Thunder questions: Does Gordon Hayward have anything left?

Thunder questions: Does Gordon Hayward have anything left?

Hayward’s performance has been alarming. He doesn’t look like an NBA player. Virtually no elevation. Limited lateral movement. He looks shorter and heavier from his days as a tall wing in Utah and Boston.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 8, 2024, 8:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 8, 2024, 8:00am CST

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

The Thunder success story continues. The Thunder is 43-19, a winning percentage of .694 that has OKC on a 57-win pace.

The Thunder opens a four-game homestand Friday night, coming off a four-game road trip. The Thunder is a half-game behind Minnesota for the Western Conference lead.

When a team wins like this, it’s hard to focus on flaws. I mean, a .694 finish would be the fourth-best record in Thunder history, behind only the three straight glorious teams of 2011-12 (.712), 2012-13 (.732) and 2013-14 (.720).

But some questions did arise on the road trip, which was not unsuccessful. The Thunder went 2-2, playing two woebegone teams (Spurs, Blazers) and two dangerous teams (Lakers, Suns).

When I see Mark Daigneault in pregame Friday night, these are some of the questions I’ll plan to have for him.

Is Gordon Hayward finished?

When the Thunder traded for Hayward in February, it seemed like a good risk, considering OKC gave up little to get him. The 14-year veteran wing was coming off a strained calf injury that caused him to miss the last 22 games he was with Charlotte.

Hayward’s numbers seemed OK with the Hornets — 14.5 points, .468 shooting percentage. Hayward sat out his first three Thunder games, then joined the rotation after the all-star break.

And frankly, Hayward’s performance has been alarming. He no longer looks like an NBA player. Virtually no elevation. Limited lateral movement. He appears shorter and heavier from his days as a tall wing in Utah and Boston.

In seven Thunder games, Hayward has averaged 14.6 minutes and just 2.4 points. He’s made just 10 of 31 shots, and Hayward barely even looks at a 3-pointer. Hayward’s first trey came Wednesday night in Portland.

On the road trip, Hayward’s plus/minus numbers were alarming. He played 60 minutes in those four games, during which the Thunder was outscored by 38 points.

Daigneault seems to be playing Hayward just to make sure that what we’re seeing is reality. From what Hayward has shown, he’s either still injured or has zero playoff value for the Thunder.

Chet Holmgren’s rim protection

Holmgren had three blocked shots total on the road trip. His previous low for blocked shots in any four-game span was six.

Holmgren’s rim protection as a rookie has been all that anyone could have predicted and more. Holmgren has averaged 2.5 blocked shots, fourth in the NBA, and he hasn’t chased blocks. Holmgren hasn’t left his designated assignment much, in search of backside blocks. He’s a legitimate defensive force, all as a rookie.

But on the four-game road trip, three opposing centers had big-to-monster games. The Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama had 28 points, 13 rebounds and 9-of-17 shooting. The Suns’ Jusuf Nurkic had 14/31 and 7-of-16 shooting. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis had 24/12 and 7-of-12 shooting. Portland didn’t really have anyone to counter Holmgren.

Holmgren held his own. He averaged 17.3 points and 7.7 rebounds, with .528 shooting.

But he was battered about, including a cut on his nose and a black eye and a variety of physical situations. I hope Holmgren slept well in his own bed. It was a tasking trip.

The Thunder defense was not its usual self in the four games. The Thunder ranks third in the NBA in field-goal percentage defense, at .453. But OKC allowed .482 in those four games. 

The Thunder’s defensive rating for the season is 111.5 (points per 100 possessions), which ranks fifth in the 30-team NBA. In those four games, the Thunder allowed 118.6 points per 100 possessions.

Clearly, opponents are more wary of Holmgren than earlier in the season. They are game-planning to get him farther removed from the basket. They are going into his body to negate the blocked shot opportunities.

It’s Daigneault’s turn to counter. And to make sure that Holmgren is fresh for the playoffs.

Isaiah Joe drought

Isaiah Joe went scoreless in back-to-back games, vs. the Lakers and Blazers, missing all five shots he took. That is not good. The Thunder has come to depend on Joe’s production.

But in truth, Joe has been on a gradual slide. In the first 40 games of the year, Joe was averaging 9.1 points and shooting 42.2 percent from 3-point range.

But in the Thunder’s 22 games since, Joe has played in 18 and averaged 5.9 points while shooting 40 percent from deep. Forty percent remains good, but opponents are keeping his shots at a low number. Joe has scored in double digits only twice in his last 18 games.

And Joe’s dip affects the entire Thunder bench, which has been mostly superb all season. OKC’s off-the-bench players combined for just 14 points Wednesday night in a 128-120 win at Portland. Daigneault relied more and more on his starters.

On the road trip, the Thunder bench made just 38 of 98 shots and averaged 25 points. OKC has averaged 33.1 bench points.

The Thunder needs Joe to get going.

SGA frustration

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slumps come in bunches of one. SGA, second in the NBA in scoring, 31.1 points, has shot less than 40% in a game four times all season. That’s in 61 games.

In Russell Westbrook’s most valuable player season of 2016-17, he shot less than 40% in 37 of 81 games.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s sub-.400 games have come once each in October, November, January and March.

But SGA’s frustrations come around a little more often, and Gilgeous-Alexander has shown signs of frustration in two straight games. He’s had back-to-back games of four turnovers. This season, only once before has SGA had at least four turnovers in two consecutive games.

Opponents are more and more double-teaming Gilgeous-Alexander, trapping him near midcourt and/or pressing him to get rid of the ball. It’s a defensive strategy that can go south in a hurry, and the Thunder has made a lot of foes pay.

But sometimes it works. It worked against the Lakers on Monday night, when SGA was 5-of-13 shooting, for 20 points, his fourth-lowest total of the season.

SGA stayed frustrated vs. Portland, despite a big scoring night — 37 points, on 13-of-23 shooting. But Blazer defensive whiz Matisse Thybulle bothered him throughout the night. SGA forced things too often, which he does about once every 20 games.

It’s a long season. Everyone gets worn down. Physically and mentally. Gilgeous-Alexander is showing signs of getting worn down mentally. Keep an eye on that.

Wither Mike Muscala

The Thunder has spent most of the season with Arkansas Williams backing up Holmgren. Two-league player Oliver Sarr served as the third-team center, though Kenrich Williams played much more center, in a small-ball lineup, than did Sarr.

Then on Feb. 10, the Thunder signed Bismack Biyombo. And three weeks later, OKC signed Mike Muscala, an organizational favorite who in February 2023 was traded by the Thunder to Boston, the first of three teams for which Muscala has played since leaving the Thunder.

Lo and behold, the Thunder has five centers. Holmgren, Arkansas Williams, Muscala, Biyombo, Sarr. Rarely would any of them play together. Plus Kenrich Williams.

How does Muscala fit in? He’s of little help against the Nikola Jovics and Anthony Davises of the Western Conference. But who is? Biyombo can muscle up some. Muscala offensively can keep the floor spread and at least get those giants away from the basket. Arkansas is a mix; tougher inside than Muscala, not as rugged as Biyombo.

Arkansas remains the best option to spell Holmgren. Biyombo is available when foes turn to bully ball. Muscala could be called upon as a situational marksman, capable of nailing a couple of 3-pointers in 40 seconds.

Do I have that right? Arkansas keeps playing backup minutes, Muscala and Biyombo are available only in certain situations, and Sarr is on standby in blowouts, when he’s dressed.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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