By Ryan Costello
December is a busy time with Christmas, New Year’s and everything else that fills your schedule. More importantly, for nervous college students (myself included), it’s grading season.
So we’re a well-rounded, if not substantial, 20 games into the season, and I figure now’s a good time to dole out the quarter-term report card for the Thunder. It goes without saying that the first week of December is far too early a checkpoint to determine whether a player’s season is a success. And even us at Hoops Addict aren’t psychic, but not for lack of trying.
In any case, here are the Thunder’s starting five grades to this point. Study hard.
#0 Russell Westbrook, Guard – A+
Ask the Nets how Russell’s doing this season (38 points, all of OKC’s 13 in the third overtime, 15 rebounds nine assists) or the Pacers (career-high 43 points, eight assists, eight rebounds). Heck, ask Luis Scola and Shane Battier.
The statistics Westbrook have put up to this point in the season are in themselves both surprising and historic. It’s early yet, but if the season ended today, Westbrook’s 24.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.5 rebounds would put him in the rare company of Oscar Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and LeBron James as the only players ever to average 24/5/8. His +25.85 efficiency rating is third in the association behind only Pau Gasol and fellow floor general Chris Paul.
And as Royce Young at ESPN TrueHoop’s Thunder affiliate DAILYTHUNDER.com put, the somewhat reserved off-court Westbrook also “leads the league in yelling loudly.”
Despite his abundant hardwood howls, Westbrook is making even more noise around the league. He’s mentioned plenty as a leading All-Star candidate, and the importance of his contributions in games when his teammate Kevin Durant has been hobbled cannot be understated. Thanks to Westbrook’s atmospheric comeuppance, the Thunder is 3-1 without Durant in the lineup.
And Durant, himself an MVP favorite, is taking notice.
“He’s playing like an MVP this year,” he said.
If Westbrook’s play is enough to make Durant campaign against himself, it’s got to mean something.
#22 Jeff Green, Forward – A-
Before the season started, I was doing what every other Thunder sympathizer was: scouring message boards and absorbing what little NBA information out there that didn’t come straight out of South Beach.
At one point, as the conversation topics began to dwindle, there was a question posed about who would be the Thunder’s breakout player this season. Given that most already assumed that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had established themselves as stars, the most popular answers were centered on James Harden and Serge Ibaka, with the odd Byron Mullens and Cole Aldrich suggestions also being put forward. They all made at least some sense; Harden and Ibaka were coming off somewhat successful rookie campaigns, Mullens had a strong training camp and looked solid in preseason play, and Aldrich was the beneficiary of the typical rookie honeymoon period.
Still, I had a thought. Who says Jeff Green couldn’t be the player to make a splash this season?
As could be expected, the mention of Uncle Jeff, who to fans had become a touch unpopular for not quite living up to some probably overstated expectations in his first three seasons, was quickly squelched.
You know what? I never get tired of being right.
Green has improved over last year in nearly every measurable statistical category, and more importantly has made more than his share of game-winning plays for his team.
Case in point: He hit a three-point basket to give the Thunder a 107-105 lead, one they wouldn’t surrender, in the final minute of a back-and-forth contest against Minnesota Nov. 22. Against New Jersey last week, he beat the first-half buzzer with a three, hit another crucial basket and three pressure-filled, game-tying free throws to send the game to a triumphant third overtime in a historic 123-120 win. He drove right past the slower Jason Maxiell to bury a layup, and the Detroit Pistons, in the dwindling seconds of a thrilling Oct. 29 victory.
Green is averaging 19 points and 6.5 rebounds this season compared to 15.1 and 6 compared to 2009. In the seven games since returning from a nagging ankle injury, he’s hitting better than 48 percent of his attempts from behind the arc, and he’s attacking the rim more confidently, attempting two more free throws per contest over last season.
In fact, the only thing holding double-deuce back from a perfect score is his less than ideal 44 percent overall shooting clip.
