The Los Angeles Clippers face the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, and to find out more about how things are in Thunderland, I sent a little email to J.A. Sherman, the editor of SBNation's terrific OKC blog Welcome to Loud City. His answers are below. Also, be sure to stop over there to check out my answers to his questions, which should be posted about the same time.
Steve Perrin: Westbrook is back! From what I've seen, he's just as explosive as ever. He's missing shots and turning the ball over, but I assume that's just rust. How has he looked to you?
J.A. Sherman: Westbrook is indeed back, and I have to tell you, for the few hours leading up to that tipoff against the Suns, I and the host of Thunder fans were really nervous. On all of our minds was the question of whether Westbrook came back too quickly, especially since we had previously received the news that he had to get his knee scoped to address some swelling.
Once he hit the court though we got the answer we needed the first time Westbrook exploded horizontally across the lane to the rim and laid the ball in. In the second game back we saw the vertical explosion as Westbrook took the ball end to end and threw down a howling slam. Ever since we saw Westbrook fall in the 1st round of the playoffs, Thunder fans had something to look forward to again.
Since those first two games back, the reality of Westbrook's situation has manifested. While he is physically back to form, his game has not only rust but also suffers from timing issues. As we've seen with Derrick Rose in Chicago, when you've got a player who can move that fast on both the horizontal and vertical planes, it takes some time to sync up with the rest of the court. The result has been that Westbrook, just like Rose, has struggled greatly to finish plays at the rim that had previously been his bread and butter. These misfires will eventually correct themselves, but I wouldn't be surprised if we're in for 6 weeks of 4-16 shooting nights.
Aside from Westbrook's personal recovery, there is an interesting aspect to what we saw in the two games before Westbrook came back and Reggie Jackson was startingat PG, and this past Wizards game where Westbrook was ejected late in the 4th and was replaced by Jackson. In the former, the team was completely out of sync and extremely hesitant to do anything aggressive outside of Kevin Durant's effort. In the latter, even though the personnel package was the same, the team's entire timbre continued to reflect Westbrook's controlled chaos mentality. It was remarkable. It goes to show that Westbrook is the emotional epicenter of this Thunder team, and as long as he's dressed, even if he's operating at 75% effectiveness, it changes the whole ball game.
SP: How much are the Thunder are going to miss Kevin Martin's bench scoring? How are auditions for the role going after two weeks? Jeremy Lamb? Reggie Jackson? Perry Jones? Who is going to be able to really help off the bench?
JAS: Ah, Kevin Martin. We hardly knew ye. Seriously, we didn't know ye at all, because last season we never saw what he's doing now for the Timberwolves (as we have both seen first hand).
While we are definitely surprised at how easily Martin has stepped into a primary scorer's role in Minnesota, credit goes to a very good offensive coach in Rick Adelman who has Martin's quirky offensive game figured out. When Martin was with the Thunder, he had some impressive games but OKC never quite figured out how to maximize his effectiveness. Props to Martin for taking a step forward, but if he couldn't do that along side 2 All-Stars in Durant and Westbrook, it is probably safe to conclude that Martin works best in a different kind of offensive system.
Because of his ill fit, it seemed as if Thunder fans had all but omitted Martin's season and still looked back to the James Harden days. The question was never, "Who will replace Martin?" but rather, "Who will replace Harden?" Westbrook has rightly commented that this is the wrong question, that it should not be about replacing Harden, but rather a number of players getting a little bit better and contributing a little bit more.
This shift in attitude makes all the difference in the world for a contending team that suddenly has to rely on a bunch of rookie contract guys to get back to the Finals. It means that the young fellas Lamb, Jackson, and Jones don't have to gun for double digits every game but instead can play within the confines of the team's offense and focus on what they do well and not be stretched to do what they cannot. Scott Brooks takes plenty of heat from everyone when it comes to rotation, but in this case, through 6 games, he's getting it right. He's setting his young talent up for the long haul, and so far, they are rewarding his trust.
SP: Going back to the Sonics days, this franchise has had a dismal run of picking centers in the first round (some they traded for on draft day). Robert Swift, Johan Petro, Mouhamed Sene, current Clipper Byron Mullens, Cole Aldrich -- none of these guys made it out of their rookie deals with the team. Did OKC finally get it right with Steven Adams?
JAS: So a Clipper guy is criticizing another franchise for selecting big man draft duds??? Hang on, I've got Michael Olawokandi and Melvin Ely on line 2...
But yeah, you've kind of got us on this one, and I think it is a league-wide problem on how to evaluate big man talent. Occasionally we will get can't miss big men like Blake Griffin or Anthony Davis, but a lot of these young big men like Nerlens Noel are going to find themselves trapped in a transitional hybrid big man's game where they have to be able to play on the perimeter as well as in the post. Classic post play is getting phased out to where guys like Roy Hibbert are the exception, not the norm. Instead, even GOAT's like Tim Duncan have had to adjust their game to fit the evolution of offenses.
