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Three Thoughts Through 24 Games

Three Thoughts Through 24 Games

The Thunder sits at 11-13 after 24 games and has shown little improvement in recent weeks. The issues are aplenty at this junction in the season, but I wanted to touch on a few subjects worth mentioning.

Let’s get straight to it.

Something is up with Russ

Box score warriors are quick to refute this but someone needs to say it: Russell Westbrook has not been good this season.

The stat line of 22.9 points, 9.7 assists and 9.2 rebounds looks good in a vacuum, but the story of what’s going on with Russ is hidden in the context. He’s shooting 40.3 percent from the field — the lowest since his rookie season — and just 32.8 percent from downtown. Making matters worse, the 71.9 percent clip from the free throw line is puzzling and the 4.9 turnovers per game are second-most of his career.

According to Synergy Sports, the offensive struggles plaguing Westbrook are worse than what meets the eye. Check out his 2017-18 numbers when broken down by play type:

Click to enlarge (via Synergy Sports)

He’s been below average in transition — turning the ball over on 19.9 percent of all fast breaks he leads. He’s also below average in the half court, shooting just 37.2 percent from the field and turning it over on 17 percent of those possessions. He unsurprisingly excels when attacking in isolation — but the entire point of this OK3 experiment was improving the Thunder in the other areas. He’s teetering on the edge of complete disaster just a season removed from an offensive output unlike anything the NBA had ever seen.

With a usage rate of nearly 34 percent, Westbrook remains in complete control of the Thunder attack — a fact that doesn’t bode well for team success given his inefficiencies in the early going. Perhaps he’s injured, maybe he’s still figuring out his new teammates, and there’s always the possibility that a tiger can’t change its stripes. Whatever the reason — Westbrook doesn’t deserve a free pass just because he signed a contract extension during the offseason. He stayed to pursue a championship in Oklahoma City, and isn’t playing like a championship-caliber point guard through 24 games. The season will improve when he improves and not a second before.


Billy Donovan needs to lock it up

There are a number of things that could be pointed at in regard to Billy Donovan’s shortcomings this season, although I still believe it’s unfair to saddle him with all of the blame. The players should be held accountable and they’ve been far, far from perfect. That being said, Thursday’s loss to the Nets was a prime example of poor stewardship by the Thunder’s head man.

In a game Paul George and Jerami Grant were unavailable, it would have been a smart bet to assume Josh Huestis would see extended opportunity at the small forward position. He’s appeared in 18 games for the Thunder this season, and while he hasn’t set the world on fire with his play, he’s been a big enough part of the rotation to assume he’d be the next man up. After all, if he gets minutes on nights everyone is healthy, he should certainly play when the Thunder needs bodies, right?

So what happened? Huestis never sniffed the court in Mexico City, while Kyle Singler made his season debut and logged 23 minutes out of nowhere.

The game wasn’t ultimately won or lost because Huestis didn’t play, but the decision not to play him is an example of a larger problem currently plaguing the Thunder. Fans, talking heads and coaches alike crave consistency, yet the personnel decisions have been as inconsistent as Russell Westbrook’s mid-range jump shot. If you’re going to play Huestis 18 minutes against Golden State, or 13 minutes against the Timberwolves, you damn well better play him when the team is banged up at the very position he happens to play naturally. Kyle Singler is what he is at this point — there’s no need for another look. Grabbing him by the man bun and thrusting him into action accomplishes nothing in the long run.

Donovan will continue to do what he does, but at some point something has to change. An 11-13 record through 24 games has eliminated the wiggle room for learning on the fly. BD and the coaching staff needs to make some real decisions and double down on them in order to build a consistent and dependable rotation that can gel together.


Less is More Carmelo

Carmelo Anthony is shooting 40 percent from the field on the season, 33.8 percent from downtown, and has progressively looked less effective as the campaign continues. Over the last five games he’s averaging just 11.8 points on 33 percent from the field and 19 percent from deep.

After the game in Mexico City, he said the last handful of games has been the roughest offensive stretch of his career. His comments:

“But for me, I think the past three, four games has, offensively, been the toughest stretch for me as far as scoring the basketball, making shots. I think it’s just for me, a rough stretch for myself personally. It’s probably the roughest I’ve had throughout my career.”

The Thunder offense has yet to hit its stride — and while it’s not Melo’s fault entirely — the experiment simply isn’t working. It’s time he either adapts or dies, so to speak, and there are numbers available that help identify what should be done. For instance:

As illustrated by the numbers above, the Thunder is essentially the same — actually slightly better — when Westbrook and George are on the floor without Carmelo, as opposed to when all three share it together. So this is easy — Melo should move to the bench, right?

Not necessarily.

Lineups that feature Melo/George without Westbrook are minus-3.3 and Russ/Melo lineups without George are minus-11.2. Compared to the +5.1 you get when all three play together, it becomes clear that the best and most effective version of this Carmelo Anthony comes when he’s playing alongside his star teammates. Moving him to the bench and staggering more frequently could possibly exasperate the current issues, and he has no business being on the floor without either of them. His usage rate spikes to 40.3 percent in scenarios where he’s the lone member of the OK3 on the court, which is a brand of basketball that is neither healthy or sustainable.

The Thunder is probably better off continuing forth with Melo in the starting lineup for the time being. I’d like to see his minutes reduced from 32 MPG to somewhere in the 24-26 range, maximizing his skill set and keeping his legs fresh so that he can make better use of his run. Conserving energy could allow him to be placed in more pick-and-roll situations, as he’s performed very well there in limited opportunity. It would also allow Westbrook and George to lead the Thunder in a two-man attack that has proven successful.

The Thunder’s problems haven’t come at the beginning of games, so removing Melo from the starting lineup feels like a band-aid. Reducing his playing time in the meat of ball games — the second and third quarter that the Thunder struggles with — might just keep the offense moving well enough to avoid collapse. As the third and sometimes fourth option on offense, Melo’s involvement level could use a reduction that doesn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of his spot in the starting five.