Oklahoma City Thunder Can't Expect Russell Westbrook to Fix Everything Himself

Jon Hamm@@JonMHammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterNovember 14, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 13:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives to the basket during a game against the Orlando Magic on November 13, 2016 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Merely one week ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were 6-1 and briefly sitting atop the Western Conference. It was the best start after seven games in the Oklahoma City era.

A week later, the Thunder are 6-4 after dropping Sunday night's game against the Orlando Magic. A three-game home losing streak has dampened spirits across the fanbase.

With all these twists and turns through 10 games, just how good is this Thunder squad?

OKC's defense has allowed a stingy 100.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, tied for sixth in the league. That number is the team's best since 2012-13 and an improvement from last season, when it posted a 12th-best rating of 103.0.

"Our defensive rebounding has been up-and-down. Our transition defense has been up-and-down. At times we've given up too many corner threes," Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said.

Donovan has a good reason to demand better from his defense: more "easy" opportunity for Russell Westbrook.

"If we get stops, we've got the best guy in the open floor in Russell playing in transition," he explained. "That helps our offense. It's really hard to get back in transition to get stops in this league with as good as the players are. Our defense can generate points."

That offense could use the help.

What once was a consistent top-15 attack is scraping together a little more than 100 points per 100 possessions, eighth-worst in the league and in the company of the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards.

Nov 13, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) fouls Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It was reasonable to think the Thunder offense would hold up better than it has in the post-Kevin Durant era. The injury-ravaged 2014-15 squad posted the league's 11th-best offensive rating at 104.5. It even produced a 108.1 rating during the final 28 games of the season without Durant.

Still, Donovan remains upbeat about some aspects of the offense.

"We're getting into the deep paint, top-10 in the league," he said. "We're generating corner threes, which is top-10. We're out in transition, top-10. We're doing a lot of things there at a high level."

Chalking these stats up to a soft slate isn't entirely accurate either. Oklahoma City has played the league's fifth-toughest schedule so far, per Basketball-Reference.com. That's of little surprise given that Oklahoma City has played the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers (twice) and Toronto Raptors thus far, going 1-3 in those contests.

The rest of the schedule has been less exciting. OKC's other six opponents have a combined record of 19-39, but the team has been away from Chesapeake Energy Arena for only three of those 10 games.

In its six wins, Oklahoma City has a margin of victory of 10 points per game, defeating bad-to-mediocre opponents handily. Even though the Thunder whipped rebuilding teams like the Miami Heat and Minnesota Timberwolves, they also beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-96. That might be Oklahoma City's second-best win of the season, as the Staples Center's purple-and-gold tenants have performed better than anticipated.

As expected, the Thunder's success hinges largely on Westbrook. He's averaging 31.9 points, 10.1 assists, and 9.2 rebounds per game. He logged this third triple-double of the season—41 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds—in the loss to the Magic.

His importance to the Thunder has never been more obvious. The Thunder are nearly 26 points worse per 100 possessions when Westbrook is off the court, per Basketball-Reference.com. Combined with a lack of shooting or additional playmaking, defending this Oklahoma City team is straightforward.

When asked what has allowed the Thunder to stay at the high level they've played at, Magic head coach Frank Vogel was succinct and to the point: "Russell."

Smart and capable defensive teams like Toronto have figured out how to best defend that. The Raptors swarmed Westbrook to get the ball out of his hands, and not necessarily into the hands of one of his teammates. Toronto forced the Thunder star into eight turnovers, the third time this season he's committed seven or more in a game.

Overreliance on a flawed defense is dicey. The Magic offense entered Sunday night's game dead last in the NBA at 92.3 points per game yet dropped 119 against Oklahoma City. The Thunder's response was to simply outscore them, but that's much harder to do without Durant.

It's all the more reason why additional roster changes are expected in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are stuck between the team they'd hoped to surround Durant with and the squad they want to mold around Westbrook. The trade market won't begin to loosen up for another month, so immediate help may not be on the way.

Based purely on the offensive and defensive numbers, this season's Thunder squad has a familiar look. Recent teams like the Indiana Pacers of last season and the 2013-14 Chicago Bulls finished top-eight in defense and bottom-eight on offense. Rosters like that win about 46 games on average and make teams nervous in the first round of the playoffs (and little more).

That's not the kind of thing Thunder fans are used to, but it's the new normal now.



Singler's Struggles

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - OCTOBER 28: Kyle Singler #15 of the Oklahoma City Thunder is seen against the Phoenix Suns on October 28, 2016 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Forward Kyle Singler had a productive preseason, but his regular-season play continues to disappoint. He was a DNP-CD (coach's decision) against Miami and has logged less than 11 minutes in his last three appearances. Shooting 30.8 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from three hasn't helped matters.

The recent acquisition of Jerami Grant has further reduced his role.


Huestis on Assignment

Grant's acquisition has also thrown the immediate future of 24-year-old forward Josh Huestis into uncertainty. Huestis hasn't been on the active roster yet this season and is on assignment with the Oklahoma City Blue.

He logged eight points and 10 rebounds in the season opener versus the Maine Red Claws.


Thunder Prospect Developing

Speaking of the Blue, center Dakari Johnson, a 2015 second-round pick by the Thunder, scored 20 points in a 118-95 victory over the Austin Spurs. He added 10 rebounds and four assists against NBA prospects David Bertans of San Antonio and Cheick Diallo of New Orleans.


All They Do Is Win

Jon Hamm

The Thunder are a proud organization, and rightly so. For as much criticism as the front office gets for tough decisions made over the years, it's been highly successful.

A graphic in the Thunder media workroom reminds reporters that Oklahoma City has been the fourth-most winningest pro sports team since 2009:


Stats accurate as of Monday, November 14, 2016.


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