The Thunder have put one full month in the books, winning 13 games in November, the most in the month since the team moved to Oklahoma City. (The franchise record for wins in a month is 14.)
I mentioned it after the game against the Jazz, but considering the situation, that’s nothing short of impressive. Or outstanding.
It was just two days before OKC’s first game of the season when the Thunder shook the roster up entirely by trading James Harden to Houston. The fears, the worries, the questions all poured in. Especially after the Thunder’s shaky 1-2 start.
Now they’ve won 13 of 15. Some perspective though: It’s been with one of the easier schedules in the league, yes. But again, think back to a month ago and the anxiety that came with dealing Harden. People knew the Thunder would remain good, but the amount of time to sort through things was the question. And evidently, it took three games.
Consider: Last season the Thunder finished second in offensive efficiency, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions. After 18 games this season, the Thunder are third in the league, scoring 110.1 per 100. OKC’s effective field goal percentage is up, true shooting percentage is up and the assist rate is way up (by 4.6!). It’s only a month of data, but by virtually every measurement, the Thunder’s offense better this season than last.
Four big reasons: 1) Kevin Durant is playing at another level right now in terms of offensive efficiency; 2) Russell Westbrook is distributing and creating better than ever; 3) Serge Ibaka is a legit offensive weapon and 4) Kevin Martin has fit in gorgeously. Now, I think the Thunder probably would be in a similar situation statistically with Harden simply because Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka’s growth were natural and to be expected. But that’s the point — the Thunder have grown organically as we expected them to, and have reached a new level.
On to the player rankings:
1. Russell Westbrook (Last week 3)
It’s early, of course, but there’s some light MVP buzz building around Westbrook. Mainly for this reason: When people assume one thing is one way and a player proves them wrong by exceeding that expectation, it becomes a narrative. And the narrative with Westbrook has been about his supposed selfishness, except he’s blowing that noise completely apart right now.
He’s averaging a career-high assist number, but not just that, he’s clearly understanding and running offense better than ever. He still forces up some bad ones and has some wild turnovers, but it’s all becoming more and more forgivable.
Check out Westbrook’s week: Four games, 16.8 ppg, 9.5 apg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 spg. (And 5.0 turnovers per game, which obviously isn’t ideal.)
I’ve said it before, but I think the best measure of Westbrook isn’t actually his individual stats. But the team’s. Because everyone understands that raw talent and power of Oklahoma City’s roster. With two of the league’s most efficient and gifted scorers on the roster in Durant and Martin, the Thunder are built to succeed. And the only thing that could potentially hold the Thunder back from scoring effectively would be Bad Russell. So as long as the Thunder are chugging along offensively — which again, they are, better than ever — then you’ve got to tip your cap to Westbrook and say job well done.
He’s had to take on more of an offensive responsibility without Harden and has responded exceptionally well. That was the big fear of the Harden trade. No one questions Westbrook’s desire, competitiveness and ability, but sometimes it’s all a bit misguided. And with more of a burden falling on him to make the Thunder engine run, there was nail-biting as to if he’d handle that well. So far, so outstanding.
Is he an early MVP candidate? Absolutely. No question. Not ahead of Kevin Durant quite yet, but he should be in the conversation.
2. Kevin Durant (Last week: 1)
KD’s week was a less than his usual ridiculously impressive self simply by default. His stupid team kept blowing people out and taking away his minutes and thereby, stats. He still managed to average 25 ppg on 60.7 percent shooting (34-56). How? Because he’s Kevin Durant and that’s just what he does. He scored 12 points on 4-6 shooting while I was writing that last sentence.
(Also, take note of KD’s turnovers recently. They were an early blemish on Durant, but he’s got them under control. Since the Clipper game on Nov. 21 where he turned it over six times, KD hasn’t turned it over more than three times in a game. He’s averaging just 2.2 over his last six games.)
Take note of this though: With Durant on the floor this season, the Thunder are averaging 114.2 points per 100 possessions and 102.1 with him off. That’s a +12.1 difference. (For reference, the Heat are averaging 116.1 with LeBron on the floor versus 106.7 off, for a difference of +9.4.) But bigger than that, with Durant on the floor the Thunder’s defense is considerably better. As in a 103.2 defensive efficiency with KD compared to a 114.5 without him. No player this season is making as big a difference overall in terms of points per 100 possessions as Durant is.
Want to mention this too: The Thunder were expected to use KD a lot more at power forward this season with smallball lineups. How’s that gone? With 67 percent of his minutes coming at small forward, his PER is 23.1. With the 14 percent that have come at power forward, he has a PER of 45.9. I’ll email Hollinger and ask, but that seems pretty good.
3. Kevin Martin (Last week: 2)
After a few dodgy outings, Martin responded by averaging 16.8 a game this week on 46.8 percent shooting. And more than that, especially over the last two games, Martin appeared to have a lot more confidence and comfort in his role. He attacked more, looked for his own a bit and seemed to be finding a little of that natural scoring touch outside of just spotting up for 3s.
The Thunder really weren’t close in their four games this week, so the major question about his involvement went unanswered. But the more he’s involved — and involves himself — the more he’s likely to be part of crunchtime. Martin is very clearly a “flow” player. A guy that needs to be included and get touches if he’s to remain effective.
Martin’s actually been a pretty terrific clutch player statistically speaking for OKC this season (per 36 in the clutch, he’s shooting 80 percent from the floor, 4.2-of-5.3, including 100 percent from 3), he just hasn’t had much opportunity.
For instance, his usage rate is a respectable 21.1 percent. But in the clutch, that drops all the way to 9.0 percent. (Compare that to last season in Houston where his usage in the clutch was 25.8 percent.) KD’s usage in the clutch this year is 36.2 percent. Westbrook’s is 34.2 percent. Heck, Serge Ibaka’s is 12.3 percent. Point is, Martin has to be involved more in those crunchtime situations.