The Thunder is 3-4 in the past seven games, struggling on both sides of the ball without its All-Star point guard. Four questions for three writers, examining these recent developments:
1. The Thunder has clearly struggled of late. Cause for concern?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Nope. Not at all. Russell Westbrook isn’t around. I don’t think anything we are witnessing without him matters. It’d be nice for the team to be playing better. But this isn’t the team that will be in the playoffs. So the struggles are irrelevant. We have to judge this team with its full complement of players.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Sure, it’s always cause for concern when you struggle. The Thunder was good early in the post-Westbrook surgery days. But since then, OKC has struggled. Jeremy Lamb has been inconsistent. Reggie Jackson has been bad. The defense has withered. Thabo hasn’t picked up the slack. You would think the Thunder would be getting without Westbrook, not worse. Of course, Westbrook eventually will be back, and who cares how the Thunder plays without him. But you don’t want to dig yourself too big a hole.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - Not really. The team that we’ve seen the past couple weeks couldn’t win a title. Probably wouldn’t win more than a playoff series in the West. But we’ve always known that. You would have liked to see more out of guys in expanded roles — particularly Reggie Jackson — but once Westbrook returns, everyone slides back into their comfortable slots. Then we can start judging again.
2. Most disappointing factor in this recent rough patch?
Mayberry - The defense. It’s been dismal. But a close second, a very close second, is the inability of the team’s role players to step up and contribute consistently on offense. The latter is somewhat understandable given Westbrook’s absence. Somewhat. But there’s no justifying the team’s defense deteriorating like it has.
Tramel - I’d say Jackson’s slump. I mean, just a few weeks ago, we were talking about how the Thunder was going to be able to keep him. Could the Thunder pay him enough? But Jackson is not boosting his stock. He’s looked ragged as often as not. Not doing much playmaking. Not doing much finishing at the rim. Not picking it up on defense, where he had been so promising early.
Slater - Agree about Jackson. Save for one 27-point outburst against Boston, he’s shooting 36 percent since Westbrook’s injury, impacting the game far less than he was in a more limited role. But that’s only played a part in what has been the biggest disappointment: OKC’s stagnant offense. We knew there’d be a drop-off, but this has been a cliff dive. In the 12 games before Westbrook’s injury, the Thunder averaged 109.7 points. In the 12 games without him, OKC has averaged 99.5 points, including its only three games under 90 this season. And it’s been downright ugly to watch at times.
3. Silver lining from this recent stretch?
Mayberry - Everyone who got bumped up a a spot since Westbrook’s injury is getting valuable experience. Reggie Jackson is going to be better from having played against first stringers. Jeremy Lamb is going to be better from being the primary go-to offensive threat off the bench. Perry Jones III is going to be better because he’s getting minutes. Even Andre Roberson has gotten sporadic playing time. You’d hope these experiences will make them all feel comfortable when it’s win or go home.
Tramel - I don’t see much. More playing time for Perry Jones? Being able to re-sign Jackson much easier? Making every appreciate Westbrook all over again?
Slater - I’ll go with the small forward position. Both from the starter and back-up. Even though his shooting percentage has dipped, Kevin Durant has shown a new level of offensive assertiveness. Come playoff time, even with Westbrook, there’ll be times he’ll need to shoot and shoot a lot for the Thunder to pull out a game. Good to know he’s willing and aware. Also, Perry Jones has probably taken most advantage of the added opportunity. He’s shown he belongs in the NBA. Good for both his long-term potential and trade value. Gives the Thunder another intriguing asset.
4. True or false: This non-Westbrook team is better than the one that got bounced in the playoffs.
Mayberry - False. It has the potential to be, and, frankly, it should be. But it’s not. These guys are losing to Brooklyn and getting blown out by the likes of Utah. They’re blowing leads and playing poor defense. This Thunder team has more talent than last year’s non-Westbrook playoff team. But it still has not tapped into that talent and shown that it’s better.
Tramel - I’ll say false. Not so far. That team last May was faulty but fought. Those four straight losses to Memphis were all tight games. The Thunder didn’t roll over. The last three games, the Thunder has been blown out twice (Utah, Denver) and played the single worst game I’ve seen the Thunder play since Year I. The playoff team last spring never looked this bad.
Slater - True. But not by a ton. Both had huge problems scoring the ball. But in a vacuum, or a 7-game series, this current Thunder team is better. Reggie Jackson is better. Kevin Durant is better. Serge Ibaka is better. Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb provide a different dynamic. That hasn’t exactly translated the past seven games, but in the long run, I believe it to be true.