Do you really want to make Russell Westbrook mad?
The answer is a definitive "no," yet what little amount of discussion the Oklahoma City Thunder are drawing early in the season might be doing the trick.
The Miami Heat are constantly discussed as title contenders. We hear about the success of the Indiana Pacers and the struggles of both the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers ad nauseam. The Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and so many other teams in the Western Conference always seem to be in the press.
But what about OKC? Don't the Thunder feel a little bit disrespected at this point in the season?
Let's stop sleeping on them. Please?
Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson Getting Experience
Russell Westbrook's absence during the early portion of the season was undoubtedly a negative for the offensive flow of the Thunder.
Kevin Durant had far too much pressure heaped up onto his shoulders, and the defensive attention was just too much. K.D. couldn't post big scoring totals every night, and efficiency seemed to be a thing of the past.
Additionally, Scott Brooks was exposed. The head coach didn't show that he could adjust his system and rotations, but that's beside the point right now. On the surface, everything about Westbrook's knee injury was a negative. But it's not when you dig a little bit deeper.
While the All-Star point guard was out of the lineup, there were spare minutes to be divvied up among the rest of the backcourt. And that meant Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb got some real-time experience—experience that will prove to be quite valuable as the season progresses.
When Jackson and/or Lamb is inevitably playing during a big moment, wouldn't it be nice to look back and remember that he's played in key situations before?
Through four games, Lamb has actually been one of four Thunder players to average double figures in the scoring column. He's putting up 10.3 points per game, doing so on 48.5-percent shooting from the field.
Jackson's early season didn't go quite so swimmingly.
Although he's on a torrid pace from the perimeter, the Boston College product has struggled shooting two-pointers and has coughed the ball up with far too much frequency. His averages of 8.5 points and 4.3 assists weren't what were needed to replace Westbrook, but they'll look quite good now that he's a complementary player.
Not only did the Thunder get to evaluate the young talent during regular-season action, but Jackson and Lamb also looked like they'll be beneficial pieces throughout the year. Plus, Westbrook is back far sooner than expected, so it's not like too much was lost.
The Steven Adams Factor
Steven Adams was supposed to be so raw that Oklahoma City diners have tried ordering him off of a sushi menu. He entered the league so raw that officials were calling timeouts during the preseason so he could wipe the blood off of his body. He was so raw that it would take years for him to earn a prominent place in the OKC rotation.
Only one of those three statements is true. I'll let you guess which one.
So far, he's surprised everyone.
Through four games, Adams averaged 4.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.8 blocks on 50 percent shooting from the field in 17.5 minutes. And that was before his breakout performance against the Detroit Pistons (more on that in a bit).
The seven-footer from New Zealand has been a revelation off the bench, simply because he does everything Kendrick Perkins does—and he has hands. Seriously, he can actually catch a basketball.
This is a huge development for the Thunder, an organization that relies a bit too heavily on draft picks and internal development. They haven't made a crucial free-agent signing in years, so they've been sitting and waiting for another piece to emerge.
Could that piece be Adams?
He certainly won't help fill the scoring void left by Kevin Martin and the staggering lack of improvement that Serge Ibaka has shown over the past few years, but he's not as much of an offensive liability as Perkins. And that makes a big difference, as defenses have started to completely ignore the starting big man, which lets them provide extra help against Durant and Westbrook.
Plus, he's also remarkably good at getting Vince Carter suspended. Who knows, maybe that could come in handy down the stretch? On a more serious note, Adams has actually been a solid rim protector, as shown by the SportVU stats at our disposal thanks to NBA.com.
In addition to his 0.8 blocks per game, Adams has guarded 3.8 field-goal attempts at the rim each contest, and he's fared well. Opponents are shooting just 46.7 percent against him near the hoop, and remember, that's the spot at which players are typically most effective.
There are 86 players who are playing at least 15 minutes per game and facing at least 3.5 shots per game at the rim. Among those, Adams is No. 52 in field-goal percentage allowed, sandwiching him right in between John Henson and Al Horford.
Yes, it's the bottom half, but that shouldn't be embarrassing for a rookie. He'll only improve as he only progresses in the transition to the NBA. Hell, he even ranks above Tim Duncan!
It's already time for Steven Adams to move into the starting lineup, and that's a huge plus for the Thunder. He showed that—and then some—against the Pistons Friday night.
With Adams on the court, the Thunder outscored the opposition by 20 points. His 17 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, one steal and three blocks certainly had a lot to do with that. Between his creative finishes at the basket, tenacity on both ends of the court and work on the glass, he looked—dare I say it?—like he could be a future star.
As for Perkins?
Lowlighted by a sequence in which he grabbed a rebound, threw an outlet pass right to Brandon Jennings, and then committed a soft foul that led to an and-1, Perkins finished with a minus-15 plus/minus in just 17 minutes, easily the worst mark on the team. He was terrible.
It's time for a change at center.
The only thing Perkins has on Adams at this point, even though we're only five games into the Pittsburgh product's professional career, is a beard.
Oh, Yeah, Those Guys
When a team has two of the 10 best players in the NBA, it's typically going to be extremely competitive. Such is the case for the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially because Durant is still widely considered the No. 2 player in all of basketball.
Westbrook and Durant have always been good together, particularly over the past two years. It's worth noting that no Western Conference team has knocked the duo out of the playoffs over the past two postseasons, although you can make a case that the San Antonio Spurs would have beaten them even if Westbrook had remained healthy.
Durant is still on the roster. Westbrook is now healthy and playing his way back into form, even if that's happening at a slower pace than most Thunder fans would like.
As long as those two are next to each other, the Thunder are title contenders. Durant proved as much against the Pistons, who should be considered a dangerous team at this point.
He had an absolutely sensational game versus Detroit, finishing with 37 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block on 9-of-15 shooting. Wait, what? Thirty-seven points on 15 shots?
That's what happens when Durant goes into attack mode while Westbrook draws defensive attention. Durant made 19 trips to the free-throw stripe, draining 17 of them without even breaking a sweat. These are the types of performances that you can expect to occur with more frequency now that the dynamic duo is back together.
Plus, it's not like they're the only standouts on the team.
Serge Ibaka is still a great defender and pick-and-pop threat. Thabo Sefolosha is a surprising athlete and defensive stalwart. Nick Collison is a fantastic glue guy. And the veteran leadership from Derek Fisher only helps the cause.
This is still a title-contending roster.
Now it's time to start talking about it like one.