While the OKC metro hunkers down under its mattresses for a long winter without Thunder Forward Kevin Durant — seriously people, relax, it’s just a hamstring injury — I thought I’d offer fans something else to think about with a little thing I’d like to call Small Sample Size Theater.
Because we only have a small sample of NBA games to look at, the resulting statistics are only somewhat useful at any given moment. In some cases, they are quite ridiculous.
But with Durant leaving the Nov. 10 game in Washington with a bad hammy, I thought I’d analyze a set of stats that won’t change until he returns: 2015-16 Thunder numbers with a regular starting lineup. Since that crew rarely played together last year, let’s look at how they have faired through the first eight games of this season.
Analysis with a small sample size is fun
While insights can be gleaned from these early returns, one can use stats from a mere eight games support just about anything.
Here are some fun examples pulled from NBA.com and SportsVU (which uses cameras to track player and ball movement for each and every game):
- Prior to the Thunder’s game Friday against the 76ers, Dion Waiters had been the 6th best 3pt shooter in the NBA at 52.6 percent. (Ohhh boy. Regression is gonna be mean.)
- Metta World Peace, of the Los Angeles Lakers, was first at 66.7 percent from three. (Note: This is the official NBA ranking, otherwise Thunder Center Enes Kanter would be tied for first at 100 percent)
- Rusty old white dude Matt Bonner, of the San Antonio Spurs, is now the fastest man in the NBA, with an average speed of 6.6 miles per hour. Easy, Matt, don’t hurt yourself.
- With KD in the lineup, Russell Westbrook had 25 percent of the league’s triple doubles: one. (Friday, he posted another. A few more games without fellow Thunder star Kevin Durant and he could get many more.)
- Speaking of number zero, Westbrook isn’t even the most ball-dominant Russ in the NBA. That honor goes to Memphis Guard Russ Smith (anyone?), who dribbles the ball an average of 6.7 times every time he touches it. Westbrook had dribbled a mere 5.4 times per touch.
- On a related note: Washington Wizards Point Guard John Wall has touched more balls than anyone in the NBA, with 94.6 total touches this season.
But I’m getting a little off track, here. The point is that a small sample size can be a lot of fun if you know where to look.
Since it’s my job to know where to look, let’s look at a few early stats that actually tell us something meaningful about the Thunder.
Russell Westbrook is having a greater impact than Stephen Curry
Okay, we’re used to it. Russ is good. Very good. But if you look at his insane numbers so far, he’s more than that. He’s great — historically great if he keeps it up in Kevin Durant’s absence.
NBA history is littered with players who have had stretches averaging more than 10 assists per game. If Westbrook’s league leading average of 10.9 assists per game were to hold over the course of the entire season, his 2015-16 season would only rank 42nd all time. However, the list of all-time seasons dwindles quickly when you attempt to find players who did this while also averaging at least 25 points per game.
Isiah Thomas never did it. Magic Johnson never did it. Chris Paul has never done it. You have to go all the way back to the 1960’s, during which time, basketball legend Oscar Robertson did it in four separate seasons.That’s it. One player in basketball history has averaged more than 25 points and 10 assists over an entire season.
So where’s the hype?
Here’s some food for thought on Westbrook’s fast start: Not only does Westbrook lead the league in assists, he is doing so with far fewer pass attempts than anyone else getting significant minutes. A full 19.7 percent of Westbrook’s passes lead to points, meaning he contributes points from assists at a rate of about 25.3 PPG — number one in the league by about five points.
For the sake of comparison, reigning MVP Stephen Curry — who’s on an otherworldly tear of his own — creates just 12.8 points off of 5.3 assists per game. With an average of 33.3 PPG, Curry is responsible for a total of 46.1 PPG. With an average of 25.8 PPG, Westbrook’s tally off of assists makes him responsible for 51.1 PPG.
So, again, where’s the hype?
Rim shots: Thunder defensive stats are funny
What would you say if I told you that through eight games with its regular lineup, the Thunder were first among NBA teams in total blocks (60), as well as first in total rebounds (402). You’d probably say something like, “The Thunder dominate the paint!”
Well, you’d be wrong. Very wrong. Look a little deeper and you’ll find that the Thunder are also 15th, or roughly average, in opponent field goal percentage at the rim (56.6 percent), while also giving up the most shot attempts at the rim (35.8) per game. To make matters worse, the Thunder are second only to Houston in opponent makes at the rim per game (20.3). Yuck.
This has been the biggest sore spot for those who are waiting to see major changes from new coach Billy Donovan. The good news is that the eye test says the Thunder’s defense has been a bit better over the last few games, albeit against mediocre opponents.
Enes Kanter has been nothing but net(rating)
The book on Enes Kanter says he is to defense what Kendrick Perkins is to offense. While Kanter is mobile, he’s still raw and frequently out of position. And, with the way the Thunder often switch on screens, Kanter often finds himself defending players like Chris Paul in a hopeless mismatch.
That said, this season’s early returns suggest that Kanter’s defense isn’t having quite the negative impact that one might expect — at least not with the starters.
After game eight, Kanter was in both of the Thunder’s best five-man lineups related to net rating (NetRtg), or the difference between points scored per 100 possessions (OffRtg) and points allowed per 100 possessions (DffRtg). Those lineups featured Kanter playing with the starters, or with the starters and Dion Waiters. What’s more, those two lineups were both top-five in the entire league during the early stretch.
Again, it’s a small sample, but it’s something worth watching. If Kanter can just be average on defense, his impact on offense and on the glass makes his presence with the starters pretty valuable.
In conclusion …
It’s great to kick some of these numbers around, but the season is a long way from over. The Thunder lost to the Celtics on Sunday night and did not look particularly good in doing so. Without a healthy Kevin Durant, however, I’m remiss to read too much into it.
The Thunder need their main rotation intact for more than eight games before we can make too many major determinations. It’s hard to do much with a small sample size except have a little fun.