OKC Thunder's Shooting Woes Threaten to Derail Season for Good

Jon Hamm@@JonMHammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterDecember 12, 2017

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and forward Carmelo Anthony (7) talk on the court in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Nearly three weeks ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder throttled the Golden State Warriors and looked like a team that had begun to find its footing.

Instead, the Thunder have only spun their wheels since that Nov. 22 victory.

Impressive home wins against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz have been dulled by losses to the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets. Oklahoma City's lone victory in the last week was a one-point overtime win against a floundering Memphis Grizzlies squad.

The Thunder faced a reeling Hornets team Monday night and again came away with a loss, 116-103 at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Hornets led by as many as 20 points in the third quarter as they improved to 2-10 on the road this season.

It hasn't helped that the Thunder have been dealing with key injuries. Forward Paul George missed two games with a calf injury. Reserve Jerami Grant sat one game with a hip contusion. Ace defender Andre Roberson missed the Hornets game with a sprained ankle. But recent injuries are merely a footnote to the list of the Thunder's struggles.

The bane of the Thunder's existence this season, of all things, has been shooting. A squad that should be a top-10 offensive team on paper has struggled to get the leather through the metal. Oklahoma City finds itself 29th in field-goal percentage at 43.6 percent. It also ranks near the bottom of the league in three-point percentage (28th) and free-throw percentage (29th).

Thunder Shooting By Season
SeasonFG%3FG%FT%
2017-1843.633.972.3
2016-1745.232.774.5
2015-1647.634.978.2
NBA.com

"There's been times that we haven't generated good shots," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said before the game. "I also think there's been times that we've gotten really good looks, and we haven't made those shots."

Indeed, the Thunder are creating over 23.3 shots per game deemed "open," according to NBA.com (ninth in the league), yet only 40.7 percent of those shots are falling (28th). What was supposed to be a free-flowing offense with ample space to operate in has been as rough and ragged as an Oklahoma back road.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - DECEMBER 11: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots the ball during the game against the Charlotte Hornets on December 11, 2017 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Oklahoma City made just 40.1 percent of its shots over the last two games. Only a late flurry pushed the Thunder's final shooting percentage above 40 against Charlotte, but it was too late. Three quarters of poor shooting had done the damage.

Is this something that could eventually improve? Or are more adjustments needed? Donovan didn't offer much of a response.

"Once the ball leaves your hands, it's really out of your control," he said. "I've never been around a player that every time he shoots the ball, he doesn't want it to go in."

He did, however, continue to make note of the Thunder's clanky free-throw shooting. "One thing that would help the offense is if we shot the ball a little bit better from the free-throw line," he said.

His team did hit 24 of its 25 foul shots Tuesday, but it made no difference.

Westbrook, George and Anthony have all been off the mark throughout the season. All are shooting worse than their career averages from the field and free-throw line. All are prone to straying from offensive sets and reverting back to old isolation habits. Donovan has stressed the importance of quality shots since the season started, but it rarely takes hold for an entire game.

OKC Big Three Shooting Slumps
Player2017-18 FG%Career FG%2017-18 FT%Career FT%
Russell Westbrook39.643.272.881.9
Paul George41.843.282.384.8
Carmelo Anthony40.445.176.981.2
Basketball Reference

Anthony tends to alternate between the mythical Olympic Melo, whose purpose is to facilitate and nail catch-and-shoot jumpers, and Knicks Melo, who can jab step any offensive set to a slow death. 

Yet it's Westbrook, the reigning MVP, who may be struggling the most. He's still capable of getting into the paint at will, but too often he falls back on shaky pull-up jumpers instead. His shooting percentages are down from practically every other zone on the court, including an abysmal 15.8 percent on shots from three to 10 feet, per Basketball Reference.

Alex Abrines, perhaps the team's best pure shooter, has been unable to steadily nail shots. Raymond Felton's attempts have cooled since early November. Josh Huestis and Patrick Patterson have been incapable of getting consistent rotation minutes and have trouble finding any sort of rhythm on the court. Center Steven Adams has been a bright spot but offers nothing outside of 10 feet.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Perhaps the Thunder are feeling the pressure of making this collaboration click.

"When you don't shoot it well, you don't want to press," said Donovan. "You want them to be in a good frame of mind and confident."

Oklahoma City isn't exactly exuding confidence. Donovan spoke of giving his players confidence, but unless he can somehow guide the ball into the basket, there may not be much he can do.

George acknowledged frustration with the Thunder's 12-14 start after the game:

"For the talent that we have, obviously this is not where we want to be," he said. "But we're going to remain optimistic, though, about the future and what we can do. Once we can find a way to really do it night in and night out, it's no panic mode, but we have to start playing better. It's getting to a point where we can't allow ourselves to be at this point. We can say we're going to figure it out, we can say all that. But at some point, it's gotta stop."

If it's going to stop, the ball's gotta go through the net.

All quotes were obtained firsthand.  Jon Hamm covers the OKC Thunder for Bleacher Report and 107.7 The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Follow him on Twitter at @JonMHamm

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