The Sixers are in Oklahoma City tonight, taking on franchise icon Russell Westbrook and MVP candidate Paul George. To learn more about what has gone down in OKC this season, I chatted with David Brandon of Daily Thunder.
Question #1: When we talked to Thunder Digest last month, former Sixer Jerami Grant was brought up. So today, I have to ask about a different Process hero: give Sixers fans an update on Nerlens Noel. How has he looked so far in Oklahoma City?
Noel has been a good addition to the Thunder bench. I think part of the reason Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle buried him on the bench is in relation to something Zach Lowe has touched on: Noel’s a consummate gambler, occasionally taking himself out of position for blocks. It’s maddening for a lot of coaches, especially one as strict as Carlisle. Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan’s willing to leave the reins a little looser, and though Noel still will get beat every now and then going for a block that he shouldn’t go for, he’s been a positive contributor overall. He’s got a nice little jumper too — lineups with Nerlens and Steven Adams haven’t gotten much run, but in the few minutes they have, Noel’s flashed some touch.
If you look at overall bench plus/minuses, he’s been a little lower than you might expect. Lineups with Paul George, though, have been solid — and since PG’s running with the bench a lot, that’s all you can ask for. I don’t know that he’s much more than a good backup center or a stop-gap starter, but he’s capable. And it’s been a revelation having him instead of having to run Jerami Grant at backup center like the Thunder did last year.
Question #2: Come playoff time, the Golden State Warriors will be the best team in the Western Conference. But many teams, including OKC, are jockeying to be the next-best group. Do you see any world in which the Thunder separate themselves from the non-Warriors pack? If so, what would have to happen for this to come to fruition?
Over the course of the year, OKC’s defense has taken a bit of a hit as the offense has stepped up. Some of that’s due to variance, like teams hitting looks now they weren’t before. But if the Thunder can find a way to blend the defense of the early part of the season with the offense of the latter part of the season, they’ll be cooking with gas. The biggest thing that has to happen is Russell Westbrook finding his rhythm offensively. Early signs coming out of the All-Star Break have been encouraging, and he’s been blending distribution with hunting for his own shot better than he ever has. They just haven’t fallen.
The other thing that would need to happen is either Markieff Morris or Patrick Patterson taking a leap in that backup power forward slot. Those two guys are jockeying for the same position, and it’s been a position of weakness for the Thunder all season long. If Morris can step in and provide good minutes (and I’m betting he can), they’ll be set.
The last thing that would help is having Andre Roberson back. Roberson’s been out a year, and it’s uncertain when he’ll come available again. Though he has his limitations, he could help stabilize the bench by providing one more good rotation option that can lock down guys on defense. He’s probably not starting if and when he comes back — Terrance Ferguson has been too good lately.
If two of those three things can happen, I think the Thunder are in a good position to separate themselves.
Question #3: Like many others, I have long been a Russell Westbrook skeptic. I believe his uber-high-volume, low-efficiency offensive production and lackluster decision-making show that he can be the best player on a good team, but not on one that competes for a championship. As someone who follows the Thunder much more extensively than I do, is this fair, or am I missing the mark?
That’s an interesting question. I think Westbrook’s weaknesses get a little overblown and his strengths tend to get overlooked, because at this point the narrative’s been set. There have been several games where he’s noticeably deferred to George down the stretch, but the next day all you hear about is the one ill-advised shot that he missed in the fourth. It takes time to change a public image. I think you can build a contender around Westbrook, but you need near-perfect team construction. (This is not a popular opinion among the Thunder faithful.) Having talked about this with a lot of other people, I think the best analog for building a team around Russ is the way that the Lakers constructed the team around Kobe Bryant. That means bringing in more ball-handling talent, especially in the frontcourt. I think that’s the idea that Thunder General Manager Sam Presti’s been going for for a few years. They’ve been searching for a big who can pass for a while, and it’s part of the reason they were loath to move Domantas Sabonis. They’re close — PG and Adams are as close to perfect running mates as you can find, especially if Adams can take a step forward as a passer — but I think they’re still one big piece away.
Also, and this will probably get me banned from Thunder fandom for life, I think if Westbrook’s the best player on the team moving forward the team’s probably in a bad spot. It’s been Paul George this year, though Russ is still the fulcrum and the heart of the team. The aging curve for players of Russ’s archetype is not kind. He’s starting to learn how to step back, and will probably continue to do so as the years go by. Most championship teams aren’t led by a point guard as their best player, with Stephen Curry being the outlier exception. You can say Magic Johnson, but Magic’s an outlier among outliers as a point guard. That’s probably partly to do with the fact that it’s easier to slow down the smallest player on the team in the playoffs than it is guys with a bit more size.
The dominant team of this era, Golden State, is also uniquely suited to capitalize on Westbrook’s weaknesses — the Warriors fear Kyrie Irving above most players, and not Westbrook. Kyrie’s archetype of a high-efficiency scoring guard who doesn’t turn the ball over is much harder for them to deal with than the human maelstrom of Westbrook. That has an outsize effect on the debate, because everything right now boils down to “can you get past Golden State?”
So yeah, I think you miss the mark a little bit. But both Westbrook detractors and Westbrook boosters have a point.
Much thanks to David for taking the time to enlighten us before a game that we’ve all had circled on our calendars!