Last season the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook achieved what many thought was impossible and became only the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double throughout an entire 82 game season. While Westbrook’s play was nothing short of amazing throughout the season, a fact that was made clear when he was selected as the 2016-17 NBA Most Valuable Player, the Thunder struggled to compete with the top talent in the Western Conference and were knocked out of the playoffs in only five games. A full season removed from the surprise departure of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City front office spent this offseason dedicated to surrounding Westbrook with talent that would allow the team to compete with the NBA’s top tier. They came through in a big way by adding the likes of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, immediately quelling any arguments Westbrook does not have enough talent surrounding him.
While the talent is certainly there, the Thunder’s “Big 3” have struggled to mesh through their first 20 games together and are on the outside looking in on the Western Conference playoffs as I write this. With a record of 8-11, the Thunder certainly have not lived up to their early season expectations so far, but should their fan base be worried? Or, should they chalk this period up to the players getting a feel for one another and learning how to co-exist? While I am of the belief the Thunder will eventually right the ship, arguments can be made for either side.
One major reason Thunder fans could be truly worried about their prospects of this Big 3 experiment ever working out is the ball-dominance of the three stars. According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Thunder rank first in the league in isolation, twenty-seventh in drives, first in the inefficient 2-point jumper, and twenty-ninth in passes per possession. These are alarming numbers, even in the small sample size we have, as neither Russell Westbrook or Carmelo Anthony have ever been known for their ability to get the whole team involved. Currently, it does not appear that either of them is ready to transition to a more selfless style of play. Furthermore, the Thunder employ three of the NBA’s most lethal offensive weapons, yet they are ranked as the just the twenty-second best offense so far when all of their stars are on the floor together.
Statistics like those make the Thunder’s prospects sound bleak, but there is also a lot of reason for optimism in Oklahoma City. While we have seen cases of three stars coming together and meshing immediately- or four in the case of Golden State- typically you can expect a period early in the season where the players have to get a feel for one another. By this time of the 2010-11 season, the Miami Heat, having just added Chris Bosh and LeBron James to join Dwayne Wade, were 9-8 and had dropped four of their last five games. They finished the season at 58-24 and lost in the NBA Finals. Similarly, when LeBron bounced Miami to return home to Cleveland and pair up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love- queue the Skylar Grey-Diddy song- the Cavaliers started off slowly and were 5-7 before rattling off a late November win streak. They finished with 53 wins and, like the Heat, lost in the NBA Finals.
While the numbers have been somewhat jarring and the Thunder have looked far below what was expected of them coming into the season, the team is chockfull of talent and has three of the top players in the league. In a league where star power is everything, I strongly believe the Thunder have nothing too serious to worry about with their team, and by season’s end they should pose one of the largest threats to the Golden State Warriors once again coming out of the West. If these problems aren’t solved by Christmas, it may be time to panic, but right now is the time to be patient.