One of the concerns about the Thunder, despite its 30-8 record, is a lack of scoring balance. Kevin Durant (28.1) and Russell Westbrook (23.7) rank second and fifth in the league in scoring, and James Harden’s 16.5 is a load. But then the Thunder scoring dips down to Serge Ibaka at 8.2 and Daequan Cook at 5.9.
So how much of a problem is that?
All kinds of teams have excellent balanced scoring. The Bobcats, for instance, have more double-digit scorers (five) than they do victories (four). The 22-17 Nuggets have seven double-digit scorers, plus Rudy Fernandez at 9.3 per game. But clearly, the Thunder is the most top-heavy scoring team in the league. The Heat’s Big Three scores a ton (LeBron 27.8, D-Wade 22.9, Chris Bosh 18.4), but Mario Chalmers is next at 11.0. And the Bulls have deeper balance than the Thunder: Derrick Rose 22.4, Luol Deng 15.8, Carlos Boozer 15.1, C.J. Watson 9.8 and Joakim Noah 9.6. And that’s not counting Rip Hamilton (11.3), who has missed more than half the season with injury.
But you can counter that the Thunder top-heaviness actually is a good thing. The best players take the vast majority of the shots, and that’s never a bad thing.
Here’s one way to look at it. Among all 30 teams’ leading scorer, the Thunder’s ranks second – Durant’s 28.1 points a game trail only Kobe Bryant’s 28.9. Among all 30 teams’ No. 2 scorer, the Thunder’s ranks first – Westbrook’s 23.7 ranks ahead of Wade’s 22.9. Among all 30 teams’ No. 3 scorer, Harden’s 16.5 ranks second, behind only Bosh’s 18.4. That’s a tough field – Andrew Bynum (16.2), DeMarcus Cousins (16.2), Steph Curry (15.6), Luis Scola (15.2), Boozer (15.1), Ray Allen (14.7), some Knick guy from Harvard (14.6). Yet Harden ranks second.
But then it gets sticky for the Thunder. Among each team’s No. 4 scorer, the Thunder’s Ibaka ranks next-to-last – only the Lakers’ Matt Barnes (7.0) checks in lower than Ibaka’s 8.2. Only five other teams average just three double-digit scorers.
And among each team’s No. 5 scorer, again, only the Lakers are close to Cook’s 5.9. LA’s Steve Blake is at 6.4. The next-lowest No. 5 scorers in the league are the Kings’ Jason Thompson (7.9), the Rockets’ Chase Budinger (7.9) and Miami’s Norris Cole (8.2).
Clearly, there are advantages to having a big three. The scoring trends in this discussion are obvious: the Thunder is most like the Heat and the Lakers. Throughout history, it’s rarely a bad thing to get on a list with the Lakers. And most definitely in the last two years, it’s never a bad thing to get on a list with the Heat.
Unbalanced scoring is not a bad thing. Look at the Monday night Thunder-Mavs game. Durant, Westbrook and Harden combined for 30 of the Thunder’s final 32 points. In the fourth quarter, the only points outside that trio came from two Ibaka foul shots with 46 seconds left in the game.
You could argue that the Thunder has great balance, at the top. The Thunder has three go-to scorers. In fact, down the stretch, OKC ought to go to Harden more. That would relieve some pressure off Durant and Westbrook.
The primary problems I see with the unbalanced scoring are:
* Potential of injury to one of the scorers. When a team like Denver plays without Dino Gallinari, the Nuggets have enough guys that can pick up the slack. Same with the Clippers, who lost Chauncey Billups but still have the likes of Caron Butler and Mo Williams as their fourth- and fifth-leading scorers.
But if OKC has to play without Durant, Westbrook or Harden, from where does the scoring come? In the only game this season any of them has missed, Harden sat on Feb. 20 against New Orleans. And the Thunder struggled past the scrappy but outmanned Hornets 101-93. Westbrook and Durant each scored 31. No one else reached double digits, though everyone chipped in – Ibaka nine, Cook seven, Royal Ivey and Reggie Jackson six each, Kendrick Perkins five, even Cole Aldrich four.
* Total lack of help with the second unit. We are seeing another downside to the Thabo Sefolosha injury.
With Daequan Cook now starting, his production hasn’t really changed. Cook came off the bench the first 19 games of the season and now has started 18 straight; his scoring off the bench was 4.9, compared to 6.9 as a starter. But Cook’s minutes have gone up, from about 15 minutes a game to about 22 minutes a game. So he’s scoring at close to the same clip.
However, no one much is helping Harden. Ivey, despite some clutch play in recent games, does not match Cook as a bench scorer. Reggie Jackson is just trying to keep his head above water in replacing Eric Maynor as the backup point guard. Nick Collison does everything well except score. Nazr Mohammed has his moments of flurry but also goes long stretches without contributing points.
Harden is a one-man gang with the second unit, which Scotty Brooks likes to play together. So that’s where the Thunder could use some scoring help – in those first few minutes of the second and fourth quarters, when Brooks rests all his starters.
Against the Mavs on Monday night, Harden scored OKC’s first 11 points of the fourth quarter. Until Durant and Westbrook checked back in with 8:01 left, Harden was a lone soldier scoring. Such production is not likely to hold up in the playoffs. So if Thabo could return, and Cook could get back to helping the bench unit score, the Thunder will be better off.