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OKC Thunder: Struggles arise if two stars are off

The Thunder lost to the Spurs 114-106 Tuesday night and it was easy to figure out why. Danilo Gallinari had a miserable game – 4-of-16 shooting – and Dennis Schroder wasn’t much better, making just five of 13 shots with a team-worst minus-nine in point differential.

Chris Paul played magnificently, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got off to a slow start, with first-half totals of four points, no assists and two rebounds. Match that with an efficient game from Steven Adams (4-of-9 shooting), and the Thunder was running out of ways to win.

Then Billy Donovan clarified it with a quote that really struck at the core of what this team Thunder is: ““For us, we don’t have a big margin for error. We need a lot of guys to play well at one time.”

Think how different that is from most of Thunder history. For a full decade, the Thunder was mostly a two-headed monster. Russell Westbrook and either Kevin Durant or Paul George. There were other valuable parts – James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Carmelo Anthony, Schroder – but the two superstars did most of the heavy lifting.

Such lifting, that if one of the stars had an off game, it wasn’t a big deal. The other was high enough tide to lift all boats.

Now the Thunder is in a non-superstar phase. Paul is a fabulous talent, but he’s a different kind of superstar. He’s not a go-off-for-40 type of scorer. Gilgeous-Alexander might one day be a superstar, but for now, he’s a really good 21-year-old with a high ceiling.

And the Thunder is a remarkably balanced team. That’s nothing like what has been said lo these many years. But OKC has four players averaging from 17.5 points through 19.5 points – SGA 19.5, Schroder 19.2, Gallinari 19.1 and Paul 17.5.

That would seem to be insurance against recession. And it has been. The Thunder’s 32-22 record is one of the NBA’s most positive surprises.

But the Thunder also has some issues. Depth is shallow. Yes, OKC has four really good scorers – and not much beyond. Adams and fellow center Nerlens Noel average 10.7 and 8.0 points per game, and most all of those points come on rolls to the basket or offensive rebounds. Not a ton of creationism from the post.

Such a roster makeup means you can easily avoid defeat even when a marquee player plays poorly. But such a roster makeup means you’re in trouble when two marquee players play poorly. And that’s what happened against San Antonio.

The Thunder does not have the kind of bench where a role player might break out on a particular night. When a Darius Bazley, Hamidou Diallo, Abdel Nader or Lou Dort has the occasional double-digit scoring game, it’s a massive surprise.

I went back through the Thunder season and checked individual game scores. Game scores is a metric developed by John Hollinger, one of the pioneers of basketball analytics. It’s an off-shoot of Hollinger’s PER (player efficiency rating), which calculates a player’s production from measurable statistics.

A game score in the 20s is really good. SGA has had 13 of those this season, same as Paul. Gallinari has had eight. Schroder has had six.

Conversely, game scores in the single digits are poor games. Gallinari and Paul each have had 11, SGA 15 and Schroder 18.

Not surprisingly, when three of the four stars have game scores below 10.0, the Thunder is 0-5.

With Gallinari, Schroder and SGA all three playing poorly, the Thunder lost at the Blazers and the Clippers in November, at the Kings in December,  and also at home to the Blazers in October.

With Paul, SGA and Schroder playing poorly, OKC lost at Indiana in November.

With two playing poorly, the Thunder fares better – 4-4. That’s actually an encouraging stat. It’s hard to imagine the Thunder winning much when two of the four primary scorers play the way Gallinari and Schroder played Tuesday night. And when playing without one of the four, the Thunder is 3-2 even when one of the three remaining stars plays poorly.

Without Gallinari, the Thunder won at Brooklyn when Schroder had a poor game, beat the Clippers when Paul had a poor game and won at Minnesota when SGA had a poor game.

Add it all up, and the Thunder is 7-11 when only two of its four stars has a productive game. But when at least three of the four stars has a productive game, OKC is 25-11.

Related Photos
Oklahoma City's Danilo Gallinari (8) loses the ball beside San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

Oklahoma City's Danilo Gallinari (8) loses the ball beside San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The...

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-d03c1f267f92c519ac9c4dbfff99eae6.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City's Danilo Gallinari (8) loses the ball beside San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]" title="Oklahoma City's Danilo Gallinari (8) loses the ball beside San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]"><figcaption>Oklahoma City's Danilo Gallinari (8) loses the ball beside San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. San Antonio won 114-106. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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