argue besides the loss to Boston (which was simply a bad loss) consistency and poor second half execution cost them those games, particularly late in the fourth quarter. This will have to improve throughout the regular season, or it will cost them in the playoffs.

There are downsides and things to improve on but don’t let national analysts tell you it’s all doom and gloom. It’s almost Christmas and the Thunder are beginning to figure these things out. They’ve still got more than 50 games before the playoffs to continue improving. Right now they sit second in offense and eighth in defense (and rising).

The question is now with plenty more time to integrate and improve, how much better can the Oklahoma City Thunder get?