Twenty games is a pretty common benchmark at which point we assess how remixed teams are doing. The Thunder, at the 20-game mark, remain a riddle. Coming in with high expectations after adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City sits at 8-12. Russell Westbrook and his two new co-stars have all shaved down their output to fit each other in, but it isn’t translating into consistent victory.
After a blowout win over the rival Warriors, OKC was edged by the Pistons in a nail-biter, then blasted by the lowly Mavericks and skidding Magic. This is bad. Those two most recent losses have whittled down the Thunder’s saving grace — their positive overall scoring margin, which now stands at +3.
That’s right: The Thunder have the scoring margin of a team that should be 12-8. Instead, due to a terrible record in close games and a few big blowout victories, the Thunder are 8-12.
But beyond the bad losses and the crunch-time woes, the real core concern here is that the three stars really have not clicked yet. The regular starting lineup — one that features Westbrook, George, Anthony, Steven Adams, and Andre Roberson — has been atrocious on offense for the season. In 270 minutes, that five-man unit is scoring 99.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
The only two teams with lower offensive ratings this season are the Kings and Bulls. Have you watched the Kings or Bulls on offense? Yeah. A unit starring Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony ought to be a little more effective than that.
That unit is still a net positive for OKC (+24 on the season) thanks to a stingy defense anchored by Adams, Roberson, and George. The problem is shooting: The starting five doesn’t have a whole lot of it. That shakes out into a below average rate of three-point attempts and a below average conversation rate. The unit also isn’t drawing fouls nearly to its capabilities, and commits too many turnovers. Those two factors could certainly be related to the relative lack of spacing. Having two starters in Adams and Roberson who don’t need to be guarded more than 15 feet from the basket shrinks the floor and gives the genius of Westbrook less room to create for George, Anthony, and himself.
Tonight's starters. Ready to work. pic.twitter.com/yHSGHf0Ygc— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) November 25, 2017
But the solution isn’t to sit Adams and/or Roberson for shooters. Their defensive acumen and naturally low usage fits well with Westbrook and George. The solution staring coach Billy Donovan in the face is to bring Carmelo off the bench and start Patrick Patterson.
Anthony himself has resisted the idea.
At media day, he laughed when a reporter broached the topic.
Hard to keep up with Twitter today, but this is outstanding pic.twitter.com/xQ1QtlZVy8— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 25, 2017
He didn’t change his mind when asked about a starting lineup change again Thursday after the loss to Orlando.
Carmelo Anthony says the Thunder are angry, not frustrated and on the idea of a starting lineup change, “Hell no.” pic.twitter.com/2JEI0fKGwd— Royce Young (@royceyoung) November 30, 2017
“Hell no. Not at all. We’re fine, man. Like I said, it’s on us to figure out how we want to be consistent. That’s our biggest downfall right now: we’re not a consistent team. Once we get that consistency in the way that we want to play and continue on that level of play throughout the course of the game, we’ll see things turn around.”
Here’s why he should be more open to it
Anthony has actually been a better long-range shooter than Patterson this season, and Melo has been shooting frequently from beyond the arc. He’s not being shy. The issue is less what Melo is currently doing behind the arc than what he is doing inside of it. Anthony has the ball on a lot of possessions. Most of those are inside the three-point line. Since the starting lineup has just one other shooter anyone should be worried about — George — and because Westbrook is an unreliable, perhaps unwilling cutter, the Thunder are too easy to defend in those possessions. You can double off anyone but George and usually survive!
Replace Anthony with Patterson — who is taking three-quarters of his shots behind the three-point line this season — and you not only have another shooting threat out there when Westbrook or George have a live dribble, but you are removing those difficult Carmelo possessions from the equation. Patterson will not be isolating defenders from 18 feet, allowing opponents to cheat off Adams, help off Roberson, or ignore a Westbrook who has his hands on his knees. Westbrook and George will have the ball in their hands more, and Westbrook — who has been a wildly inefficient shooter this year, even by his standards — will have another shooting target to hit.
Removing Carmelo simplifies and modernizes the scheme a little without sacrificing OKC’s excellent defense.
The other benefit is that it gets Carmelo more reps against second-unit opponents, and it boosts a fairly anemic OKC second-unit offense. Raymond Felton is solid as a back-up point guard, but Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines, and Josh Huestis aren’t exactly shot creators. Allowing Carmelo — who can be a talented passer because he sees the floor well — to play more with that crew could open things up and turn both units (starters and reserves) around on offense.
Remember how we talked about Olympic Melo a little bit in the offseason, about how finally paired with superstar NBA teammates, Carmelo could thrive as he has in FIBA competition? Do keep in mind that in the 2012 and 2016 Games, Melo came off the bench.
The question is whether Donovan is willing to ask Melo to come off the bench for the good of himself and the team, and whether Melo is willing to do it without complaint. It may not end up being the solution OKC’s offense needs, but the Thunder will never know without trying. Twenty games in, it’s time to start trying some things.
This story has been updated to include Anthony’s comments after Thursday’s practice.