The past decade in the NBA is littered with teams who looked great on paper, but weren’t great on the floor early in the regular season.
In 2011, the LeBron James-Dwayne Wade-Chris Bosh-led Miami Heat started 9-8. That team got its act together, won 58 games and advanced to the NBA Finals.
Four years later, James went home to Cleveland to lead the Cavaliers for a second time, this time with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Cavs started 19-20, but rebounded and found a way to advance to the NBA Finals before losing to Golden State.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are fast approaching this conversation. OKC is 4-7 through Friday after some prognosticators, including this one, pointed to them as the second-best team in the Western Conference.
They certainly don’t look like a contender at the moment. A team featuring Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have lost four straight and are searching for answers.
OKC ranks near the bottom of the NBA in scoring efficiency when it should have little difficulty scoring with three of the most dynamic offensive talents in the NBA. They are having trouble stopping people and have an abysmal -60.7 clutch rating.
Some of their issues were predictable. But some, including me, ignored the warning signs. Westbrook, George and Anthony are supremely talented, but hardly the perfect trio. Those great Heat teams of the last decade featured playing styles that meshed. James was the best player. Dwyane Wade was the all-around force on both ends and Chris Bosh transformed his game from all-NBA talent with the Toronto Raptors to a perfect third piece in Miami.
Westbrook, George and Anthony haven’t made that transition. For Oklahoma City, there are more than 70 games remaining in the regular season, so there’s no reason to panic. But the Thunder do need to make adjustments.
Anthony needs to tone down his game. Before the season began, he was asked if he should become a sixth man. That’s a little silly, but Anthony’s still playing as if he’s the number one option he was in New York with the Knicks. That needs to change.
He needs to sacrifice touches and shots for the good of the Thunder as a whole. As it is, Anthony is taking crunch-time possessions away from Westbrook and George. He’s a wonderful scorer, but Westbrook and George are better players at this point of their careers. The ball needs to be in their hands.
Almost as important, Oklahoma City needs to stay the course. It’s a long season and much of the roster is playing together for the first time. Beyond OKC’s big three, Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ferguson are newbies to Oklahoma City’s playing rotation.
Cohesion takes time. And yet, their losing streak is cause for concern.
Against the Celtics, Oklahoma City had a sizable first half lead, only to falter in the second half. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, Westbrook was soundly outplayed by his counterpart Damian Lillard, who scored 36 points and handed out 13 assists. Westbrook went 7-of-21 against the Kings, and the Thunder allowed Zach Randolph to score 18 second half points for the upset.
Those Heat and Cavs teams had some built in advantages over this Thunder squad. Those teams had James, who has been the best player in the NBA for the past decade. Those teams played in the Eastern Conference, where it was easier to make up for a slow start. The Thunder play in the Western Conference, where there are more good teams, and playoff seeding could ultimately be traced back to this November slide.
At the end of the day, this Thunder team is too talented, too athletic, too deep and too well-coached to stumble for an entire season. My guess is they will make the playoffs and find their way into a top-four seeding.
But they aren’t playing well at the moment. And any time a team of this caliber loses to the Sacramento Kings, there is cause for concern.
NBA POWER RANKINGS
1. Golden State Warriors (9-3) • Dismantled the upstart Minnesota Timberwolves without Kevin Durant, who sat with an injury.
2. Boston Celtics (10-2) • Boston lost its first two games, and hasn’t tasted defeat since.
3. Houston Rockets (9-3) • James Harden is unreal offensively. Ask the Jazz.
4. Detroit Pistons (8-3) • Maybe this ranking isn’t sustainable, but they did beat Golden State on the road — that warrants a reward.
5. Toronto Raptors • Pedestrian record can be attributed to a long Western Conference road trip. This team is very good in reality.
6. San Antonio Spurs (7-4) • Have won three straight this week. Not having Kawhi Leonard is cause for concern, but defense is top notch.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-4) • They are the only team with as many as seven wins and a negative rating. When they lose, they are getting blown out.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (7-4) • The duo of Conley and Gasol will seemingly always be enough to keep this team in the playoff hunt.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-7) • This team has gotten very old and isn’t very durable. Outside of LeBron James, there’s little to like.
10.Denver Nuggets (7-5) • A young team growing up. Paul Millsap has added veteran stability.
11. Washington Wizards (6-5) • John Wall and Bradley Beal have been great.But Otto Porter has arguably been their best all-around player.
12. Orlando Magic (7-4) • They’ve sustained their hot start, at least for now. How long does it continue?
13. Philadelphia 76ers (6-5) • Defeated the Jazz on the road for the first time since 2005.
14. Portland Trail Blazers (6-5) • Damian Lillard scored 36 points and handed out 13 assists in win over Westbrook, Thunder.
15. New York Knicks (6-5) • Tough to remember the last time they were ranked this high, but they’ve earned it.
16. Oklahoma City Thunder (4-7) • There’s too much talent for this to continue, but the current losing streak can’t be ignored.
17. Milwaukee Bucks (4-6) • The trade for Eric Bledsoe is a big one. Thisroster yearns for a point guard who can do damage off the dribble.
18. Los Angeles Clippers (5-5) • Injuries to key starters have ravaged the Clips after a good start.
19. Utah Jazz (5-6) • Missed shots, shoddy defense; the Jazz simply need to start playing better.
20. Miami Heat (5-6) • Point guard Goran Dragic is playing at an all-star level, averaging 20.2 points, 4.4 boards per game.
21. New Orleans Pelicans (6-6) • Lost to Toronto for the fifth consecutive time this week.
22. Charlotte Hornets (5-6) • On a three game losing streak and they’re 1-5 on the road.
23. Indiana Pacers (5-7) • Very good offensive team, but surrender 110.2 points per game at other end.
24. Los Angeles Lakers (5-7) •Fun to watch. They will lose a lot, but there’s a foundation to build on.
25. Brooklyn Nets (4-7) • Dead last defensively, giving up more than 116 points per game.
26. Phoenix Suns (4-8) • The coaching change “bump” has worn off. They’ve lost four straight.
27. Sacramento Kings (3-8) • Tough start, but at least they are showing signs of improvement with wins over Oklahoma City and Philadelphia.
28. Dallas Mavericks (2-10) • Road win over the Washington Wizards may qualify as the upset of the week.
29. Chicago Bulls (2-7) • Bobby Portis back after an 8-game suspension for slugging teammate Nikola Mirotic.
30. Atlanta Hawks (2-9) • The only team in the NBA without a home win.