Coming off a 47-win season fueled by Russell Westbrook’s MVP performance, a fantastic record in crunch time and a surprisingly stingy defense, adding Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to the roster was expected to immediately vault the Thunder into title contention – or as close as anyone can get to that moniker considering the Warriors’ current roster construction.
George, in particular, is the perfect second star to a great team. He’s a versatile, and overall fantastic defender perfectly suited to guard the toughest matchups and switch through all five positions. George is a B+ player offensively in almost every category, one of the best shooters coming off screens, and can run a second unit as a the primary option better than anyone.
And to Anthony’s credit, he immediately accepted a power forward role with his new team – the position where some of his weaknesses defensively are better hidden and strengths enhanced. It’s not an accident that the Knicks had their best season back in 2012-13, winning 54 games with Anthony playing three quarters of his minutes at the four. Against traditional power forwards, Anthony is too quick to handle and his super quick release gives the Thunder spacing from a position where it’s extra valuable.
On both ends of the court, there’s a lot to like about the potential fit between Oklahoma City’s stars and role players. The Thunder can play versatile small-ball lineups with shooting with Patrick Patterson at center next to Anthony, ultra-big lineups with Steven Adams where Anthony and George move to the wing spots and all other kinds of fun combinations of shooting, defense, size and skill.
All the expectations considered, a 6-7 record to start is a mild disappointment for a group that expects to be on the level of the Rockets or Spurs. For the Thunder, it will be a disappointing season if they don’t make it to the Western Conference Finals, and this group should be a no-brainer Top 4 seed – which remains the most likely outcome by end of the year.
Beyond their record, however, there are many positive signs indicating that they’ll be making a run towards the top spots in the West soon. The Thunder have the fourth-best net rating, having outscored opponents by 5.6 points per possession. That’s a mid-50s win pace, and over a large enough sample winning tends to closely correlate with net rating. The real problem is a 1-6 record in games that have been within 5 points in the last 5 minutes (which NBA.com categorizes as clutch time) with a -48.9 net rating, a mark that ranks last in the NBA by a silly margin.
With Westbrook and Anthony, the offense can get stagnant at times, but we knew that coming in and last season Oklahoma City was exceptional in crunch time with Westbrook making every play. Not moving the ball can get you in trouble against the best defenses when it matters most, but over the course of a regular season there’s no reason to expect the Thunder to perform poorly because of it.
On the plus side, the defense has been phenomenal, ranking second at just 98.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. Andre Roberson and George are fantastic at denying passing lanes and forcing the offense out of their rhythm, which has led to the team ranking first in turnovers forced. Westbrook has previously gotten into trouble jumping around and being too aggressive on defense, but he’s toned that down and is excellent at jumping into passing lanes. Adams has great hands for a big, and is averaging 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
Right now, the statistical profile of this group is reminiscent of the Pacers with David West, Roy Hibbert and George, or the backend of the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett led Celtics. Both were excellent defenses with a mediocre offense, and topped out as the type of pseudo contenders who could put up a fight against anyone, but ultimately didn’t have enough to really compete for a championship.
That’s a strange place to be considering a Big Three that’s made up of top-notch offensive talents, but it’s also a great sign since there should be a conceivable path here for an elite offense.
It didn’t take a seer to imagine a team with Westbrook and Anthony ranked as the Top 2 players by usage will struggle with ball movement. And note that ball movement doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with assists, which Westbrook gets plenty of and the Thunder are ranked near the league average in Assist Percentage (the percentage of baskets which are assisted).
What ball movement actually means here is the movement in the offense – cuts, different off-ball actions – and more precisely how quickly each of those actions happens. The Thunder currently make the fewest passes per game and are also ranked near the bottom in second per touch.
Carmelo Anthony isolation post-up. Steven Adams is “sneakily” and vigorously trying to signal Paul George is wide open in the corner.
The clip above of a high-post isolation perfectly illustrates a key problem. Anthony is a great scorer, but not superbly efficient anymore going one-on-one against the defense, and that has been reflected in the numbers. Anthony is using up the second most isolation possessions per game only after James Harden, and his efficiency on those plays has been 0.82 points per possession, ranking in the 33rd percentile.
The Thunder are the anti-Celtics in how the offense is run. Around a Al Horford high post action, you’ll see the Celtics run a ton of misdirection and plays where the next action flows immediately from the previous one. The read is made instantly, and even a split second pause can ruin an action. An NBA play is often designed to end with an advantage – maybe the baseline drive is open after the weakside defense is otherwise occupied under the basket. And if that advantage isn’t used immediately… it evaporates.
Roberson is perhaps most disadvantaged in the current system. Roberson might be the worst offensive player playing regular minutes for a team, but he doesn’t have to look this bad in an NBA offense. Having Roberson back screen, cut and overall in better places in the offense would go a long way limiting the amount of damage done, and keeping him on the floor for defensive purposes.
Westbrook’s inefficient start, with a True Shooting Percentage of 49.8 (down from 55.4 in 2016-17), has also been a minor issue. At 20.2 points per game, Westbrook is way below his career average and he’s clearly trying to help Anthony and George get comfortable in the offense. Additionally, Westbrook’s jumper, especially on those mid-range pull-ups he loves hasn’t been falling yet.
Some of the Thunder’s crunch-time statistics are pretty awful, such as having just five assists in 25 minutes of play, and the offense at its worst has been an ugly sight to behold. But even with those issues, the defense has been brilliant and by all the metrics they should be above .500 already.
The difference between being merely good and elite will come down to the offense, and that’s where Westbrook and Anthony will have to battle against their first instinct of stopping the action to create their own play. With some additional floor time, and an important role player like Patterson actually starting to make a shot every once in awhile, we’ll get a better picture of where Oklahoma City falls at the top of the Western Conference.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.