In the wake of Wednesday’s triumph over the Golden State Warriors, the feeling surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed to have changed. For 48 hours all was right with the world, and the team had figured everything out. But one good performance does not make a season, and now almost a quarter of the way through the 2018-17 campaign the team sits at a disappointing 8-10.
Though the first half of Friday night’s loss to the Pistons showcased the same flowing offense that had warranted the recent optimism, the fourth quarter was a perfect example of the Thunder’s new pieces still not fitting together as they should. The offense was just…clunky, as it has been for stretches in nearly every game this season. Instead of effortlessly producing open shot attempts, each possession is a painfully forced procedure ending in one of the stars taking on the other team one-on-five.
The blame goes all around. Russell Westbrook needs to perform better, as his play has been unbecoming of a reigning MVP (Warriors game aside). The dude is an unstoppable force going to the basket and yet settles for entirely too many jumpshots — one of 10 from behind the arc against the Pistons — or is content to defer to teammates and retreat into the background. Paul George has been stellar defensively but his offensive output has varied wildly game-to-game. Seven games with 16 or fewer points? Come on. And coach Billy Donovan hasn’t organized the team into an offense that can consistently produce shots not created by the stars’ one-on-one skills.
I was at Friday’s game, hoping to take an awesome video of the ‘Peake exploding after a game winner, but I blame this final offensive possession on Donovan. You just know that if Brad Stevens were directing a timeout for a team down one with five seconds left, this isn’t the shot the Celtics would’ve gotten.
But of all the new faces on the Thunder roster, none have been the subject of more discussion than Carmelo Anthony. Depending on who you talk to, he’s either the cause of the team’s problems or the reason why our offense hums at times. It’s a debate that I and and one of our other Daily Thunder writers, Pierce Trahan, have all the time.
When we talk about Melo, we use a lot of different names to describe him. But too often the names don’t mean what we think they mean. Let’s have a look.
The great myth of our time. Stories were told of this legendary American hero, who traveled overseas to Beijing, London and Rio De Janeiro and transformed himself into a selfless three-and-D wing who fit in perfectly alongside a cast full of superstars. He would always be willing to make the extra pass, didn’t hog the ball or stop the defense, and nailed every three.
But as I’ve said before the Down to Dunk podcast, Olympic Melo is kind of a lie. In the 2008 Olympics, he recorded three assists in eight games. In 2012, he had ten. And in 2012, he had upped that to a whopping 18, slightly over two per contest. It wasn’t that he was unselfish so much as he didn’t have the chance to be selfish. When he caught the ball, delivered on time and on target by inevitably a world-class playmaker, he was so wide open he would just shoot it every time. Why wait and isolate and shoot a fadeaway when the spot up jumper is right there? These were good shots. Aided by the significantly closer three point lines, he was able to make them at a high percentage, which inflated his point totals.
So Thunder fans can stop praying for the reappearance of Olympic Melo, as it wouldn’t look much different from the one who’s suiting up every night in the blue and orange.
Spawned from the summer workout circuit, Hoodie Melo was supposed to symbolize a reinvigorated Carmelo Anthony. After his long stint in New York, he wanted to show that he was in the gym working hard. No nonsense. He was very serious about his craft, and showed up in grainy cellphone video getting buckets against other NBA stars in pickup games all over the country.
Once the hoodie was immortalized on NBA Twitter, Melo bought into the new identity. Nowadays it’s really hard to find him appearing in public without the hood up, not including games of course, and he’s fully “in” on the joke and laughs about it. Occam’s razor says that the simplest theory is usually the correct one, and Melo’s game is pretty much tailor-made for pickup, so when you factor in even a 10 percent reduction in defensive intensity, he’s capable of scoring at a ridiculous volume. Unfortunately, the hood doesn’t have magical power.
Now Hoodie Melo is just…Melo, and that extra summer work can be seen only in a few fractions of percentage points in his season averages.
For anyone who has watched a lot of Carmelo Anthony during any of this long NBA career, there are just little things you pick up that are so frustrating. As I’ve mentioned numerous times, the man simply doesn’t set picks. Through 18 games I’ve yet to see him make contact on a ball screen this season. When you watch him closely on defense, you’ll see dozens of little lazy plays that will make you want to scream. Of course there’s the wing isolations, that stop the offensive motion in its tracks and often end in long, contested two point fadeaway jump shots. His assist ratio, the number of possessions he “uses” that end in an assist, is 7.4. That’s the lowest on the Thunder’s roster amongs qualified players. And he only grabs about 1.2 contested rebounds per game.
Even this title though is a bit harsh. The fact of the matter is that Melo is a very good basketball player. While I still believe he should be an overqualified role player who is marginalized more frequently, he can still bring a lot of things to the game when he’s on the floor. He’s got a very high basketball IQ, and sometimes he flashes brilliant passes or really heady moves that leave your jaw on the floor. Even defensively, he can really surprise you with his ability to disrupt his man’s dribble or slide over and block a shot. And I’ll begrudgingly admit his isolation can be a really effective weapon on smaller defenders, and his ability to finish at the rim on drives is elite.
The problem comes when you come to expect from him the performance that his talent level has earned. That’s what makes all of those bad habits so annoying. You expect superstars to make all of the right decisions and do all of the little things right, which he doesn’t do consistently.
For pretty much the entirety of the Warriors game and the first two and a half quarters of the Pistons game, the Thunder experienced what life with “Good Melo” could be like. When he’s playing like this, the Thunder is an unstoppable offense.
On catch-and-shoot opportunities, he’s shooting 46.8 percent from the field, with an effective field goal percentage over 60 percent. The same goes when he holds the ball for less than two seconds, per NBA.com tracking stats — 43.2 percent from the field and 56.8 percent effective. As a floor spacer who knocks down open shots, or attacks closeouts for one dribble pull-ups, or even takes a wing isolation and immediately drives to the rim hard for a finish, he’s a huge asset to the Thunder offense. This version of Melo (attempts to) set high screens for the other two stars, and when the defense collapses on the dribbler he pops out and knocks down a jumper.
In this play, he “sets” a screen, receives the pass, and look! When he’s covered, he even makes the extra pass for an open shot!
The problem here is that “Good Melo” doesn’t show up all the time. Especially when he finds himself on the court without the other two creators, George and Westbrook. Then his worst tendencies tend to run wild. Let’s also not forget that in two game winning situations already this season it’s been Melo who has taken the last shot, instead of the other two, and both times the team has come up empty handed.
All of this to say it’s hard to explain Carmelo Anthony. Each game brings moments that make you want to stand up and clap like that Citizen Kane meme, and moments where you act out the head-shaking GIF from Friday. I think it’s unrealistic to expect a 15-year NBA vet to change significantly over the course of this season, so Donovan and the team need to find ways to put him in situations that bring out Good Melo and hide Bad Melo.
The team’s ability to do that may determine its success moving forward.