Charlotte at Oklahoma City
Time: 7 PM CT (NBA League Pass)
Spread: OKC -7
Odds c/o 5dimes
The Oklahoma City Thunder were thought to have stacked the deck after adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play along with star point guard Russell Westbrook. Perhaps saying such was jumping the gun. OKC is 12-13 and has split its last 10 contests, while still falling outside the West’s top-eight playoff teams. It now hosts the struggling Charlotte Hornets as 7-point favorites tonight at 7 PM (CT) on NBA League Pass.
OKLAHOMA CITY (12-13)
OKC is still something of an enigma as a team.
Though it has played 25 games and won just 12, the Thunder have maintained a top defense, which has helped the team tread water through its offensive struggles. OKC allows just 99 points per game, which is bettered only by the San Antonio Spurs, and the Thunder score 101.8 per game, good for a +2.8 differential (and a better mark than four of the five teams directly ahead of it in the standings). Westbrook is still the star of the team, but Anthony and George are trying to find their niches as secondary scorers in a very perimeter-oriented attack.
The Thunder dealt big man Enes Kanter to obtain Anthony, while also parting with Domantas Sabonis (and Victor Oladipo) to obtain George. The result has been that Steven Adams has been called to do more offensively to replace the interior scoring void left behind, especially with the departure of Kanter. Adams is a capable scorer, but still averages “only” 13.8 points per game because he attempts just nine field goals per night (at a 64 percent clip). Getting Adams more involved still must be in-play because OKC needs the interior scoring to balance what George (20.7 points per game) and Anthony (18.3) bring to the Thunder.
Outside of this aforementioned quartet, there is a serious lacking of talent, too. Jerami Grant, Ray Felton, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines, and Kyle Singler all form a core of role players not sufficient enough in talent to back up OKC’s main four players. Depth is a serious issue, and it is also holding the team back in a variety of ways, given that Westbrook plays 36 minutes a game and George sees 37. Perhaps in the cards for OKC is dealing one of its stars to obtain some depth, but the casual fan would object dismantling the big three ultimately is shooting the team in the foot because it will lack the firepower required to compete with teams like Golden State and Houston.
That is the short end of the conundrum the Thunder encounter, a team once so talented it had Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant all in tow. This lesser Big Three is doubtful to have the success that core had, and it never won a championship either. It is just that the Warriors have stacked the deck so impossibly with such delicate balance, that teams like OKC seem like hodgepodge assemblages of talent without any real purpose.
While the Big Three is doing its part to look like a legit part of a championship team, the Thunder are much in the same boat as the New Orleans Pelicans, in having all its talent concentrated into a couple positions and the subsequent surrounding parts all being, well, lacking.
The Hornets have lost three straight games and seven of its past eight games. Charlotte was not in any of the past three losses either, losing by an average of 11 points per game in defeats to Chicago, Los Angeles (Lakers) and Golden State. Neither the losses to Chicago nor Los Angeles fall into the acceptable realm for a team that is built to win now. The Hornets simply are nothing but a mediocre team too heavily dependent upon one star guard (Kemba Walker).
Walker has averaged 22.6 points per game, but second-leading scorer Dwight Howard lingers behind at just under 16 a contest. Jeremy Lamb has improved but should not represent the team’s third leading scorer necessarily, not if it is to be a team taken seriously as a playoff threat. Charlotte averages 104.6 points per game, but it really needs to increase that mark, especially since it is giving up 106.8 points per game.
While defensive improvement is possible, certainly, with a center like Howard still is manning the paint, the Hornets should have more scoring potential than it has exhibited to this point in the season. Nicolas Batum began the year injured and is still rounding into shape and finding his way this season. Batum ideally keys the team as its primary playmaker, and he also enables Walker to play off the ball more where the former UConn Husky can be most effective. While Walker certainly thrives in pick and roll sets, he is more dangerous lurking the wings with Batum setting up the offense.
All of these observations are supported statistically as Charlotte was a .500-plus team last season when Batum had seven assists or more. Yet, the team is still trying to find a way to get blood from oranges, and all without using rookie guard Malik Monk all that heavily. It is clear the subtraction of Jeremy Lin two seasons had a much deeper and longer-lasting effect than most realized it would when the talented combo guard departed for Brooklyn.
It is hard to say that just that one move is what has rendered Charlotte so absolutely mediocre, but Howard is unlikely to ever return to his days as a 21-point-per-game scorer, and no one outside of Batum can really be said to be underachieving. It is just hard to dream up many scenarios by which the Hornets turn things around this season, and the fall into the lottery should only be perpetuated by the team with the Eastern Conferences’ third-worst mark thus far.