The Oklahoma City Thunder is 10 games into the 2017-18 season, and things haven’t necessarily gone according to plan. The team sits at 4-6, has lost three in a row, and has yet to win a game versus a Western Conference opponent. Growing pains were expected, but not to this extent.
With roughly an eighth of the season in the books, I decided to take a look at the offensive struggles Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are currently experiencing. Let’s dive into how each man can become fully-operational in an eventual Thunder Death Star.
Stats: 20.1 PPG / 10.9 APG / 9.3 RPG / 43% FG / 34% 3P / 60% FT / 5.2 TO
Russell Westbrook is nearly averaging a triple-double through 10 games, again dropping stats that look incredible in a box score. But while he’s single-handily carrying your fantasy basketball team, his inefficiencies are hurting the Thunder. Look no further than his win/loss split for the evidence.
4 Wins: 18.3 PPG / 13.8 APG / 10.8 RPG / 49% FG / 13.8 FGA / 2.3 3PA / 5 TO / 29.7 USG%
6 Losses: 21.3 PPG / 9 APG / 8.3 RPG / 40% FG / 19.8 FGA / 6.8 3PA / 5.3 TO / 33 USG%
Westbrook has been breathtakingly good in Thunder wins, averaging a triple-double and doing so on less than 14 shot attempts per contest. He’s shooting just 22 percent from downtown in the victories, but it’s excusable since he’s only taking 2.3 per game. He leads the Thunder attack with caution and frequently passes up decent shots for great ones. He’s been masterful in more than one OKC win.
On the other hand, he’s been downright atrocious in losses. He shoots six more times per game, hoists triple the amount of three-pointers, and — outside of a marginal increase in scoring — sees all his counting stats take a dive. He’s routinely looked frustrated and struggles to manage his instincts in conjunction with the needs of his new teammates. It’s the age-old Good Russ/Bad Russ routine.
The fix for Westbrook is easier said than done, but the blueprint is available. In the Thunder’s most complete win — a 110-91 beating of the Milwaukee Bucks — he paced the OKC attack with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists — taking just 12 shots in the process. His ability to dictate the game flow without dominating the basketball appeared to be the Thunder’s happy place, and it’s a performance he’ll need to replicate.
Highlights from Milwaukee for reference on how the team looked:
Final Word: More than anything else at the moment, Westbrook needs to calm down. He’s been at his best during Thunder victories — all of which have been comfortable enough that he didn’t need to save the day. He’s been remarkably more erratic in close games or with the Thunder losing, and begins reverting back to his tendencies from last season.
Sticking to some semblance of a game plan at all times would do him well, although that seems unlikely given his style of play. Even still, his marching orders are no different than they were when the season began. I believe he’s legitimately trying to alter his approach, it will just require more patience than he originally budgeted.
Stats: 20.1 PPG / 5.2 RPG / 2.4 SPG / 42% FG / 38% 3P
Paul George is tied for the Thunder lead in scoring at 20.1 PPG, and is narrowly leading the team in shots attempted per contest at 17.5. From an opportunity standpoint, the number of looks he’s getting is healthy and on-par with last season in Indiana. That said — the cause for concern is where he’s getting those looks from and how they’re being created.
Per Basketball Reference, George has taken 45 percent of his total shots from beyond the arc — dwarfing last season’s mark of 36 percent. He’s taking eight threes per game — the most of his career — and although 38 percent shooting from distance is beyond exceptional at that volume, it’s still a departure from what he does best. Regardless of how many he’s making, the Thunder didn’t acquire George to spot up behind the three-point line.
Outside of dunks and layups, here’s a breakdown of the percentage of shots he’s taken by distance:
3-10 Feet: 6.9% (9.9% last season)
10-16 Feet: 10.9% (12.1% last season)
16 Feet – Long Two: 18.9% (28.3% last season)
Three-Point: 45.7% (36.8% last season)
The season is young enough that a couple games could dramatically change those numbers, but it’s still an interesting view into how differently he’s approaching the game. More of his shots are coming from three-point range, while he’s getting fewer looks off screens/movement in the meat of the defense — a staple in his game just a season ago.
Now here are his shooting percentages from those same ranges:
3-10 Feet: 25% (48.9% last season)
10-16 Feet: 26.3% (41.1% last season)
16 Feet – Long Two: 39.4% (48.4% last season)
Three-Point: 38.8% (39.3% last season)
This is important because it speaks on the quality of shots he’s getting from areas he’s historically excelled in. While he’s flat out missed somevery
open looks inside the three-point line, more often than not he’s taking contested jumpers he’s tried creating himself due to the offense becoming stagnant.
He’s good enough to get away with it some nights, but part of the allure of the OK3 was alleviating the necessity of it. Example:
In order to get the most out of George on this team, he needs to be put in situations that maximize his ability to create shots for himself using off-ball movement. Spacing has been criminally bad during the current three-game losing streak, all but eliminating his effectiveness coming off screens and moving without the basketball. This has resulted in him catching on the perimeter and working like hell to reach his preferred destination. Bad, off-balanced shots have followed, leading to his 25.6 percent shooting clip between 3 and 16 feet.
Conversely, check out how much easier this looks:
It won’t always come that easy, but it’s a much more reasonable shot than the alternative. Getting pieces in motion — even if it’s just a little bit — would allow him to become much more dangerous from inside the three-point line.
Final Word: The open shots from long distance will continue to be there as a byproduct of the talent on the floor, but Billy Donovan needs to be more deliberate in catering to PG’s skill set. George needs to stay patient and play his game. Becoming predominantly a threat from long range removes a dimension the Thunder offense will need down the stretch.
Stats: 20.1 PPG / 5.8 RPG / 41% FG / 32% 3P
Carmelo Anthony has been the most confounding of the three Thunder stars, if only because he looks the most comfortable. He wasted no time in making himself at home in the offense and is averaging 20.1 PPG on 17.1 shots per contest.
For better or for worse, he’s been every bit of the Melo we’ve seen since he came into the league in 2003.
Anthony is shooting 41 percent through 10 games, and a paltry 32 percent from long distance. During the current three-game losing streak, those numbers have fallen to 27 percent from the field and 27 percent from deep. The biggest issue is his desire to shoot in virtually every iso-situation, regardless of how contested it may be.
Check this example from the loss in Sacramento:
While the shot clock was running out, let me ask — did it matter? Melo got Willie Cauley-Stein isolated on the perimeter and it was always going up. I knew it, you knew it, everyone in the arena knew it.
Another example from the loss at Portland:
These are just two examples, but they display what is becoming part of a larger problem for Melo and the Thunder. He’s taking shots he’s made plenty of in his career, but they’re not the shots this team needs from him. His move to power forward has resulted in him being matched-up with guys he’s certain he can cook in isolation, and he’s doing what he’s always done.
Final Word: Carmelo Anthony is one of the greatest scorers of all time, is accustomed to shooting from wherever, whenever, and hasn’t taken a step back into the third fiddle role the team needs him in. This was always going to take time, and he’s shown glimpses of considering it — but not there yet through ten games.
Melo would better serve the overall good by swinging the basketball and keeping things moving instead of sucking the momentum out of the offense. Westbrook and George would benefit by getting to operate in space, but would do so with the security blanket of having Melo there for the kick-out.
As it stands now, the 10-time All-Star is taking too many bad shots in isolation when he should be devastating teams on the catch-and-shoot. Like this:
It’s exactly the role envisioned for him when he landed in Oklahoma City. It’s also the world I want to live in.