Over the past four seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been thrilled to be on the same pace as the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But on the morning of October 28, the Cavs were not a team to bunk with. Cleveland fired head coach Tyronn Lue after a 0-6 start. And in the other conference, the NBA's only other winless team was the Thunder (0-4 at the time).
A season-opening road loss to the Golden State Warriors was understandable as star Russell Westbrook watched from the sideline in eclectic designer clothing. Frustration within the fanbase heated up after the Thunder lost back-to-back winnable games against the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings. It reached a boiling point after they blew a 16-point halftime lead to the Boston Celtics.
On Sunday night, OKC finally notched a digit in the win column against the Phoenix Suns and earned a small measure of relief. But questions remain. Most notably, who's most to blame for the Thunder's false start?
Second-year guard Terrance Ferguson, still unable to legally buy alcohol but playing with a drunk jump shot, is a raw project stuffed into a starting role. Forward Patrick Patterson hit only five of his first 19 shots—most of them wide open—before he was removed from the starting lineup. Both players became easy targets from paying observers.
One person who received much of the scorn was coach Billy Donovan. But is that fair?
On one hand, critics have a point. While it's too early to draw long-term conclusions, some troubling trends have carried over from last season.
OKC's defense allowed the Kings to score 131 points. A big concern within the team was the Thunder's precipitous drop-off defensively after losing stud defender Andre Roberson to a knee injury in January. Plus, Sacramento likely qualifies as the kind of sub-.500 team that Oklahoma City failed to consistently outperform last season.
The Thunder's ongoing free-throw woes have also continued, though it's tough to pin that on the coach. Through five games, OKC is hitting only 65.3 percent of its free-throw attempts. The Thunder currently stand next-to-last in the league in free-throw percentage, which is also where they finished last season.
Westbrook missed the first two games before making his season debut against the Kings. A few nights later, he was largely responsible for a fourth-quarter meltdown against the Celtics in which OKC scored a single point in the final four minutes and 22 seconds.
Ferguson has been anointed, for now, as the placeholder for Roberson. While his defense has held up well enough, his shot is nowhere to be found. He's shooting a mere 27.3 percent from the field and has connected on one of his 13 three-point attempts on the season. It’s led to questions of whether Donovan was force-feeding the youngster a role that he wasn't quite ready for.
Yet the Thunder offense is creating very open shots. OKC is getting 21 "wide open" shots per game, per NBA.com, hitting a league-worst 27.6 percent of those attempts. Over 30 percent of the Thunder's shot attempts are deemed open—on par with the Warriors.
A cynic would say that Oklahoma City's players are left open for a reason: a perceived lack of overall shooting skill. But even the skilled shooters are missing. Sniper Alex Abrines is shooting only 31 percent from the field. Star forward Paul George finally caught fire against the Suns, but he's still shooting only 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from three overall.
"I don't know of any player that, when the shot goes up, he doesn't want it to go in," Donovan said prior to the Celtics game. It stands to reason that the law of averages will eventually nudge these numbers up if the quality of shots continues to sustain. "It's not like this is the first time these guys have gone through slumps in their careers."
Donovan also pointed out that there is a lot of undue scrutiny on the team's shooting right now: "If it was games, like, 30 through 34 … people probably wouldn't say very much. But because it's the first four games there's such a focus on it."
It's that sort of perspective and patience that can calm a locker room and ease anxiety on the team.
And while critics are quick to assign blame, they can assign credit at a glacial pace.
OKC played defense at about half speed versus the Kings. Players blew defensive rotations, and they closed out shooters with little urgency. The team looked markedly different against the Celtics, save for allowing Boston to score 40 points in the third quarter. The Thunder's defense clamped down on the Suns until a late Phoenix surge shaved a 26-point lead to only seven. Donovan called Phoenix's mini-comeback "disturbing," according to Brett Dawson of The Athletic.
Donovan also moved Jerami Grant into the starting lineup in place of Patterson for the Boston game, sensing matchup concerns with the positionless Celtics. Patterson responded well, finding a groove and dropping 17 points on the Suns a few nights later.
This season could be pivotal for the Thunder coach. Donovan is in the fourth year of a five-year deal he signed in 2015. That essentially puts Donovan into the last season of his contract. Teams and coaches often prefer to avoid lame-duck situations. After all, the Thunder fired Scott Brooks with one season left on his contract.
One game against the lowly Suns does not a season make. But a solid blueprint is in place. Donovan deserves a bit more patience to see if the numbers turn in his favor.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.