DENVER, Okla. — Last season followed one overriding trend: The Oklahoma City Thunder got rocked when Russell Westbrook wasn’t playing.
The theme hit its apex during the Thunder’s first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, an eventual five-game loss. The Rockets’ bench ran all over OKC’s and coach Billy Donovan was left experimenting at backup point guard from game to game.
At-the-time second stringers Norris Cole and Semaj Christon both received time as next in line after Westbrook. Eventually, it was neither. Donovan used starting shooting guard Victor Oladipo to run the second unit in the decisive Game 5, eschewing the backup point guard role altogether.
The Thunder sunk so low at that position a season ago that reliability there today should stand out as one of the most significant changes from last season. Even following a summer that they brought in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton has made a noticeable difference.
“His greatest strength is how cerebral he is, how smart he is,” Donovan said. “That to me is the biggest thing, that he’s a very smart, experienced player who’s got a calmness and a disposition when he’s out there.”
Felton was averaging 7.7 points and 2.4 assists in 17.9 minutes heading into Thursday night’s game at the Denver Nuggets. The efficiency is even more impressive: 48 percent from the field, 52 percent from 3. More relevantly, the Thunder have gone from incapable to competent with their backup point guard on the floor, outscoring opponents by an impressive 8.5 points per 100 possessions while Felton is playing.
No other OKC player with as many minutes has more impressive on/off numbers.
“Really good feel how to play,” Donovan said. “Great tempo. Reads defense. Understands matchups.”
It’s been somewhat of a new role for Felton, who is used to playing off the ball in some capacity but maybe not one as consistent as he’s had to deal with in Oklahoma City.
Donovan will use him at times next to Westbrook, nothing new for a point guard who had moments at the 2 spot last year with the L.A. Clippers, in his previous stop with the Dallas Mavericks and even dating all the way back to his rookie season, when the now extinct Charlotte Bobcats ran him next to veteran floor general Brevin Knight. At this point, he's so comfortable off the ball, that he calls it “truly whatever.”
But this isn’t happening in moments now. Even when Felton is playing with the reserves, he’s off the ball the majority of his time.
The Thunder have used Carmelo Anthony as their first option during bench lineups. It’s worked well enough to be one of the major reasons why Felton’s net rating is so high. It’s also sent him to more of a spot-up role — even if he still receives opportunities to dart at the rim.
At least through the beginning portion of the season, it’s worked. He’s shooting better than 47 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
“A lot of guys I play with demand a lot of double-teams and a lot of attention, so it’s giving me chances to have a lot of open shots,” Felton said. “And I just got to take advantage of it.”
The overall number, far higher than Felton’s career figure, probably isn’t sustainable. But the formula that brought him there just might be.
Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.