Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook celebrated his 30th birthday on Monday. Westbrook, who is still nursing an ankle injury, received a gift from his team in the form of a win.
The game broke an alarming trend for the Thunder. On Monday night, they scored 118 points in their win over the Phoenix Suns. Prior to last night’s game, the Thunder had struggled to score without Westbrook.
With Westbrook in the lineup, the Thunder have an offensive rating of 112.8, which would be good for sixth-best in the league. Without Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder’s offensive rating drops to 101.8, which would be the second-worst rating in the NBA. Offensive rating is adjusted for pace, but part of the reason why the Thunder are struggling has to do with the fact that the team cannot play at a fast pace without Westbrook. Their pace drops from 108.67 to 100.50 when Westbrook leaves the floor. This is a problem because the Thunder are built to play at a faster pace. The Thunder have made a league-worst 30.1 percent of their three-point attempts, which means that the Thunder need to increase their pace to get more easy fast-break baskets at the rim.
The faster pace is better for Westbrook, but it also better for several of the Thunder’s other important players. Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson, and Paul George would all benefit if the Thunder ran a more fast-paced offense and got out in transition more. Grant and Ferguson have struggled to hit open shots this season, but they are both at their best when they are cutting to the basket. Grant and Ferguson are both great athletes who can finish at the rim.
Westbrook isn’t the only starter who greatly contributes to the Thunder’s offense. The Thunder’s offensive rating drops by 17 points when George leaves the floor, is 20 points worse when Adams leaves the floor, and decreases by close to 10 points when Grant or Ferguson is taken out of the game.
The bench, aside from Dennis Schroder, has really struggled offensively. Alex Abrines has been extremely inconsistent, and he has scored more than 10 points in a game just once this season. Nerlens Noel, Patrick Patterson, and Hamidou Diallo are talented players who have roles on the team, but they have not moved the ball when they have been in the game. Those three players combine for an average of one assist per game. That is not good. In 2018, NBA offenses cannot efficiently score points without making a lot of passes. The Thunder bench’s stale approach will hurt the team throughout the season as the schedule becomes more difficult.
The saving grace for the Thunder is that they have been solid on the defensive end of the floor. The team ranks second in the NBA with a defensive rating of 103.5, and defensive ace Andre Roberson has not played a single minute this season. When Roberson comes back, the Thunder should boast an elite defensive unit. The Thunder’s defense will undoubtedly be the strength of the team in second half of the season.
Even with their solid defense, the Thunder must find ways to score when Westbrook and the starters are not in the game. The second unit has gotten the job done on the defensive end of the floor, but the unit has not been able to score against some of the worst teams’ backups. The Thunder’s schedule has not been particularly daunting, which makes this trend that much more concerning.
Despite the injuries to Westbrook and Roberson, the Thunder have a great chance of getting a top-four seed in the Western Conference. The opportunity is there because there are several Western Conference teams that are not as good as were originally thought. The Thunder must take advantage of this opportunity because Westbrook just celebrated his 30th birthday and is not getting any younger.
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