Four topics for four writers, dissecting some early-season storylines inside Thunderville and across the NBA.
1. Finish this sentence: Russell Westbrook’s play has been ___________ this season.
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Average. Probably sounds harsh considering the dude is averaging a career high in assists to go with 20.5 points. But this is year five for Westbrook and I expected more. Maybe because he showed more in the preseason. But so far he’s been widlly underachieving on the defensive end and his decision-making offensively is still questionable, which has been a big reason he has struggled with his shot.
John Rohde (beat writer) - Predictably perplexing. We’ve learned through the years how well Russell plays is often directly up to Russell. That’s how talented he is. He can do everything well and everything not-so-well, all in the same game. Lately, he has displayed better defense and less selfishness. If he sticks with that combination, he’ll take two major steps toward becoming a top 5 player.
Jenni Carlson (columnist) - Vintage Westbrook. Russ is the savior one minute, the goat the next. We are still looking for that consistent greatness out of the Thunder point guard. (And it’s those moments of sheer wonder that make fans so frustrated when he does something boneheaded.) But I tell you what, he’s been great a lot more this season than he’s ever been before. In my estimation, he’s on the verge of leaving no doubt that he’s the best point guard in the game. That’s right. I said it.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger) - A barometer for OKC. In the Thunder’s eight wins, Westbrook is averaging 22.1 points on a respectable 45 percent shooting. But during OKC’s three losses, the sporadic guard is averaging only 16.3 points on a horrific 29 percent shooting. Those numbers just confirm what we already knew. As Russell Westbrook goes, so go the Thunder. When he’s on, controlling the game with speed and aggression, OKC seems almost unbeatable. When he’s struggling, trying to nullify one missed jumper by cranking up another, the Thunder become vulnerable.
2. What (or who) has been the Thunder’s biggest surprise so far? Disappointment?
Mayberry - I’d have to go with Kevin Martin as the biggest surprise. For him to be averaging 17.6 points without really having more than a backdoor cut drawn up for him is truly incredible. He’s in a contract year, which suggested he would perform well. But he’s been scorching to start this season, most impressively excelling even as Westbrook and Durant go long stretches where they seemingly forget he’s even on their team. As for my biggest disappointment, it would be Eric Maynor. He just hasn’t consistently been in control of the second string like we once knew him capable of being. He’s been inconsistent offensively, subpar defensively and has gotten into the habit of taking 3s more than he takes his man off the dribble to create for others. Maynor was the biggest reason why there was hope that the bench could stay afloat without James Harden. So far he’s been the biggest reason why it has not.
Rohde - The biggest surprise has been Hasheem Thabeet. Of course, when you expect nothing and get something, that’s always a good thing. His confidence seems to grow a bit more each game. Who knows what next spring might bring? The biggest disappointment has been Perry Jones III, although he hasn’t hurt the team because he’s so far down the bench. An athletic addition who seemed like a quick fit at training camp and in the preseason, the kid now looks petrified. He needs more time than anticipated. Again, he’s not harming the team, but he’s not helping, either.
Carlson - Biggest surprise has been Nick Collison. Just when you thought the super sub was doing all that he could, he goes and does more. This season, he’s added to his offensive game to try to help make up for the loss of James Harden. Biggest disappointment has been Perry Jones III. I know, I know, he’s only a rookie, and Scott Brooks has shown that he slow plays rookies. But after the way PJ3 played in the summer league, it’s shocking that he has yet to get any significant minutes. I think that time is coming. I’m just surprised it hasn’t come yet.
Slater - Kevin Martin’s got to be the biggest surprise. As Darnell said, he’s fit seamlessly into an offense that’s almost geared against getting him his typical shots. I mean, the dude is averaging 17.6 points in 29 minutes this year. Remember James Harden’s incredible bench efficiency last year? He only averaged 16.8 points in 31 minutes. And Martin is shooting 53.6 PERCENT from three. That’s second-most in the league (behind red-hot O.J. Mayo) for anyone shooting at least 3.5 per game. Will it last? That’s has to be a worry for the Thunder. In his nine previous years, Martin never shot better than 41.5 percent from deep. And biggest disappointment? I’ll go with Kendrick Perkins. He’s averaging 4.5 points and 4.6 rebounds. That’s his lowest output since 2004-05, eight seasons ago.
3. Bigger threat to dethrone Oklahoma City: Lakers, Grizzlies, Clippers or Spurs?
Mayberry - Clippers. But the Thunder doesn’t want to see Memphis either. The Lakers and Spurs the Thunder can handle over time. In a seven-game series against the Clippers or Grizzlies, though, the Thunder would be in big trouble. As I wrote for Wednesday’s paper, the Clippers just have strengths to offset the Thunder’s strong suits perfectly. They’ve got youth, athleticism, leadership, 3-point shooting, depth, size and a closer in Chris Paul. They’re the Thunder’s worst nightmare.
Rohde - All the above. In order, it’s Clippers, Grizzlies, Spurs and Lakers.
Carlson - Until the Lakers start acting like the Lakers — how did they manage to bungle things so badly to start the season — the Grizzlies are the team to watch. They’re young. They’re tough. That makes them dangerous to the Thunder.
Slater - The Lakers. And I know that won’t be a popular pick. Memphis and the Clippers have warranted OKC’s attention (and that of anyone across the league) with hot starts. But that’s all it is. A hot start during the ebb and flow of a long season. The Lakers, as could have been predicted, are struggling through an adjustment period. When Miami assembled its three-headed monster two seasons ago, the Heat started a mediocre 9-8. Eventually, they figured it out and reached Game 6 of the Finals. The Lakers are 5-5 right now, already with a second coach. But come April, I expect a Kobe-led team to have things figured out. They’re a veteran team with win-now hunger. And those are crucial qualities in the postseason.
4. True or false: The Thunder are still favorites in the West.
Mayberry - I’ll say true. As much as the Harden trade shook up the Thunder, there still are far fewer questions in OKC than there are elsewhere.
Rohde - False. We’ll learn more when the Clippers visit Wednesday night. If the Thunder wins, this question shifts a bit in OKC’s favor. Then again, it’s only Nov. 20 and the Thunder has played four measly road games. Ask me again in one month, in two months, in three months. Is the Thunder good enough to repeat? Absolutely, but there’s no denying the Clippers and Grizzlies are better (and healthier) than last season.
Carlson - True. The team’s blend of talent, young legs and playoff experience still makes them the team to beat. Sure, the Grizzlies have great toughness and skill. Sure, the Lakers have great veterans. Sure, the Spurs have what the Spurs always have. But the Thunder has a combination that no other team has, even without James Harden.
Slater - False. Hard to identify a favorite in this suddenly bunched up group. So there isn’t one. Until more of the season unfolds, you could convince me any of the above five will be representing the West come early June. But gun to my head, I’ll still guess the team with the most potential. That’s Oklahoma City. With all five teams at their best, the Thunder have the best best (if that makes sense). But that’s far from a guarantee come playoff time.