The Oklahoma City Thunder are just a few games into the 2013-14 season. While there haven't been any bombshells quite the magnitude of the James Harden trade, there have still been a few surprises. And fortunately, most of those surprises have been positive.
Many expected the Thunder to have a down year after losing Kevin Martin and opting not to pick up a proven replacement, but they currently sit near the very top of the Western Conference with just one loss. Not too shabby at all.
Here's why it's happened.
Russell Westbrook Is Back
Russell Westbrook isn't just back. Russell Westbrook is back and doing stuff like this:
Look at that! How is that possible from a guy who was supposed to be out four to six weeks, per DailyThunder? If this isn't proof that Westbrook isn't 100 percent human, I don't know what is.
Westbrook couldn't have come back a moment too soon for the Thunder. Without its star point guard, OKC was 1-1 with a hard-fought victory over the currently winless Utah Jazz and a blowout loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. With him, it's 4-0 and has beaten three potential playoff teams in the Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks.
As you might imagine, Westbrook has helped most on the offensive end. The Thunder scored about 97 points per 100 possessions without Westbrook. With him, that number's jumped all the way up to 107 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
And the funny thing is, Westbrook's not even playing all that well.
He's scoring 19 points per game, but his true shooting has fallen to 45 percent, and he's averaging only four assists to go along with that.
That's probably because of rust, but the fact that the Thunder have improved this much even with Westbrook playing poorly helps show his importance. His aggression and constant assaults on the rim open the game up for his teammates to a degree the stat sheet will never show.
The biggest beneficiary of Westbrook's return? Serge Ibaka.
In Westbrook's two-game absence, Ibaka tried to step up and fill the scoring void. While the effort was certainly nice, the results were just awful. Ibaka averaged 8.5 points a game on 25 percent shooting, mostly because everything he tried to do was outside of his comfort zone—attacking off the bounce in isolation, awkward post-up attempts, etc.
In the four games Westbrook has played, Ibaka has stuck mostly with mid-range jumpers out of the pick-and-pop, and as a result, he's averaged nearly 16 points a game on 57 percent shooting.
It's almost as if the Thunder got two players back with Westbrook's return.
Young Players Are Stepping Up
Six games is far too early to make any significant conclusions about the Thunder's young bench, but boy has it played well so far.
Let's start with Jeremy Lamb, the heir apparent to Harden and Martin at the shooting guard position. Lamb's rough preseason (he shot just 37 percent from the floor and 17 percent from three) may have worried some, but he's been outstanding this year.
Lamb's scoring 10 points a game on 60 percent true shooting and has been surprisingly decent on the defensive end to boot.
Lamb hasn't been great at creating his own shot, but he's had a lot of success coming off of pin-down screens, and he and Nick Collison already have a nice little two-man game going.
Most importantly, Lamb is shooting 40 percent from three, which is huge for the Thunder.
Entering the season, the biggest concern with Lamb was his three-point shooting. Lamb's got a gorgeous shot, but he's never hit elite percentages from outside at any level. In college, Lamb maxed out at around 37 percent from three, and in the D-League (where he spent most of his time last season), he shot just 35 percent.
The good news for Thunder fans is that Lamb has a history of taking a lot of iffy off-the-bounce threes, but almost all of Lamb's three-point attempts this year have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, per NBA.com. It's early, but if that continues to be the case, Lamb should post solid numbers and counteract OKC's relative lack of shooting.
The guy generating the most buzz isn't Lamb, but rookie center Steven Adams—and for good reason.
Adams was billed as a total project heading into the draft (just check out his DraftExpress profile), but he's already cracked the rotation for the Thunder and is actually getting more minutes than Kendrick Perkins.
Adams is still raw, but he's extremely active and is averaging about 11 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes. It took him exactly five games to become the first Thunder center in seven years to post a game of at least 17 points and 10 rebounds. While he's not going to play like that every night, it is indicative of his talent.
Adams is tough (watch him take this elbow from Vince Carter and not even care), physical and extremely mobile for his size. He could end up being a pick-and-roll force to balance Ibaka's more perimeter-oriented game.
There are definitely things to improve on. His defensive rebounding percentage (15.4) is low, he fouls too much to get big minutes, and he sometimes struggles to cover the pick-and-roll effectively.
Still, everything that Adams has shown is overwhelmingly positive, and if he continues to grow at this rate, he may end up becoming the steal of the 2013 draft.
Even Perry Jones has chipped in for OKC. Jones is a stellar athlete. Though he hasn't harnessed all of his physical tools, he's gotten 13 minutes a game this season thanks to some hard work on defense and because he doesn't try to do too much offensively.
Jones will almost undoubtedly get squeezed out of the rotation eventually, but he's been productive and flashed some real potential on the defensive end.
Maybe the best way to sum up the play of OKC's young reserves would be to say that when Kevin Durant is on the bench, the Thunder are outscoring opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions, per 82games.com. Good stuff.
Scott Brooks Is Experimenting
Scott Brooks hasn't always been the most flexible coach, but give the man some credit. He's been pretty fantastic this season.
Brooks generally does very little tinkering with his rotations. Last year it was pretty much set in stone that he would end games with the starters or the starters with Martin subbed in for Thabo Sefolosha. In general, that was a good thing—the Thunder starters crushed opponents last season, per NBA.com.
In certain cases, though, subbing out Perkins and going small would have played to OKC's advantage, yet it was never something Brooks seemed comfortable doing.
Look no further than the Thunder's recent overtime win against the Wizards to see how that's changed. In overtime, Brooks kept both Perkins and Adams on the bench, opting to go with Ibaka at center and Durant at the 4 to maximize the amount of shooting on the floor.
It sounds like a minor change, but it makes a huge difference against teams that love to play small, and it's a welcome change. Brooks has also shown a willingness to experiment with all sorts of player combinations, throwing out a significantly higher number of lineups than he did at this point last season, per NBA.com.
Seeing what its young players can do and whom they're best suited to play with could pay huge dividends for OKC in the playoffs. Brooks clearly gets that, and he's given Reggie Jackson, Lamb, Adams and even Jones the bulk of minutes over Perkins and Derek Fisher, as well as giving them a pretty long leash in terms of making mistakes.
Brooks isn't going to play an 11-man rotation forever, and as mentioned earlier, Jones—who hasn't done much that Sefolosha and Collison aren't capable of—will probably be the odd man out. But the mere fact that he's been willing to try so many new things is a great sign for a team with plenty of new, young pieces.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless specifically stated otherwise.
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