It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were supposed to give Russell Westbrook the help he sorely needed. No longer would the league’s reigning MVP have to shoulder the load on his own.
At the same time, the spacing capabilities of George and Anthony would unclog the lane for the likes of Westbrook and others to slash into the paint. This trio would effectively challenge for a top-four spot in the vaunted Western Conference — and perhaps pose a serious threat to Golden State in a hypothetical conference finals match-up.
In theory, things can appear idyllic and utterly perfect. Once the ball is rolled onto the court, the once-bright scenario may evolve into an entirely new ballgame.
26 games into the regular season, and the Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit at 12-14. They’re snugly sitting in ninth place — half a game out of a playoff spot.
Statistically, things are bit skewed. The George-Westbrook-Anthony troika is combining to average nearly 62 points per game. Big man Steven Adams is currently putting up career-high numbers in points (13.7 PPG), rebounds (8.5), free-throw percentage (.640), and field-goal percentage (.646).
On the surface, you’d think the aforementioned quartet would make up one of the most lethal offensive groups in the league. However, this is far from the case when delving into things.
This team is wildly inefficient. From a shooting standpoint, the team ranks 29th in the league in both field-goal percentage (.436) and free-throw percentage. Duly, OKC is No. 28 in three-point percentage.
We’ve seen Westbrook be Westbrook — burrowing his head down as he unabashedly drives into the paint. He’s currently on pace for his worst field-goal percentage shooting season (.398) since his rookie year (.396). Westbrook’s 27.1-percent from beyond the arc would also rank among the worst he’s had for a single year. Westbrook’s free-throw percentage (.728) has also plummeted from his career average (.819). The most alarming statistic involves Westbrook’s efficiency — or lack thereof — from inside the paint. He’s shooting a meager 15.8-percent on shots from three-to-ten feet.
Anthony is shooting 40.4-percent from the field. This would be Melo’s worst shooting average for a season. As opposed to attacking the rim, Anthony has settled far too many for perimeter looks. He’s averaging six three-point attempts a contest. This could point towards the newer philosophy utilized across the league, or it may tell the story of Anthony’s diminishing athleticism in terms of taking players off the bounce.
As is the case with both Anthony and Westbrook, George’s shooting numbers (field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, three-point percentage) are all down from his career averages. He’s truly struggled in trying to find a rhythm within this team — something that’s wildly fascinating when considering George’s malleable nature as a player. He’s the type of athlete to fit in with practically any scheme. However, he’s yet to truly find his footing as a complementary option next to an assertive Westbrook and the shot-happy Anthony.
The addition of George was supposed to enhance an already talented defensive roster. There’s plenty of length and athleticism across the board. George is versatile enough to defend multiple positions — as is All-NBA defender André Roberson and springy swingman Jerami Grant. When all three are on the floor, there are few teams capable of matching this level of defensive ability. Any combination of these three players were also expected to help mask the deficiencies of Melo on this side of the court.
The defense has played up to par — as the team ranks No. 2 in defensive rating, and has allowed the third-least amount of points per contest (99.6).
Though hindsight is always 20/20, the decision to essentially rent George for two up-and-coming youngsters (Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis) seems like a huge gamble. We’ve already spoken about OKC’s struggles on the offensive end of the floor.
They’re magnified further by the fact that George very well — and likely will — leave after the conclusion of this season. Sabonis leads the Pacers in rebounding, and is averaging near a double-double. Oladipo has come out of nowhere to develop into one of the game’s best shooting guards. He’s averaging an eye-popping 24.5 PPG on 48.5-percent from the field and 44.4-percent from three. One would guess that GM Sam Presti did not envision this scenario occurring.
Presti went all in during the offseason. One has to wonder about the longterm future of head coach Billy Donovan. Already a polarizing figure within the fan base, his job security could seriously be in jeopardy with losses continuing to pile up.
The other question persists: Will OKC try to shop George at the trade deadline? If there’s enough of an indication that he won’t be back — coupled with a diminishing chance to be a factor in the playoff race — why risk losing him for nothing? There likely will be a contender possessing the assets — and hunger — to go out and get PG13. Presti is a shrewd operator, and likely will get something of value in a hypothetical trade.
There’s certainly a lot to think about as this season progresses. A best-case scenario for the franchise (and Presti) is that the team gets out of this shooting funk in time for the stretch run. Conventional wisdom states that the squad will play better with one another as the year progresses. The enhanced familiarity with quirks and tendencies should result in improved play on the court.
However if this team simply doesn’t have the right mix of players, don’t be shocked if Presti and the front office brass decides to flip everything upside down.
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