The sky might be falling on the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the basement is holding up just fine.
Trapped in the franchise's first three-game home losing streak since 2008-09, the Thunder are raising eyebrows—not alarms—with their play of late. Panic sirens simply don't sound at the top of the Western Conference standings.
There is, however, some concern mounting in the Sooner State. And gobs of misguided concerns cropping up all across the basketball landscape.
With Russell Westbrook's return from a nearly two-month absence coinciding with this mini-skid, fans have been all too quickly connecting the dots.
The two are not related, or at least not in the way that far too many are thinking.
Westbrook isn't the problem, assuming a 43-15 team even has such a thing. Getting an All-NBA talent (second-team selections in each of the past three seasons) back only helps:
"Are #Thunder better without Russell Westbrook?" That is the single dumbest question anyone could ask about the structure of OKC's team.— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) February 27, 2014
If the blame can't be pinned on his shoulders, though, where does it belong?
Considering this defense suddenly can't stop a nosebleed, it seems smart to point the first finger at that end of the floor.
In their first 54 games, the Thunder only surrendered 100-plus points to at least three straight opponents once (a four-game stretch in early November). They've now let four straight teams go for triple digits against them, with OKC's defense allowing an average of 111.3 points on 50.2 percent shooting.
Anomaly doesn't feel like a strong enough word to describe what we've been seeing. These defensive leaks came from so far off the radar, it's hard to believe they exist even while hearing all the rushing water.
On the season, teams average 98.4 points on 43.4 percent shooting against OKC. The Thunder are tied for the seventh-fewest points against and hold the NBA's third-lowest field-goal percentage allowed.
Yet this unit just got shredded by the offensively challenged Cleveland Cavaliers (42.4 percent shooting, 30th) for 42 fourth-quarter points during Cleveland's 114-104 win Wednesday. A Cavs team, by the way, that was playing without Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters and C.J. Miles.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks tried his best to offer an explanation, saying there's a certain intensity lacking from his team.
"It's a defensive toughness," Brooks said after his team's latest loss, per Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press (via NBA.com). "We have to get tough on the basketball because we're giving up too much penetration. We have to fight through screens."
A missing toughness, huh? You don't say.
Missing Man in the Middle
Might that be the same toughness typically provided by scapegoat center Kendrick Perkins, who's missed all but seven-plus minutes of this losing streak with a strained groin:
Also, because it's hilarious: The Thunder is now 0-4 without Kendrick Perkins this season.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 27, 2014
There's no sizzle in Perkins' stat sheet: 3.4 points on 44.4 percent shooting, five rebounds, 0.5 blocks in 19.7 minutes a night. His on/off splits deem him as something between expendable and problematic: plus-2.4 net rating when he's on the floor, plus-10.1 net rating when he sits.
There is value, though, if you a) know where to look and b) avoid eye contact with his overpriced $8.7 million salary, via Shamsports.com.
He might not be swatting many shots, but he's changing a number of them. His 40.2 field-goal percentage against at the rim is third lowest among players facing at least three such shots per game (40 game minimum), via NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.
He's yielding the sixth-fewest points per possession on isolation looks (0.48 on 25 percent shooting) and 25th fewest on post-up plays (0.66 on 31 percent shooting), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
The team has better help defenders (see: Serge Ibaka's 2.5 blocks per game) and bigger defenders with better mobility (see: rookie Steven Adams). But talent and physical tools are nothing without effort.
Right now, the Thunder simply aren't expending championship-level defensive energy:
Russell Westbrook on the Thunder's struggling defense: "Take individual pride. Just got to take individual pride and guard."— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 27, 2014
Perkins' bag of offensive tricks might be empty, and his defensive skill set may only consist of nastiness and a motor.
But that aggression can swing the outcome of games. That motor can carry this team through adversity.
His absence left a glaring void on OKC's interior, and no one seems to be rushing to fill it.
Unfortunately, that's not the only vacancy Brooks is having a hard time occupying.
Young Guns Firing Blanks
To me, the biggest intrigue surrounding OKC's championship potential this season has always been the upside of its youthful contributors: Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Perry Jones III. It's not often you see a mix of win-now pieces and this many developing pieces in the same rotation.
It's hard to do any busting with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka around, but the Thunder's quartet of youngsters certainly aren't booming at the moment.
Jackson, a third-year scoring guard, has the longest track record of the three. He's lived through the deer-in-headlights experience of subbing for Westbrook in last season's playoffs and never once looked rattled by the moment.
He hasn't, however, dealt with a workload like this before. He's already been given more minutes this season (1,654) than he had in his first two years combined (1,494).
Is the mileage starting to add up? Perhaps. That would help explain his diminishing returns on the stat sheet:
Reggie Jackson's FG% has gone down every month this season: 46% in Nov, 44% in Dec, 42% in Jan, 40% in Feb. Struggling lately.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 27, 2014
At least he still has box scores to speak of. Lamb's have simply vanished into thin air.
A smooth scorer with a silky shooting stroke, the second-year swingman suddenly can't find buckets—or even minutes.
He's barely eclipsed his season scoring average (9.7 points) over his last three outings combined (10). He's labored for each one of those points, too, shooting just 20 percent from the field and 10 percent from distance.
He saw fewer than 11 minutes for the first time in 2013-14 during Wednesday's loss and could be looking at even less if his confidence doesn't return soon.
Adams looks like someone working on a feast-or-famine allotment of court time, because that's what Brooks has given him. The rookie cleared the 25-minute mark in Wednesday's loss but logged less than two minutes during the Thunder's loss to the Miami Heat on Feb. 20.
He's raw offensively and such a different type of player than Perkins that an acclimation period is unavoidable. Still, Adams shoulders some of the blame for the defensive breakdowns as the last man standing in front of the basket.
Jones largely escapes this conversation with a free pass, as it seems Brooks is still trying to figure out how best to use the former top prospect. Jones has perimeter skills with interior size (6'11", 235 pounds), but a certain MVP candidate already has that market cornered.
The Thunder are young contenders, showing their youth more than they'd like at the moment. Still, there's plenty of time left to address these problems mild concerns before the real season starts.
When Will They Snap Out of It?
That's a question that doesn't even need to be asked considering we're not even into March just yet.
Truth be told, this is a terrific time to bring Westbrook back, increase the exposure of some of the younger players and work out the kinks as they arise.
What's the biggest obstacle facing this team moving forward?
Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka have been at this long enough to where they've already cleared that adjustment hump. With the trio combining for 68 points, 26 rebounds and 20 assists their last time out, this Big Three is looking as dangerous as ever.
With this much youth around them, though, there are going to be bumps on the path to the podium. Losing a player like Perkins, who gives them something no one else on the roster does, only throws more hurdles on the track.
Adversity builds character, as they say, and this will be no exception. The Thunder might be showing some vulnerability now, but their superhuman strength will add a new element of power before this is over.
So, even if the sky keeps falling for a little while longer, don't be surprised if this team looks past it and locks in on the sunshine that lies ahead.