Those gleefully waiting for the Thunder’s inevitable slide toward the draft lottery may get their wish over the next week.
Though Oklahoma City continues carrying around one of the league’s worst net ratings — the Thunder score 7.36 fewer points per 100 possessions than opponents, ranking 28th in the league — they’re nonetheless a respectable 6-7 through 13 games as they ready to play four games in six days, all away from home.
None are easy for OKC, but the next four figure to be quite difficult.
Tonight and Sunday afternoon they take on the Western Division leading Los Angeles Clippers (11-4), followed by Portland (6-4) on Monday and Phoenix (8-5) on Wednesday.
The Thunder are oddly 5-2 when visiting, yet that could have far more to do with their opponents than an affinity for living out of a suitcase.
Thus, decent chance 6-7 may become 6-11 unless … well, unless Darius Bazley starts hitting some shots again.
Don’t worry, this isn’t about Bazley. Rather, it’s to explain that even should the Thunder drop their next four, their returning core quartet — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Hamidou Diallo and Bazley — are coming along quite well, a fact that, should it continue season long sets them up to be real good about as fast as general manager Sam Presti would like them to be.
• Begin with Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC’s point guard who’s asked to do a lot of scoring, too.
He’s actually playing a touch more than a minute per game less than last season. Yet, in that time — 33.4 minutes — he’s averaging 21 points, 6.2 assists and 5.3 rebounds.
That’s two more points than last season and 2.9 assists, which is a lot. Also, he’s a 50 percent shooter for the first time in his career and he’s up a couple percentage points from 3-point-range, too.
Maybe most promising is what he’s done over his last seven games, averaging 23 points despite suffering outings in which he scored just 17 and 14.
If his being the point guard of OKC’s future requires being one of its first two offensive options, he needs to be in the 20s, and as long as he’s so clearly the first option, as he is right now, he might need to put up 25 a night to keep OKC in the game.
He didn’t score 25 once over the season’s first seven games, but he’s done it three times since, cracking 30 twice in wins over Brooklyn and Chicago.
The man is on schedule.
• Dort, on the other hand, is time zones ahead of schedule.
Do you realize the Thunder signed Andre Roberson to a three-year, $30 million deal before the 2017-18 season and Dort’s essentially playing the same defense, while shooting 43.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and averaging 13.4 points in the second season of a four-year, $5.4 million deal?
He is an absolute steal who keeps adding to his game.
• Reflecting upon Diallo, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault had this great quote a few games ago when he said the third-year player from Kentucky was proof development doesn’t have to be “linear.”
Well, but for the first 20 or so games of his rookie season, Diallo’s spent a lot of time moving sideways.
Not any more.
He’s averaging 11.1 points off the bench after averaging 6.9 a year ago in about the same minutes and his rebounds, assists and steals are up, too.
His last two games, he’s combined to go 3 of 14 from the field. Not good, yet in the five before that, he went 31 of 50, boldly leading the bench.
• Bazley appeared more confident, more certain, more everything the first few games of the season. He may still be those things, though his results of have not been great of late.
He’s averaging 10.5 points, nearly twice last season’s 5.6, though his last six games it’s been 7.5 on 18 of 58 shooting and 6 of 28 3-point shooting.
• Bright side, if Bazley (and Diallo, too) can snap out of it over the next week, the Thunder might well steal a game or two from a really good team.
Also, generally, all four are making leaps and if you’re trying to judge OKC’s rebuild you can admire all the unspent draft picks, yet if you prefer the tangible, those four players are it and all, despite a bump here and there, appears to be trending well.
There’s also this.
A case can be made the Thunder are just one very good player from being really good. Imagine a healthy Jimmy Butler relocating from Miami to Oklahoma City.
Suddenly, you’ve got a fabulous and tough as nails backcourt averaging 40 to 50 points a game and you could send Bazley to the bench, thereby making the second unit top notch alongside Diallo.
Butler’s not on the way, but general manager Sam Presti has the picks to make a splash at any given moment while still equipped for more splashes later. Also, he’s got four players that figure to have a place on future Thunder teams bound to be much better than 6-7 after 13 games.
It’s all good.
Well, but for the next four games, perhaps.