Oklahoma City Thunder – Shall we dance?

May 24, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and guard Cameron Payne (left) celebrate during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
May 24, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and guard Cameron Payne (left) celebrate during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

Heading into a rare January home game, could the debut of Westbrook’s dance partner be the x-factor the Thunder has been waiting for?

OKC Thunder has yet to record a 2017 win and face a heinous January schedule featuring 12 road games and 11 currently seeded playoff teams. Following three consecutive road losses the OKC Thunder has dipped to the seventh seed. There is no relief in sight with 9 more road games and 8 playoffs seeded teams still on tap this month.

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Russell Westbrook has been doing his part currently averaging a triple-double and on pace to match the record set over 50 years ago by Oscar Robertson. But, are Westbrook’s superhuman efforts enough to keep this team seeded? More importantly, are his efforts in fact hurting the Thunder?

The T.I. Debate:

This has been a hot narrative among the Thunderous Intentions team and fodder for many recent articles. For those in the “worried camp”, the concern is Donovan is telegraphing his offense via only having Westbrook handle the ball and take all clutch shots. Conversely, the “we can fix it camp” (maybe naively viewing the situation) but believe there are ways to counteract the situation.

Having always been an optimist (and arguably Westbrook’s greatest supporter) you can guess which side I’m leaning toward.  My optimism got a shot in the arm today with news Cameron Payne will make his debut tonight. For those who shy away from pregame prep, Payne is the teammate who performs the sideline dance with Westbrook.

To put it bluntly, if Payne has anywhere close to the offensive versatility as he does dance moves this bodes well for the Thunder.

Related Story: Does Russell Westbrook need a shot limit from three?

Westbrook Production by Quarter:

For those who reside in the ‘concerned camp’, they have a healthy argument. For example, breaking down Westbrook’s production by quarter shows he moves away from distributing the ball as much, the deeper the Thunder gets in the game.

Westbrook Clutch Production:

Further, a look at Westbrook in the clutch punctuates the above fact. For the purposes of comparison, I defined clutch situations as when the Thunder are tied or trail by up to 5 points.

The chart observes Westbrook’s production starting at 5 minutes, each interval of a minute less, as well as the final:30, and:10 seconds of games. Quite clearly,  Westbrook is less likely to pass, or create successful assists and subsequently, the resulting effect is the team’s win percentage decreases.

Can Cameron inflict ‘Payne’ on the opposition?

Prior to fracturing his foot, (in what many were worried would be another OKC player out for a lengthy period due to a Jones fracture), Payne showcased major offseason growth.

This past week Payne played a few games with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s D-League affiliate. He used these games for conditioning to get back his timing and flow. Although his initial outing showed signs of rust his final appearance provided an eye-opening stat. Most notably he connected on 6 of 7 threes.  For those wondering, that’s an 85.7% success rate. While no one expects Payne to maintain that accuracy, adding a perimeter shooter who could consistently hit with half that efficiency would be a revelation.

RELATED CONTENT:  Oklahoma City Thunder: Three Point Shooting By The Numbers

In addition to another perimeter scorer, Payne’s return could pay immediate dividends, specifically on offense. With a lack of players who can create their own shot and the Thunder’s regression in ball movement, Payne offers a massive upgrade from Semaj Christon. Furthermore, he brings energy to the court and will be able to be the primary ball-handler for the reserve unit.  Moreover, his addition increases Donovan’s lineup choices in a myriad of situations.

RELATED CONTENT:  Victor Oladipo’s injury has oddly helped out the Thunder

Fundamental Tweaks:

As many of the TI staff have noted, the Thunder played some of their best offense while Victor Oladipo was out.  Perhaps it’s a matter of the team all raising their level of play, but it sure seemed more like the squad did all the simple things.

To wit, ball and player movement were stellar in the 5 wins during Oladipo’s absence with the team averaging 24.8 assists per game. Even with Dipo’s return versus the Clippers, they maintained the average with 25 assists. However, during the Thunder’s 3-game losing streak they’ve regressed to an average of 19 assists per game.

Is there a secret Thunder Triad about to be unveiled?

One major lesson learned from the recent losses (as per Tony Heim’s article) is the Thunder stopped player and ball movement. The main issue seems to be anyone on court with Westbrook tends to fall into a bad habit of ‘ball watching’. And while it seems simplistic to say – move your body and the ball, perhaps it is that straightforward.

The other key player in this mix is Victor Oladipo, who like Westbrook and Payne can create his own shot, instigate ball movement, and offers yet another scoring option.

As I mulled over Payne’s return and what it could mean for the Thunder it occurred to me  Donovan can now have 2 shot creators on the floor at any one time and could even experiment by utilizing all three versatile guards (Westbrook, Oladipo, Payne) especially in clutch situations.

As a segue, Oladipo told Fred Katz, when he can’t sleep he calls Westbrook who sings lullabies to him.

Given this news – if Payne is Westbrook’s dance partner, could we safely say Victor is Westbrook’s singing partner? Although this may seem trivial to some, the fact remains a certain small forward left town this past offseason and did so without even given his main man, Westbrook a courtesy break up call.

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Considering Westbrook appears to have the best off-court relationship with Dipo and Payne, why not consider how that could translate on the floor.

Ultimately, January will determine much about the Thunder’s season. If Donovan can utilize these 3 talented guards to generate more offense it could provide the answer to improving the Thunder offense.

The main question will be can Westbrook utilize his song and dance partners with equal aplomb on the court and trust them in clutch and end game situations.

Hey, I don’t know about you, but for my money, a killer song and dance number is always the best way to close the show!

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