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5 Early Observations of the Thunder

J.P. Wilson/Icon Sportswire

Finally, after 196 grueling days of waiting for arguably the most critical year in Oklahoma City Thunder history, the NBA season has begun. Finally, we get to break down Billy Donovan’s new pace and space offense and find out his substitution patterns. Finally, we get to debate whether Dion Waiters has found his place on this team and if he’s made the leap from talented prospect to consistent contributor. Finally, we get to see whether Enes Kanter has learned how to play defense and how many minutes he’ll get coming off the bench. Finally, we can truly move on from the injury-ridden 2014-15 season. And finally, we get to watch the Thunder play real basketball in games that matter.

Finally.

The Games

Win vs. San Antonio Spurs, 112-106, on Oct. 28
Win at Orlando Magic, 139-136 (2 OT), on Oct. 30
Win vs. Denver Nuggets, 117-93, on Nov. 1
Loss at Houston Rockets, 110-105, on Nov. 2
Loss vs. Toronto Raptors, 103-98, on Nov. 4

Here are five observations from the Thunder’s first five games:

1. Turnovers

It’s obviously a small sample size, but the Thunder are on pace for franchise-record assist numbers through five games. However, they’re also on pace for some worrisome turnover numbers, as the turnover issues have carried over from a preseason in which OKC had to adjust to Billy Donovan’s new offense.

Through five games, the Thunder are averaging a league-high 20.2 turnovers per game despite also handing out 21.6 assists per game, which would register as the highest average in team history.

Turnovers happen in the NBA. Every game to every team. It’s both uncommon and impressive for any team to stay below 10 turnovers on any given night. You’ll have a couple charges, some travels, illegal screens and a couple nifty defensive plays. Some turnovers are unavoidable. But for the Thunder, there’s been far too many unforced errors, careless passes and lazy dribbling.

The Thunder have had 19 or more turnovers in every game this season, and in Monday night’s game against the Rockets, Oklahoma City turned the ball over more times in a regulation loss (24) than it did in a double-overtime win against the Magic (19).

Most teams are averaging at least 100 possessions a game so far, but that’s expected at the start of the season. The pace will slow and turnovers will drop. For the Thunder’s sake, that needs to happen.

2. Strange Minutes

Donovan seems to like Kyle Singler. After a DNP to start the reason, Singler averaged 13.5 minutes over the next four games.

I get Singler’s skill set. He’s 6-foot-8, long-armed, can guard multiple positions and he came to the Thunder as a near-40 percent career three-point shooter. But since he’s been on the Thunder, dating back to the trade deadline last season, what exactly has he done to deserve the minutes he’s been getting?

This season, he’s 2-of-12 shooting, 1-of-5 from three and has totaled six points, five rebounds and zero assists while committing 12 fouls and four turnovers in 54 minutes. He hasn’t really done anything besides put up shooting splits of 16.7/20/50 and, more importantly, cut into Anthony Morrow’s minutes. And that’s where I see the problem.

Donovan is implementing an offensive system centered on spacing. Space is provided by shooters. Morrow is the Thunder’s best shooter. He hit a Thunder-best 141 threes last year and drilled numerous momentum-swinging shots. Morrow never once got less than 12 minutes in a game last season.

But the past two games, he’s been surpassed by Singler in the rotation, playing five and six minutes in the losses to Houston and Toronto, respectively. Singler’s someone who would be a good back-end rotation player on another team. But Morrow has produced when given the opportunities. Singler hasn’t, bottom line. The swapping of their minutes/role seems a bit odd.

3. Enes Kanter Needs More Minutes

It seems like you’ve got to find more than 17 minutes for Kanter. Sure, the Thunder’s frontcourt is loaded. Steven Adams has played well and continues to get better. Serge Ibaka is Serge Ibaka. Durant can and should play some power forward. Nick Collison is steady and Mitch McGary’s waiting to get his minutes. So it’s a tough juggling act.

But Kanter has been a beast in the first five games. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 21.1 points and 18.1 rebounds. This is where the majority would point out his poor defense. But, quietly, he’s been pretty good on that end. He’s rotating quicker, holding his post position stronger and seems to be trying harder in general. Combine that improvement with his guaranteed numbers and elite around-the-basket skill, and it seems you’ve got to find some way to get him more than 17 minutes.

4. Best Player, Performance and Play

The Best Player

Russell Westbrook. Last season, Westbrook had a career season, the type of season that deserved MVP consideration. Five games in and Westbrook is picking up exactly where he left off as the Thunder’s best player. He’s averaging 28.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 11.4 assists on the year.

Westbrook has also been incredibly efficient. He’s shooting 49.5 percent overall, 36.7 percent from three and 82.7 percent from the line. Honestly, if not for Stephen Curry scorching anyone who faces him, Westbrook would have a strong case for player with the best start to the season.

Now he’s just got to do something about those six turnovers per game.

The Best Performance

best-performance[1]

Westbrook vs. the Magic. Nobody wills his team to victory like Westbrook. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Thunder trailed by 18 points. Westbrook then went on to shoot 5-5 from the field in the frame, including the biggest three-pointer of the night, a heave from close to half court that tied the game with less than a second left.

Westbrook followed up his fourth-quarter barrage by scoring 14 of the Thunder’s 22 total points in the two overtimes, giving the Oklahoma City just enough to defeat the Magic, 139-136.

How about Westbrook’s stat line for the night? A solid 48 points in 48 minutes to go along with 11 rebounds and eight assists.

The Best Play

Westbrook’s putback dunk against the Denver Nuggets.

best-play[1]

5. Donovan’s New Offense Working?

The last thing anyone needs to do is panic after a couple of losses in the fifth game of the season. But the first five games haven’t instilled a lot of confidence that Donovan has corrected the issues that hurt the Thunder last season. Not only turnovers and poor defense, but the offense has had the same look and feel of past closing criticisms that the Thunder suffered under Scott Brooks.

There was a complete predictability about it, with more isolation than play calling. An apparent reason for the switch to Donovan was the need for a more vibrant approach to late-game situations; whereas under Brooks, the Thunder often stammered, looking to Westbrook or Durant to do anything and everything. After watching the way the Thunder have finished the past two losses, there’s a reason to raise an eyebrow. New coach, same players, same issue.

Still, it’s only Nov. 5 and it’s only been five games. When you change coaches often the expectation is instant results, but it takes time because it’s a process. The Thunder have played a certain way for seven seasons and have done so successfully, I might add. So the transformation isn’t happening overnight. It has to happen through trial and error and through success and failure.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be figured out by game six. At some point, though, it does, especially if the Thunder want to accomplish their intended goal to win a championship.

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