The Oklahoma City Thunder are 12-3 in December after a slow, disappointing start. Now five games above .500 and within striking distance of a top-four seed in the West, the Thunder saved their season early. How they did it is no real secret: Carmelo Anthony is getting far fewer possessions than he did in October and November. Most of those surplus touches are going to Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams.
Anthony had used 26.5 percent of the Thunder’s possessions and took 28 percent of OKC’s shots when on the court through Nov. 30, per NBA.com/stats. Since Dec. 1, he’s used 21.6 percent of the possessions and taken 24 percent of the shots while on the court.
Melo’s shooting percentages have actually suffered with the lessened role, but everyone else’s efficiency has maintained or improved. The team’s offense overall rose from a bottom-10 102.6 points per 100 possessions through November to an above-average 107.2 points per 100 since Dec. 1. The tide has risen as Carmelo’s boat has sunk.
W-W-W-W-W-W— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 28, 2017
6️⃣ in a row.
2nd best December record in the @NBA (12-3)
Steven Adams #NBAVote #RTtoVote pic.twitter.com/k1rSR7VDvp
You wonder if the Thunder will get greedy now and reduce Anthony’s role even further. Moving him to the bench is not in the cards — he’s bristled on camera about the idea, and you don’t change a lineup on a run like this. But George and Adams could stand to get even more touches given Anthony’s poor shooting numbers. Melo’s minutes have also increased slightly — he’s playing more than 33 per game in December, and he should probably be closer to 28 or 29. (His buddy Dwyane Wade is down to 23 in Cleveland.)
Regardless, the Thunder are on track. Yet while much better than early on, they don’t look much like a threat to the Warriors. Paul George has been a really great fit next to Westbrook, bolstering the team’s defense and providing a legitimate second option who strikes fear into opponents (no offense to the 2016-17 vintage of Victor Oladipo intended).
As for Carmelo? The best thing you can say with a straight face and clear conscience is that the Thunder are surviving his on-court presence and loving his off-court presence. (Westbrook raved about Melo before signing that mammoth, franchise-affirming extension with the Thunder. Melo could be Larry Hughes out there and the trade for him will have been worth it if it meant Westbrook signing that contract. This is the inconvenient reality looming behind all this analysis about Melo’s flaws.)
That Melo has been a poor basketball fit begs the question as to what would have happened had the other top West team hot on his tail — the Houston Rockets — had won the so-called sweepstakes.
The Rockets, though on a minor skid right now, have been an offensive revelation this season. They are undefeated when Chris Paul is healthy. Mike D’Antoni took the James Harden-led chaos ballet we all loved a year ago and plugged it into a subwoofer. When it’s on, you feel it in your chest.
The movement. #RunAsOne pic.twitter.com/0I03z51fSV— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) December 26, 2017
A week ago, reasonable analysts were starting to talk themselves into the Rockets as legit challengers to the Warriors. That’s probably a bit too far — you could legitimately build two separate 50-win teams out of a healthy Warriors roster (Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson leading one, Steph Curry and Draymond Green on the other) — but that’s how good Houston has looked when CP3 has been on the court.
Imagine if they had traded for Melo.
Never mind the cost in terms of players — the Knicks reportedly wanted Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza, while Houston was willing to move Ryan Anderson. Obviously, losing Gordon would have been painful given his vital role in the orchestra of doom. But by simply inserting Melo into this system — based on what happened in Oklahoma City, aren’t we concerned Anthony would have been the rock in the gears that made the whole thing grind into dysfunction?
Houston and OKC are different, though Westbrook and Harden are both preternatural soloists. Melo in OKC is adding yet another isolation-heavy, low-movement scorer to a team with two better ones already there. Melo in Houston is adding an isolation-heavy, low-movement scorer to an agile, nimble assault reliant on creative playmaking from its guards, rim-running dunks from Clint Capela, and open threes from everyone else.
Would Melo have turned into Ryan Anderson in Houston? It’s hard to imagine that happening, despite Melo’s familiarity with D’Antoni’s aesthetic and friendship with CP3. Besides, Anthony just isn’t as good a shooter as the other guys in Houston. It would have been a misuse of resources to stick him out there. That’s not why you go get Melo.
Hello Melo #OKCvsNYK on @FoxSportsOK pic.twitter.com/A1UP7bGNxd— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 17, 2017
Why do you go get Melo if you’re the Rockets? What was Daryl Morey — the clearcut favorite for Executive of the Year, and a deserving winner if he gets it — thinking? Like Sam Presti in OKC, the first move to add a star — Paul George for the Thunder, Chris Paul for the Rockets — was brilliant, surprising, and inspired. The second attempted move for Melo — the move in which Presti succeeded but Morey did not — was the bad bet. Morey tried hard. Based on what we now know, the Rockets very well could have regretted it, had Morey succeeded.
Heck, perhaps if Morey beat Presti for Melo the Thunder would be the No. 2 seed in the West, a team we consider an actual potential threat to the Warriors. Perhaps if Morey beat Presti for Melo the Rockets would just now be figuring out how to minimize the problems Melo’s style cause. Perhaps the Rockets would be chasing the No. 4 seed, hoping the Wolves wear out.
What-ifs plague the Thunder and Rockets more than most franchises, it’s true. But the whole Melo tug-of-war of 2017 — won by Oklahoma City but perhaps really won by Houston — is one that will stick out as this season continues to play out.