When the Oklahoma City Thunder made trades for Paul George and then the shocker for Carmelo Anthony late in the summer, they vaulted themselves into the championship conversation in the minds of most analysts. A team that made the playoffs as the No. 6 seed the year before had just added two perennial All-Stars to go along with the 2016-17 regular season MVP, Russell Westbrook.
How could it possibly go wrong?
Well, the Thunder are finding that working through chemistry issues is not as easy as it may sound, and at 12-14 and currently the ninth seed and out of the playoff picture, it’s safe to say this is not a spot anyone expected them to be.
The Thunder are still optimistic they can turn it around, however, a notion very much evident after their recent loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
“For the talent that we have, obviously this is not where we want to be,” Paul George 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.”
Before Monday’s loss to the Hornets, the Thunder had previous won four of their last five games, showing signs they might have figured things out. Even in the loss, one that saw them give up 64 second-half points, head coach Billy Donovan was impressed with how they performed offensively.
“As crazy as this may sound, I was really, really, really excited with the way we played offense tonight. I really was,” Donovan said. “I thought we generated really good shots tonight. It wasn’t a great shooting night for us, but I think the guys’ intentions of trying to do the things we’ve asked them to do — in terms of ball movement — I thought they really stayed with it for 48 minutes. I was really encouraged by that part of it.”
When asked what has to happen for the Thunder to become the Western Conference contender everyone assumed they would be, Westbrook had a simple answer.
“It’s up to us, honestly. Just gotta figure it out and play the same way every night.”
George has seen the potential of this roster late in games, he just believes they have to give those same efforts for the entire game.
“We’re not getting off to a great start and it’s just playing its way all the way through to when we get late in games, and for whatever reason we try to turn it on,” George said. “It just seems we’re a completely different team that last four or five minutes, and that’s the way we’ve got to battle for 48 minutes.”
It seems the Thunder are going through similar growing pains that the Miami Heat went through when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in 2010. That team started 9-8 and had everyone panicking about the Big 3 not working. They rallied to finish 58-24, including a 21-1 stretch in the middle of the season, win the Eastern Conference before falling to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
Donovan overtly makes this connection without actually saying it, but sees the potential in his roster as most did with the Heat at the time.
“I think sometimes people look at players, or look at a team, and they kind of say what they’re forecasting for it not even knowing all the dynamics it takes to even be a good team,” Donovan said. “And I think when you’ve got half the roster that’s different, these guys have done a really good job sacrificing, they’ve done a really good job building relationships and communicating, they’ve done a really good job working, and they’re trying to get to know each other on the court. Everybody’s giving up something of themselves for the benefit of the team, and I think at some point that will pay dividends for us”
There have been a few bright spots this season that point to the Thunder being able to turn it around. They dominated the Golden State Warriors on November 22 in a game that was never close after the first period. The Thunder outscored the Warriors in every quarter except the fourth when the game was already out of hand.
Westbrook was a man on a mission, pouring in 34 points on 13-of-27 shooting and nearly notching a triple double with 10 rebounds and nine assists. He also recorded four steals. This all coming against a Warriors team at full strength.
The starting line up proved to be deadly as well. George put in 20 points on 8-of-19 shooting and Anthony had 22 on 8-of-17 shooting. They displayed how dangerous they could be in their attack with an astounding 33 to 10 fast break points advantage for the game.
Their defense has been on point some nights as well, including the win against the Warriors where they held the most explosive offense in basketball to just 41.3 percent shooting.
They needed it on a night where the shots weren’t falling against the San Antonio Spurs on December 3. They held the Spurs offense to just 87 points on just 40.8 percent shooting, and with George and Carmelo each having an off night shooting the ball, it was crucial to securing the victory.
There are signs of life for this Thunder squad, and they seem to have the perfect attitude to work through their current issues. They started 8-9, almost identical to that 2010-11 Heat squad, but are just taking a little bit longer to “figure it out.”
When the unit does finally figure it out, and most believe they will, they will be one of the more fun teams to watch in the NBA. Despite their early season struggles, the Oklahoma City Thunder remain a dangerous threat to the Warriors, Spurs and Houston Rockets come playoff time. All that needs to happen is to punch their ticket, and they will.