We are now nearly three weeks into the 2017-18 NBA season. How soon should we begin to assess all of the offseason maneuvers taken by each team? Avery Bradley has had a hot and cold start in Detroit, Paul Millsap has started to look like he’s figuring things out in Denver, and Brook Lopez is only playing 25 minutes per game for the Lakers. There is a lot to dissect if you’re into doing it so soon, but I suppose that’s why you’ve clicked this article. The Thunder are 4-4 as I write this, good for 10th in the West so far (only a win or two from moving up multiple spots). The Cavaliers are 10th in the East and the Spurs are on the outside looking in as well in the West, so you can certainly see that things are bound to change. I don’t care. I want to assess the Thunder anyway.
So far, the big three for the Thunder look pretty good. Carmelo Anthony is leading the team in points per game, which despite his history of studly basket-making skills, is surprising. The general consensus was that Westbrook would remain the alpha dog, Paul George would be the clear-cut number two guy, and Melo would be a catch-and-shoot stretch big man, taking a bit of a backseat. Taking a backseat has never been Melo’s style, as he demonstrated by fending off emerging star Kristaps Porzingis in New York for scoring looks the last couple of seasons. The pre-season idea was that we would see “Team USA Melo”, meaning efficient scoring mixed with solid defense and an emphasis on rebounding. Hoodie Melo has displayed solid defense, but his rebounding is a bit down while still scoring at a clip we’ve seen from him the last couple of years. Paul George is right where most expected him to be statistically. He has (so far) seen a slight decline in his points, rebounds, and assists while getting a bump in steals. So where does that leave last year’s NBA MVP?
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Westbrook led the NBA in points per game last year at 31.6. He averaged 24 field goal attempts per contest to get there. So far this season, he is averaging 19.5 points and 16 field goal attempts per game. 12 points per game less is a very steep decline no matter what a player averaged the previous year. The decline in field goal attempts was expected but is also a pretty staggering difference. Another surprising figure that stands out is a 64% free throw percentage despite still getting almost six attempts per game. This percentage, as well as his scoring average, are likely to raise and settle into the numbers we have come to expect from one of the association’s top players, but this is a very early assessment after all (which I will likely continue to point out because it really is SO EARLY). The Brodie’s assists are up and he is still nearly averaging a triple-double, so he is getting along in historic fashion despite the uncharacteristic numbers. He is technically on pace to have more trip-dub outings this season than last if you can believe it.
The Thunder are one of the most defensively efficient teams in the NBA, which is a pleasant surprise. A lot of people like myself said that the key to OKC’s success this year would be a defensive focus and team-oriented mindset. We knew that the offense would be solid between Russ, Melo, and PG-13. There are a lot of capable defenders on the roster – we know that Westbrook and George are tenacious and Andre Roberson is bordering on elite as a wing defender. Steven Adams has never been a top-tier rim protector, but he is solid in the post and has improved his steal and block numbers per game. In fact, Adams has improved across the board much the way people expected he would before last season began, following a strong 2016 postseason campaign. Plus, he is essentially a pirate.
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As I had mentioned, the new players were expected to bring a healthy punch on offense while playing solid D. With all of the pre-season expectations though came concerns as well. One worry was depth. The starting five looked great, but the bench was a little underwhelming for a team looking to challenge the Warriors’ reign in the West. So far, so good from what I’ve seen off the bench for the Thunder. With Westbrook, you need a backup point guard that can give you a couple of minutes without mental errors while Russ catches his breath before coming back in to breathe more fire – Veteran Raymond Felton fills that role nicely. Alex Abrines has been off to a bit of a slow start but is a capable shooter that the Thunder need. Jerami Grant has been a bright spot off of the bench playing very good defense and providing his usual energy.
With an intimidating starting lineup, a serviceable backup crew, and one of the NBA’s top defenses, the Oklahoma City Thunder are looking good out of the gate to start the 2017-18 NBA season. Westbrook will only improve as he figures out how to lead his new cast, which is a wild thing to say about a player that is already nearly averaging a triple-double (again). Paul George and Carmelo Anthony already seem surprisingly comfortable and Steven Adams is showing marked improvement, which is important. If you picked the Thunder to be one of the top teams in the NBA, don’t fear, you are looking smart at this point. We still need to see them play some of the league’s best squads, but there have already been more than a few flashes of their potential brilliance. Thunder up.