Which brings us to our young Kiwi Phenom, Steven Adams. The 7 footer came to the U.S. as a rugby player in an NBA body. He entered the league with only a year of college under his belt, but the Thunder saw fit to take him at #12. Knowing how the Thunder like to stash their rookies away in their D-League team in Tulsa, honestly nobody expected to see the unproven Adams dressing with the Thunder on a consistent basis.
Fast forward a couple weeks and 6 games and Adams is throwing up a double-double and has Thunder fans actively calling for him to supplant Kendrick Perkins in the starting role. Hey, whah happen?
Aside from Perkins' well-known 'issues,' what we have seen from Adams has been remarkable because he is acquiring basketball knowledge and converting it into practice at a remarkable rate. I have watched the rapid progression and I have a completely unproven theory. I am friends with a Crossfit trainer who used to coach rugby in his native New Zealand. I asked him about Adams and how he might fare once he got into the NBA, and my friend said that rugby is one of those sports that is well suited to enable top flight athletes to learn new sports because of its emphasis on mobility, hand-eye coordination, footwork, and team coordination. This is my working theory because everything I've seen from Adams supports my buddy's declaration. Most importantly, Adams has much greater mobility than Perkins, so Adams combines all of those physical traits with the ability to operate at a speed and agility closer to what Westbrook and Durant need. The result has been exhilarating to watch because Thunder fans may finally have a big man who can keep pace with the offense while still playing solid defense. He still has a long way to go, but for what the Thunder need, I think he will get there, and maybe sooner rather than later.
SP: Who is worse? Ryan Gomes or Byron Mullens? It's quite the tight race of bad from my perspective.
JAS: As of today, I can only argue Byron Mullens because I have yet to see Gomes play in an actual game. Instead, he's wowing us with sport jackets he apparently stole from Westbrook's wardrobe. Will we ever see him on the court? It is hard to say. We never got to see Ronnie Brewer play active minutes either, and at least Brewer has an identifiable skillset.
As for Mullens, as discussed above, the funny thing is that he is far more valuable today than he was when he was drafted. The reason why is that he has a skill that fits - he wants to be another Channing Frye and shoot 3's all game. He may never quite get there, but at least that's a place where he has value and can build a prolonged career.
Furthermore, you're not going to believe this, but I recently had the opportunity to lunch with the TNT crew and I kid you not, Charles Barkley name-checked the guy. He said that Mullens is going to surprise some people this season and makes a good fit for what the Clips are trying to do. I was there! He said it! Why are you laughing?
SP: One of the most impressive things about the Thunder last season was the way they beat teams, compiling an league-leading average margin of victory. The Thunder are 5-1, but things have been a little less comfortable, including an OT home squeaker over the Wizards on Sunday. It's early and I'm looking for flaws admittedly -- but are you concerned with the start, despite the 5-1 record?
JAS: Everything is a little weird during the first couple months of the season. The best team is Indiana, the Heat look kind of awful half the time, the Timberwolves look like the 3rd or 4th best team in the West, and somehow Phoenix is 3 games over .500. Crazy. Weird.
Because of this, I try not to draw too many conclusions about how the Thunder are playing and instead just hope that they don't waste any easy wins on weaker teams like they almost did against the Wizards. OKC had lost to those guys for 2 years running, and it would be nice to avoid the Triple Lindy of depressing losses. Because of this, the only thing that really concerns me at this juncture is actually Kevin Durant.
Let me explain. No, that will take too long. Let me sum up. Last year, Durant posted a 50-40-90 shooting season, joining an exclusive club and recording an offensive season that rivaled Larry Bird's best. Awesome, right? Well, kind of awesome. The problem with it is that Durant was playing like that mark mattered to him, and as a result played more passively than in years past. Granted, he recorded his first 3 triple-doubles of his career and that is great for his evolution as a LeBron-like player, but he ended up looking to pass far too often instead of remembering he's the best scorer on the planet. In order for this team to move forward, Durant needs to remember that he is the default #1 scoring option, and that his passing will only work if he makes himself the primary scoring threat at all times. Durant needs better balance to elevate his ceiling.
Aside from this concern, the one element that we all thought would be a weakness is turning into a strength. As mentioned above, the Thunder bench is being managed well and they have proven to be far more prepared than we had thought. Jeremy Lamb is not turning into our worst case scenario - another Rudy Gay. Instead, he is disciplined with his shots, is much better handling and passing the ball than anticipated, and his shot is coming around. Jackson has the confidence to play like a Westbrook-lite, and Adams is learning from one of the best in Nick Collison.
Truth be told, there is a lot to be excited about in OKC because we can see where this train is heading. It may not be there tonight when the Thunder play the Clips, but for the first time in a while, I'm excited to see where its destination lies.
Thanks for playing along on The Questionable Blogger. We have some lovely parting gifts for you -- or rather, we would have, had you not mentioned Michael Olowokandi. You automatically forfeit your gifts in that case.