The unquestioned winners of the offseason were the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A year removed from losing the best player in franchise history, trading for Victor Oladipo and then (somewhat inexplicably) handing him a four-year, $85 million extension, general manager Sam Presti has brought his team back to basketball prominence.
First, on June 30, just before the opening salvos of the 2017 free-agency period, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that Oklahoma City had acquired disgruntled All-NBA wing Paul George from the Indiana Pacers.
The package they sent back consisted of Oladipo and rookie big man Domantas Sabonis – who possesses talent to be sure, but struggled mightily as a first-year player.
Then, days before the start of training camp, Presti pulled off an equally dubious heist – sending Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the New York Knicks for another fed-up star: Carmelo Anthony.
And just like that, the Thunder went from Tom Petty to the Traveling Wilburys. The one-man-spectacle-turned-super-group have metamorphosed from first-round fodder to potential Golden State Warriors challengers over the course of three busy months.
Now that the puzzle has all of its pieces, the question for head coach Billy Donovan is: Do they fit together?
The immediate thought may be to downplay their chances of Western-Conference contention due to each player’s ball-dominant style.
Last season, Westbrook had the second-most isolation possessions league-wide, per Synergy Sports. Anthony had the third most. And George, not to be outdone by his new teammates, came in 10th, with 300 one-on-one opportunities on the year.
Donovan will have his work cut out for him getting the trio to share the ball. But at the same time, the three of them do possess skills that complement each other – and the rest of the roster – nicely.
For starters, Westbrook’s relentless forays into the painted area will only become deadlier with the extra spacing provided by the Thunder acquisitions.
In 2016-17, the reigning MVP averaged 11.3 drives per contest, via NBA.com’s tracking services – the fifth-highest mark in the league. However, he only shot 48.0 percent on those chances, making him the fourth-least-effective finisher among the 20 players who averaged over 8.0 rim-attacks per night.
When checking the tape, surmising why isn’t exactly difficult:
With Steven Adams blocking off his man and Andre Roberson setting an off-ball screen to spring OKC’s now-departed power forward, Westbrook drove into one hell of a congested lane.
Apparently, the Memphis Grizzlies weren’t exactly concerned with the prospects of leaving Joffrey Lauvergne and Oladipo wide open in the corners, so when the Thunder’s floor general arrived at his launching point, an astounding five defenders were in the paint at the same time:
Substitute Oladipo and Lauvergne for George and Anthony, and odds are, we’ll be looking at a different picture.
Last season, both new Thunder forwards were among the top 15 percent in the league as spot-up shooters. The former Knick scored 1.23 points per possession (PPP) on such looks according to Synergy, while the former Pacer produced 1.14 PPP on the same opportunities.
Opponents will have a difficult decision to make: leave two elite shooters open in order to clog the paint for Westbrook attacks? Or remain glued to George and Anthony, while abandoning the restricted area for the explosive point guard?
Considering Westbrook already had the fourth-highest assist rate on drives (12.1 percent) while playing with an almost-always-spacing-starved Thunder team in 2016-17, Oklahoma City’s vastly improved shooting will render either option futile.
Improved marksmen aside, OKC’s new pickups are also underrated in a couple of other facets.
George is coming off a season in which he was the seventh-most effective scorer when running the pick-and-roll, among players with at least 300 opportunities. The 6-foot-9 wing dropped 1.01 PPP on such looks according to Synergy, outpacing stud floor generals such as Mike Conley and Eric Bledsoe in the process.
George’s weapon of choice when running the pick-and-roll is the pull-up jumper. Among men who attempted at least 500 such shots, the Fresno State product was fourth deadliest, nailing 42.2 percent of them.
When the Thunder pair him with Game-of-Thrones caricature Adams, the tandem could do some serious damage. The seven-footer scored 1.10 PPP when rolling to the rim last season – the No. 6 mark among players with at least 200 such opportunities, per Synergy.
Meanwhile, Anthony is quietly still one of the league’s best post-up wings. According to NBA Math’s play-type profiles, the 6-foot-8 combo forward added 8.7 points of value when backing down defenders. Considering anything above a zero in that metric equates an above-average rate, that mark is nothing to scoff at.
A Westbrook-Anthony pick-and-roll will wind up forcing teams to switch on defense.
And pitting a guard against the latter down-low just won’t work very often.
Oklahoma City now has a variety of ways to kill you offensively .
Last season’s Russ-centric attack – exhilarating as it was to behold – is gone, which is for the best. The Thunder finished 2016-17 with the league’s 17th-ranked offensive rating – scoring 105.0 points per 100 possessions on average. The team personified mediocrity when trying to put the ball through the hoop.
What’s worse, according to NBAWowy, that number fell all the way to 101.8 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the bench. If prorated for the year, 101.8 would have been the league’s third-least-potent attack, outscoring only the lowly Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic.
Nevertheless, those issues are gone now.
Donovan’s reserve unit may be a bit light on talent, especially if Patrick Patterson can’t find his form after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee this summer. But Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant – with another year under their belts – should quell those concerns a bit.
The former can knock down open shots for days while the latter is an explosive finisher near the rim.
The Thunder can further lighten any worries of a short bench by being active on the buyout market, or scouring the current free-agent class for another pickup. Deron Williams, for example, remains unemployed, but probably shouldn’t.
A simpler solution could be to stagger their starters’ minutes.
When Westbrook sits, George can take over the scoring duties – be it through isolation attempts or running the pick-and-roll with the behemoth Adams.
Or during the minutes both George and the team’s lead guard sit, we could see stints of Hoodie ‘Melo hitting opponents with jab steps until he feels the right balance to knock down a jumper over his defender’s face.
Most importantly: It won’t all be on Westbrook going forward.
The enigmatic point guard won’t have to tire himself out chasing rebounds or attacking the basket with reckless abandon anymore. That should give the 30-point-per-game scorer the chance to be at his best once the playoffs roll around – a truly terrifying proposition for opponents.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.