Forget the past two years. Forget being up 3-1 in the WCF and not being able to get the team over the hump because of a dreadful ball sticking offense. Forget turning everything over to Russ and not giving ownership to anyone else last season and now Victor O. is balling out of his mind somewhere else. Forget all the Billy Donovan small things that annoys fans. Christmas came early for OKC when Russ Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George united as one. And yet it feels like Santa put coal in the Thunder stocking. The team that everyone thought was a lock top-4 seed is (shaking my head) struggling, particularly in second half of games when the offense goes into the toilet.
But it is even worse than it appears because the clock is ticking for the Thunder and in particular Paul George. George is a free agent come July 1st. He is an immense talent who plans to check out what is out there this off-season. The Thunder’s hope was to start out like a house on fire, kind of like the Rockets, take advantage of a Kawhi-less Spurs team, vault to second or third in the standings, ride the wave of the OKC loud and boisterous faithful and romance George into not wanting to leave.
But this? That wasn’t in anyone’s plan. Let’s review. Here are the things the Thunder just can’t get right:
Shooting? They can’t make shots, particularly three point shots. Getting to the line? They don’t get there. Rebounding? Nope, they don’t grab boards. Assists? They don’t move the ball. Blocks? They are average. Scoring? A team with Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George are 26th in scoring. Pace? They play slow. Yep. A team with Westbrook is guilty of the ultimate non-Westbrook crime.
Here are the things the Thunder excel at:
Defense. 3rd best scoring defense team in the league. Top-10 shooting defense.
So on the one hand the offense sticks and ball movement is non-existent and no one is being physical and relentless in the lane and they throw up bricks. And on the other hand, teams don’t score against them.
The Big Three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George knew they’d have to sacrifice and for the most part they have. Their numbers aren’t what they put up last year as solo acts but it’s their chemistry and the rest of the team coming aboard their train that is haunting them with this nightmare.
All around, it is an epic organizational failure which brings us back to Paul George.
If he chooses to leave OKC in the summer, the Thunder get nothing. Been there with Durant, done that. If the train keeps running off the tracks, the smart thing to do is to move George now and get something in return, say offer him to his dream team for Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle. Clarkson has a very friendly contract of $12 million with two years left after this season, no opt-outs, and Randle is a restricted free agent. Or, send George to Houston for guard Eric Gordon, who has a similar contract to Clarkson and add in Trevor Ariza, a free agent in July.
The Thunder have a luxury tax bill of $24 million. Paying the piper comes in March. That’s a bitter pill to swallow if George leaves after this disaster of a Big Three all bark, no bite year.
As far as trying to salvage the Titanic, the offense falls under the job description of Billy Donovan. He has maximum talent in which to be creative, stagger players, instill an offense that serves everyone. The talent outside of the Big Three falls within the purview of Sam Presti, that is a Sam Presti accountability problem. So it is not all Donovan’s fault. It is not all Sam Presit’s fault. It is not just that Carmelo needs to go to the bench. It is the C word: chemistry. And the D word: depth, or lack thereof.
The Thunder bench is the second worst in the league. They score 23.5 points per game which is 12 points less than they scored last year. No one is helping Westbrook. But they are also playing three minutes less which suppresses the numbers. There has to be trust in everybody, otherwise you have an upper class and a poverty class with zero in the middle. The stars can’t do everything.
As for those stars who Donovan is banking everything on and who are dominating the minutes. No one is making shots. Paul George is shooting 41%. Russ Westbrook is shooting 39%. Melo is putting in 40% of his shots. Shot selection is a big thing. George’s shots are coming from behind the arc, nearly 43% of them. Russ is James Harden lite, at the rim or a three, no mid-range game, and Melo is just dropping three point shots and long twos, 62% worth. The problem inherent in their shot selection is there is zero chemistry. Nor compatibility or versatility. George and Melo are not drivers like Westbrook but they all are setting up long distance and it is failing them. That is Donovan’s problem too. He is the one in charge of making sure the offense is not predictable.
The Thunder fell into a trap as old as the hills. Or should I say the lie. Three All-Stars will get you into the WCF. It happens but only if the three All-Stars are compatible. They have to do things on the court that compliment each other.
This is far from compatible. This is not complimenting. This is just a train wreck. And a cautionary tale.