It is so ordinary now, the Sam Presti thing. Pulling off some magic trick. Because we are so used to it, an immunity has built up to Presti being Presti. He thieves Paul George out of Pacer land. He takes advantage of a desperate Knicks team. The team that could not compete with the Warriors because they only had one great player and a bunch of little engines that could is suddenly three All-Stars strong, though Melo making the All-Star game in the West is a longshot. Good luck beating out Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Paul George, Karl-Anthony Towns, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, all players under 30 years old. But the All-Star game is irrelevant to the Thunder plans to convince Westbrook to sign the extension and to get to the Western Conference Finals.
If the game was played on paper, the Thunder would be a heavy favorite. But more goes into a championship team than two elite players and a former superstar who is on the back side of his career but who still gives you 20 points.
Who Is Going to Defer?
It doesn’t matter who the Big Three are. If they are Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. If they are Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and James Worthy. If they are Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. If they are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. If they are Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Someone has to give their game up. Someone has to say I’m not going to eat. Someone has to give up their offense for defense only. They have to take the ball out of their own hands and not pout about it.
Russell Westbrook has had seven straight seasons of a usage rate over 30.0% with an astounding usage rate of 41.7% last season, guaranteeing the Thunder would not get out of the first round. For four straight years his assist percentage was over 40%. Westbrook operates the best with the ball and being the primary decision maker.
Carmelo Anthony’s usage rate the last two years, playing with another gifted player in Kristaps Porzingins, was under 30%. Melo has adjusted to playing with talent. But- there’s always a but with Melo- he only averaged 4.2 assists last year, down from 6.1 the previous season so questions continue about Melo’s ability and willingness to give up the ball to make the best basketball play. He turned the ball over three times a game last season and at this stage in his career he struggles going from offense to defense.
Paul George has had a usage rate over 30% twice in his career. He is the ultimate ball mover. He gives up and gets it back. George moves without the ball consistently and despite his comments during the playoffs about demanding the ball, George has never been hit with the label as selfish and ball stopper. George knows how to play the team game first. Being unselfish comes naturally to George but like Westbrook and Melo, he has been counted on to take the big shot late. If he doesn’t get the ball, how will he adapt?
The Ying and Yang
Last season, Westbook took 24 shots a game. That number will come down and with it his percentage, a mediocre 42% last season, should go up. Westbrook will still set up his teammates but both George and Melo can create with the ball taking a lot of pressure off of Westbrook so he won’t have the fatigue that plagued him at the end of the season. Westbook has never been an efficient three point shooter although he has improved from his rookie year’s 27%. He turned the ball over 5.4 times last year which should also decrease with Melo and George as teammates. Westbrook has never had much of a midrange game. Opponents guarding George and Melo on the perimeter opens up that part of the court if Russ can take advantage. Playing for so long with Durant will help with the transition of other star players.
Can Melo play with superstars? The closest he came in his career was when he was paired with Iverson in his Nuggets days and it was mostly a disaster. This version of Melo is an awful defender. He is not Enes Kanter but he is close. He doesn’t have the footspeed to keep up with players at his position who are much younger and are explosive. A lot of times Melo gives up on the defensive side of things, a sign that he is an older player. Players made shots against Melo 51% of the time. Offensively Melo has transitioned from his versatile on court excellence to a three point shot maker. As of late, he has shown an ability to be efficient in the midrange and will get a lot of open looks. He isn’t much of a pull up scorer anymore. He can and will get buckets but he doesn’t play fast; he is a deliberate scorer which is the knock on Carmelo, a habit of his where he forgets he has teammates.
Despite his stardom, Paul George isn’t a clutch shot maker when the game is on the line although he likes to take and make shots when he is under pressure. Of the Big Three, he is the most consistent shot maker but not much of a midrange specialist. He doesn’t get his buckets numbing everyone to death with drives to the rim; he’s a perimeter scorer. But his speed on defense is the same as Kawhi Leonard’s. He’s a great passer and he is always looking for the open man and is very good at moving without the ball so when he gives it up he can get it back. He should get a lot of easy baskets cutting to the rim and Westbrook finding him.
If It Blows Up, Who Gets Blamed?
Billy Donovan is going to have to figure out how to get the most out of the three stars so they share the ball and allow each other to thrive, and frankly, don’t get in each other’s way. Westbrook is the driver, rebounder and free throw machine. George makes things happen on the perimeter. And Carmelo makes shots. Donovan’s defense is the challenge. How do you hide Melo? George will help out some but a team like the Spurs with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge will take advantage of the Thunder’s weakness on defense with Carmelo.
As for the players themselves, Westbrook is the reigning MVP. He doesn’t have anything to prove. George is in a contract year. Melo is the one who has the most baggage, consistently saddled as a player who can’t win because his game is too iso dominant. Let’s face it. He failed in New York when he was an elite player. If all this falls apart, Melo will be blamed. But only after Donovan is tarred and feathered for not getting these three talents to the Western Conference Finals.
1. Russell Westbrook can take a breather on the bench and not have to worry about the lead evaporating in front of his eyes. He’s no longer giving Victor Oladipo the death stare.
2. Kevin Durant vs. Paul George. Draymond Green vs. Carmelo Anthony. Enough said.
3. Legitimate stars means no more rooting for nice guys who just can’t compete the way the Thunder need them to compete to contend for a title.
4. Steven Adams has the least amount of pressure for someone making $20 million.
5. Kevin Durant doesn’t matter anymore.
All three Thunder Superteamers may be free agents on July 1st 2018. Carmelo has an early termination. Russell Westbrook has to sign his extension. And Paul George is an unrestricted free agent. What happens this season has enormous impact on next summer and what the Thunder look like going forward.
photo via llannba