Four questions for three writers, analyzing what we’ve seen from the Thunder so far and what may await the Western Conference contenders down the road.
1. What has impressed you most about Steven Adams?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - His instincts. For a guy who, by all accounts, has a lot to learn, he sure seems to know where to be and what to do. Offensively and defensively. He’s not perfect, of course. But his natural ability to make plays has been incredible. He’s much better than I thought.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) – His near emotionless on-court demeanor. And I mean that in the best possible way. Vince Carter elbow to the face, whatever. Matchup with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, who are they? Off the court, he’s quirky and interesting. But on it, he’s like a 7-foot, 255-pound basketball playing robot, created by Sam Presti to stoically fit the interior needs of this team perfectly.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - That’s like asking me what impresses me most about a 62-degree November day. Or the San Juan mountains at daybreak. You want me to pick one thing? OK. Tough. Adams’ hands, the way he’s able to catch and corral the ball, even in transition or in traffic, is WAY above the NBA norm for a big man. And his touch on shot from 3-5 feet is rare. I’ve been saying that we’ve still got to figure out if he has a clue about post defense. But it’s starting not to matter. If this guy has a clue about post defense, he’s Hakeem Olajuwon. I guess I’ve just crossed a major hyperbole line.
2. Besides Adams, what’s the most encouraging thing through five games?
Mayberry - Russell Westbrook is back earlier than expected. Duh. His return allows the Thunder to essentially hit the ground running with the team it will have this year rather than acclimate to life without Westbrook only to have to figure out how to again play with him a month in. And the explosiveness that Westbrook is showing is huge. It not only says the his knee is fully healed, but it also suggests he fully trusts it.
Slater – Clearly, it’s the return of a healthy Russell Westbrook. But beyond that, it’s the young guys. All of them. Not just Adams and the already established Reggie Jackson, but Jeremy Lamb and, yes, even Perry Jones in a minimal role. They are all 23 or under. And together, they continue to raise the present and future ceiling of this team. And if they continue to grow, so will the Thunder’s championship window.
Tramel - You mean besides the return of Unbreakable? Besides the Lionheart missing only two games? I’d say the bench, notably Jeremy Lamb. It’s way early. The NBA equivalency of one NFL game. But Lamb has averaged 10.2 points, he’s made 7 of 16 3-pointers, he’s shown the ability to drive and toss in soft floaters, and he’s playing with confidence. In five games, Lamb and Adams have put the Harden trade in a whole new light.
3. Biggest area of concern for this team moving forward?
Mayberry - The 3-point shooting. Nothing will get me to change that tune this season. This team just doesn’t have enough shooters around Durant and Westbrook. To make defenses even think about respecting the role players, the Thunder would have to throw out a lineup of Derek Fisher, Jeremy Lamb and Serge Ibaka alongside Westbrook and Durant. That could be a defensive nightmare, and even on the other end there’s no guarantee that the supporting cast is capable of consistently making shots.
Slater - You both mentioned the outside shooting. I’ll narrow the focus: Thabo Sefolosha is struggling, and I mean struggling, with his shot right now. He went 3-of-17 from three in the preseason and is now 3-of-19 in the regular season. The release looks tentative and the arc looks flat. Maybe it’s just an early-season rut and he’ll soon break out. But maybe, in a contract year, it’s something that’ll remain a viable concern all season.
Tramel - The outside shooting still stinks. Thabo’s not hitting. Reggie Jackson can’t shoot. Westbrook’s not hitting, though that might come with time. Fisher, I assume, will be fine. But the Thunder can’t stretch the floor the way it could last season.
4. What’s your current Western Conference power rankings 1-3?
Mayberry - 1. San Antonio. 2. Oklahoma City. 3. Golden State. I just think those are the three most talented teams, with all three having explosive, or at the very least really tough offenses to stop, as well as the potential to be stout defensively.
Slater - 1. Thunder 2. Clippers 3. Spurs. Before the season, I had the Clippers winning the West, in part because of Doc Rivers’ defensive acumen. But so far, it hasn’t meant much. LA is giving up an NBA-worst 108.3 points per game. Too early to drop them out of the top-3, but enough to flip-flop them and a fully healthy Thunder team.
Tramel - Let’s see. The Thunder has had a relatively easy schedule, though it’s had only two home games. Look at it this way. OKC has a better record than does Minnesota (4-2), and the Timberwolves have played twice as many home games (four to two) as has the Thunder. I’d rank it right now: 1. Spurs; 2. Thunder; 3. Clippers (tough schedule for the 3-3 Clips).