It seemed Green’s spot in the starting five was at least contested when Serge Ibaka filled in during his injury and played magnificently. But instead of being the next Wally Pipp, Green’s leading the association in minutes per game.
#35 Kevin Durant, Forward – B+
Clearly, when you can be atop the league in scoring (27.3) and the team in rebounds (6.9) and still not be the cat’s pajamas, you’re a victim of your own success.
Make no mistake, Durant is still very, very good at all things done on a basketball court, but there have been moments that he hasn’t seemed himself this season; a 6-of-24 (0-of-10 from three) shooting performance in a 107-92 loss to the lowly Clippers on November 3, a 7-of-22 (0-of-5 from three) night in a defensive 95-89 victory against New Orleans are a pair of examples.
The thing is with Durant that he knows what it takes to win. As rah-rah as that sounds, it’s the truth.
When Kevin was in the midst of a brutal shooting night in that game against New Orleans, the Hornets’ David West was playing the part of thorn in the Thunder’s side. The talented West scored 10 points in the third, and was beginning to go right back to work in the final frame.
Until Durant was tasked with defending him.
It looked like a physical impossibility. West had already outmuscled the likes of Green and Thabo Sefolosha, and even the imposing Serge Ibaka with his hulking frame. But it wasn’t Durant’s strength that necessarily bothered West, it was his length.
In a key stretch in the game’s waning minutes, Durant made his long arms a forest for West to navigate through, and the three-time all-star couldn’t find the basket. The Hornets lost their go-to option, and in turn lost the game.
#2 Thabo Sefolosha, Guard – B
Thabo Sefolosha almost single-handedly exemplifies why the statistics do not make the player.
6.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists don’t sound like the numbers for a starting shooting guard in today’s offensive-minded league.
Granted, Sefolosha is one of the league’s best rebounding guards alongside fellow board snatching backcourter Westbrook, and he’s scoring at a slightly higher clip than in 2009, but as far as numbers go, what he means to the team equals more than the sum of his stats.
Thing is, there are few things more valuable on a team, especially a young chemistry-centric squad like the Thunder, that are more important than a role player that knows his role. And that role is to rebound, to communicate on defense, and to make scoring easier for Oklahoma City’s scorers.
The reigning all-defense second-teamer may be the team’s clubhouse leader in unsolicited postgame praise from head coach Scott Brooks, who loves few things more than busy defense leading to transition offense.
If the Thunder’s defense wasn’t struggling in comparison to last season, Sefolosha would be an easy ‘A.’
The problem with a player like Sefolosha is that the benefits of his efforts are difficult to quantify; he’s less about what he gets and more about what he takes away from the opposing offense. He shuts passing windows, shears driving lanes paper-thin, and takes away second chances.
Put the stat sheet down and give Sefolosha an eye test. You’ll see all you need.
#12 Nenad Krstic, Center – C+
A quick preface: I love Krstic. I think he’s Oklahoma City’s own Serbian Rodney Dangerfield.
He has an excellent mid-range game, and is a better than advertised cog in the Thunder offense, but he’s always been more about finesse than fight.
That said, this season has been a bit disappointing. Krstic’s chair-throwing incident at the FIBA Worlds was not exactly advisable, but it showed a mean side that many, myself included, had hoped would permeate his game for the Thunder.
Worse yet this season, Krstic’s bread and butter, the aforementioned shooting stroke, has seen a hit. After shooting a respectable 50 percent last season, Krstic is hitting just 42 percent of his shots in 2010. It all adds up to an across the board drop in production. His scoring, rebounds, assists and blocks have fallen from a year ago despite Krstic playing two more minutes.
Again, it’s early yet, and Krstic has plenty of time to put his stamp on this season, but he’s got to get to work.
The Last Word
If equally weighed, the Thunder’s starters are coming out of the season’s unofficial first quarter with a GPA of 3.2. Not bad, but not enough to keep that scholarship. A slightly more forgiving schedule in the coming slate of games, plus the return of Kevin Durant should help the Thunder begin to separate itself from the middle of the Western Conference pack.