Four questions for four writers, examining some of the biggest storylines surrounding the Thunder nearly two months into the season:
1. True or false: This is the most complete Thunder team ever assembled.
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - I first floated this idea in early September. People thought I was nuts. But after 22 games, I’m going to say it’s closer to true than it is false. I still question the team’s perimeter shooting. But with Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson emerging, as well as Steven Adams adding never-before-seen athleticism at the center position, this team, top to bottom, is the most complete we’ve ever seen.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - Still TBD. But edging that way. I posed this question to Scott Brooks at practice on Saturday and he scoffed at it, defending his past teams. But when has he ever been this comfortable going this deep into his rotation. He’s got reliable stars, veterans that he trusts and a batch of young guys pressing for more and more minutes. Together, it’s a 12-man versatile menu of options, to which Brooks can adjust night-to-night, based on who is playing well and who he’s playing against.
Jenni Carlson (columnist) - True. There’s not much that this team lacks. It’s got star power and role players and defense and offense and veterans and youth. Now, about the only question is, does will some of those young guys be able to translate what they’re doing now when the playoffs roll around? If the likes of Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Roberson can, look out NBA.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - True. This team is deeper than the past couple of years, plus older. To whatever extent OKC misses Harden, it makes up for it with The Law Firm (Jackson & Lamb). And even if all the auxiliary pieces are a wash, Durant is better than he’s ever been, Westbrook is better than he’s ever been and Ibaka is WAY better than he’s ever been.
2. Who or what has surprised you most in the early season?
Mayberry - The East. It stinks! Oh, we’re talking just the Thunder? Well, in that case, I’ll say the team rebounding. The Thunder is out-rebounding opponents by 2.3 rebounds more per game than last season. Its plus-5.2 differential is tops in the league. And while opponents are averaging the exact same number of offensive rebounds as last season (12), the defensive rebounding hasn’t been nearly the sore spot it’s been in year’s past. Credit Serge Ibaka for stepping up in that department. But Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Steven Adams have all helped as well.
Slater - The rapid development of not one, but all of the young guys. Reggie Jackson has arrived as a viable Sixth Man candidate (the current favorite?). Jeremy Lamb is shooting it more efficiently than Kevin Martin did last season. Steven Cyborg Adams is chipping in 16 productive minutes a night. And even Andre Roberson looks like a future defensive stud. It’s a great team now, but the future looks brighter than ever.
Carlson - Andre Roberson. I mean, it’s great what Reggie, Lamb and Steven Adams are doing, but Roberson was in the D-League last week. Now, he’s going toe-to-toe with Kobe. It’s just one more reminder of how well the Thunder drafts. They have so much young talent with great potential that Sam Presti should be embarrassed. Who drafts this well all the time?
Tramel - Jeremy Lamb. Truthfully, I was pessimistic about Lamb. Didn’t see much out of him last year. But he’s solid in every way. Excellent shooter. Good penetrator. Decent on defense. He’s a ball player. Good enough to excel in this 7th-man role or start, should Thabo depart in free agency.
3. Pick a date: When does the undefeated home streak end?
Mayberry - Jan. 17. Golden State. That means the streak will last eight more games. We’ll see the Thunder go 19-0 at home before losing another close one to the Warriors. After a brief but potentially brutal two-game trip at Memphis and Houston, the Thunder could be ripe for a letdown to start a three-game home stand.
Slater - I’ll go with Houston on Dec. 29th because you have to figure — law of averages — a home loss is coming at some point soon. And the Rockets, to me, are the best team they’ll play at home between now and mid-February. But overall, the West should pray OKC doesn’t get homecourt advantage. The Peake is a dangerous place. Road teams have only won seven of 52 games the past two seasons.
Carlson - Jan. 17. Sure, the home games at the end of December will be tough. Houston on Dec. 29. Portland on Dec. 31. But I like the Thunder to win both. Not until Jan. 17 when Golden State comes to town do I see a loss. And the reason I go with that one is its the back end of a back-to-back. The night before, the Thunder will be in Houston where it’ll be a track meet, then to have the same kind of up-and-down game the next night? Seems like a night that the home winning streak will end.
Tramel - I’ll guess Jan. 2 against the Netropolitans. The Thunder gets up for big games. But sometimes an also-ran sneaks up on the Thunder. Denver and Washington almost did it November. Brooklyn’s a mess, but it has enough talent to get up for one over-it’s-head game.
4. What remains this team’s biggest roadblock to the Finals?
Mayberry - Trust and inexperience. So I cheated and listed two. I’m not sure the Thunder’s staff or its stars have fully learned to trust the role players when the going gets tough. We still see the ball movement stop and isolations for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant ramp up when defenses dig in. And if the Thunder has evolved in this way, I’m still not sold on young guys like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III stepping up and making big plays if needed in the postseason.
Slater - Outside shooting. Last season, the Thunder was one of the best 3-point shooting teams (38 percent, 3rd in the NBA). This season, it’s one of the worst (34 percent, 23rd in the NBA). That’s a substantial drop-off, related to personnel, that might bite them deep in the playoffs. But it also might not. The Thunder has proven it can win in this three-happy league without taking or making a great deal of threes. The first 22 games this season serve as a great example.
Carlson - Spurs. And it will remain the Spurs until further notice. As long as Gregg Popovich is still coaching and Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still playing, that is a team that will give everyone fits in the playoffs. The Thunder’s youthful athleticism gives it as much of an advantage as any team, but if I’m a contender in the West, I’d still be most worried about the Spurs.
Tramel - Injury. That’s what derailed OKC last year. Truthfully, that should scare ThunderLand more than any particular foe. The West is loaded with good teams, but true Thunder at full strength is the team to beat.