It’s only four games, but man, it’s been a discouraging start to the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’re now 0–4, with a home loss to the Sacramento Kings on their record, and what’s ailing them, very simply, is they just cannot put the ball into the basket. They’ve opened the season on a dismal, horrifying cold streak, and are now producing by far the worst offensive rating and team true shooting in the NBA.
I very much doubt anyone in Oklahoma City is missing Carmelo Anthony today, but the Thunder really are incredibly low on guys who can do anything with the ball in their hands. Through the first four games of last season, Anthony was averaging more than 35 minutes per game, and about 25 points per game. He’s a turnstile on defense, yes, and his efficiency went in the tank as the season moved along, but it’s important to remember that one of the very best lineups in all of basketball last season had Melo on the floor with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, and André Roberson. George and Melo spaced the floor just enough to turn the Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll into an alley-oop fest; Roberson, Adams, and George were sturdy enough defensively to mostly mitigate the sloppiness of Melo and Russ. Roberson won’t be back until at least January, but when he does return it won’t be as any type of offensive savior, and Anthony’s spot in that lineup will be filled by, yeesh, Jerami Grant? Patrick Patterson? You can start to see how it won’t have the same offensive punch.
The numbers are pretty ugly. Right now the Thunder have exactly three rotation players who are shooting better than 42 percent from the floor: Adams, whose range does not extend beyond the restricted circle; Nerlens Noel, who makes Adams look like Reggie Miller; and rookie Hamidou Diallo, who is playing right around 15 minutes per game, and who regression and the rookie wall will combine to thwart, just as sure as you were born. Their four most prolific three-point shooters by volume—Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Dennis Schröder, and Álex Abrines—are shooting a combined 27 percent from beyond the arc. Grant and Patterson, who’ve been roughly splitting the minutes at power forward, have opened the season shooting 32 percent from the floor and 22 percent from three. No perimeter player of consequence on the Thunder can throw it in the damn ocean right now.
All that gory offense was on sad display Thursday night, against the Celtics, who’ve had plenty of offensive troubles of their own. The Thunder had a 16-point lead at halftime, mostly because the Celtics spent the first half seemingly in a contest to see who could take the most pull-up midrange jumpers. Boston settled down in the second half, and the Thunder offense went in the tank. Russ and Paul George combined to shoot 6-of-25 from the floor after halftime, including 1-of-12 from three. Boston’s league-best defense had plenty to do with it, but it’s also true that just four of those 25 shots from Westbrook and George were attempted from inside the paint. Spacing will be a huge, glaring issue for the Thunder as long as Westbrook and George are surrounded by non-shooters, and not-shooters are virtually all they have. Hell, even their reinforcements are non-shooters. Unless Adams suddenly develops an outside jumper, Russ and George are going to have to make the best out of some extremely narrow openings.
The 0–4 start is the worst since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, in 2008. It’s early, and things will improve, but it’s looking more and more like whatever offense the Thunder generate on a given night will have to come from Russ and George improvising and grinding and hoping this or that mitten-handed teammate can catch fire for a few minutes at a time. Right now it makes for some butt-ugly basketball.