Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have yet to figure things out, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have looked awful because of it.
The 2010-11 Miami Heat were 8-5 over their first 13 games. The 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder are 6-7 over the same amount of contests. There aren’t many similarities between these teams aside from three big-name players gracing the starting lineup, but both had to answer the same question heading into their campaign: how long will it take for them to get comfortable with each other? Miami did so almost right away and waltzed to the Finals before falling apart at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. The Thunder haven’t been as fortunate.
When Miami came together, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh knew that LeBron James was going to be the first option. Everyone was comfortable with the hierarchy from the start. Additionally, Erik Spoelstra didn’t have to worry about cultivating an offense that extracted the most out of his stars. James’ greatest attribute is his passing, which is amplified by his unselfishness. Wade and Bosh maintained their All-Star level play because they knew they would get the ball when the opportunity arose. Watching this year’s Thunder isn’t like that; it seems like they’re going through an identity crisis.
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We know that Russell Westbrook, because of his dynamic playmaking ability, is Oklahoma City’s best player. Behind him is Paul George, followed by Carmelo Anthony. If we’re trying to draw parallels to that 2011 Heat, Anthony needs to occupy the same role as Bosh — someone who gets the ball as a last resort. That’s not a knock on either player. It’s just highlighting the limitations of their games. In his older years, Anthony has regressed quickly, no longer being the multifaceted scorer who could hang 32 on an opponent by nailing shots from all over. He’s at his best as a catch-and-shoot guy.
Westbrook is, of course, the conductor of this rickety train. Being the leader means he gets hit with most of the blame when the team is going through a rough stretch. Before their win over the Los Angeles Clippers (where George dropped 42), the Thunder lost four straight to the Celtics, Trail Blazers, Kings and Nuggets. All of them were close, and Oklahoma City was more than capable of beating the last three opponents.
In those contests, Westbrook played horribly, jacking up 22.0 shots a night and only recording 19.3 points. He couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, leading to a true shooting clip of 40.3 percent. Over those seven days (Nov. 3 to Nov. 9), only four players averaging more than 25 minutes a game posted a lower shooting percentage: Lonzo Ball (28.4 percent), Jerryd Bayless (28.6 percent), Tyler Johnson (37.1 percent) and Terrence Ross (38.2 percent).
It appears that there are growing pains with having Westbrook play alongside two serviceable sidekicks. That’s normal. After everything he had to do last year, it’s expected to watch him struggle to break those old habits. However, the Thunder can’t afford to have that happen for the length of the season.
In games where Oklahoma City loses, there’s a common trend — Russ and George and Melo all play poorly. Who would’ve guessed that your three best players have off- nights you lose?!
Since Westbrook is the best player on his team, his play is going to have a profound effect on everyone else, and that’s amplified given his astronomical usage. Overall, his usage rate is 31.3 percent, and it’s risen slightly in the seven losses to 31.8. He’s responsible for making the offense run smoothly, which includes getting George and Anthony the ball more than he should so they can establish a rhythm (more so George). In the Thunder’s seven losses, Russ has hoisted 141 shots, 20.1 per game. His conversion rate is 38.3 percent. George has gotten 15 fewer attempts (18.0 a night) and is shooting 40.5 percent. He hasn’t been much better; without anything to compare it to, it’s obvious why Westbrook wouldn’t want to pass to guys who aren’t hitting shots. That’s where the issues lie.
Russ shoots too much at times. And it’s detrimental to his team. Oklahoma City’s two most recent wins have been over the Clippers and Mavericks, George has scored 42 and 37 points, respectively. He puts up numbers like that because of his versatility. Paul George is already a handful to guard because he can pull up from 25 feet and is quick and athletic enough to blow by guys on the perimeter and hammer it home over the rotating big. Throwing Westbrook and Anthony alongside him make it more challenging because you can’t divert attention from them.
Oklahoma City’s defense is considerably worse when they lose, but their offense doesn’t even give them a chance. That goes back to Westbrook. However, he also makes an impact when they’re on top of the scoreboard. The Thunder average 110.2 points in victories and they do so by shooting 47.6 percent from the floor and 38.9 percent from three. Westbrook is far more unselfish, handing out 11.3 dimes compared to the 8.4 when they lose. Being a more willing passer means passing up shots that you’d otherwise take, and Westbrook’s 14.8 nightly attempts in victories is third behind Anthony (15.8) and George (17.8). Melo doesn’t see nearly the improvement that the latter does.
Eliminating isolation is what helps unlock the Thunder’s offense. Sending George in motion keeps the ball from sticking with one person, and he gets hot so quickly that it’s a crime to keep the rock away from him after a couple of shots have fallen. Now, the defense has to worry about stopping him, but then they also have to worry about Russ moving without the ball, and then they have to worry about making sure that Melo isn’t left open in the corner, and then they have to worry about protecting the paint and preventing lobs. It’s amazing what happens when the ball moves. That’s why coaches stress it to young players. When you take that into account, the blame creeps over to Billy Donovan.
It’s his job to design sets that benefit the players that the front office wanted. Once that happens, the point guard — we’ll use Russ — needs to execute them. Westbrook is outspoken when discussing numbers and winning (last year, he told The Oklahoman’s Brett Dawson that the triple-double talk was “kind of getting on my nerves”), which leads us to believe that he’d have no problem deferring to the guys who are powering their victories. The stats say that is true. As long as he’s fine with scoring less and assisting more, the Thunder will see their success snowball.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have looked bad in some games and incredible in others. Their issues aren’t too big of a problem for now. There is no singular person that we can blame for a team’s successes or failures. We can, however, pinpoint certain decisions from particular players that have done more harm than good. Additionally, the leader of any team is automatically going to catch more flak because of his position. With the Thunder, we look at Russell Westbrook and his decision making. But the coaching staff is at fault for not yet finding a way to get their players comfortable. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are also to blame at times for not asserting themselves more. And only time will tell if these three guys can actually play with each other.
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