Twenty games into the 2017-18 NBA season, the Oklahoma City Thunder still have yet to find their stride. They’re just 8-12 after a pretty dismal Wednesday night loss to the Orlando Magic, one that left reigning Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook looking beside himself on the bench after the final buzzer, and that left head coach Billy Donovan emphasizing the need for his players to break their comfortable old habits and embrace new ones, like moving the ball and their bodies.
This is not what Sam Presti envisioned when he swung deals to import All-Star forwards Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this summer, and while there’s still plenty of season left, the quarter-pole is a pretty good time to take stock of what has and hasn’t been working. One suggested tonic for what ails OKC that’s been gaining some traction, as detailed Thursday by SB Nation’s Tom Ziller: move the 33-year-old Anthony to the bench and slide former Toronto Raptors stretch four Patrick Patterson into the starting four spot.
From a tactical perspective, the change could open up the spacing a little bit to give Westbrook and George more time to operate. It could give the Thunder’s second unit a boost by adding a top offensive option who can go to work against weaker opposing reserves. Donovan could still stagger his rotations to get Anthony up around 30 minutes per game and close halves with his big three if he’d like. Or, if he’d prefer, he could look to create more space in the first five by replacing All-Defensive Team and total non-shooter Andre Roberson with someone like Alex Abrines or even rookie Terrance Ferguson, whom he’s favored over Abrines for the past couple of games.
Either way, a shuffle could address some of the specific problems the Thunder have faced thus far, and give a jolt to a team that seems like it could use a corrective. So, what about it, Carmelo? What’s your take on the idea of changing the starting lineup? From Brett Dawson of The Oklahoman:
“No, no,” Anthony said. “Hell no. No, no, not at all.”
Glad we got that straightened out!
More on the matter, from Royce Young of ESPN.com:
“We’re fine, man,” [Anthony] said. “Like I said, it’s on us to figure how we’re going to be consistent. I think that’s our biggest downfall right now, we’re not a consistent team. Once we get that consistency and the way that we want to play and continue on that level of play throughout the course of the game, we’ll see that turnaround.” […]
“I think now is the time where we have to start making a decision on what type of team we want to be,” Anthony said. “The baby steps are out of the way, the first couple games of the season are out of the way. Now is the time to kind of buckle down take this thing to the next level.”
Color us stunned that Anthony — who brushed aside the joke idea of coming off the bench with a “Who, me?” and a laugh at Media Day back in September — doesn’t think changing the starting five is the answer in Oklahoma. (After all, Melo hasn’t come off the bench in 1,061 career regular- and postseason games in his 15-year NBA career.) In fairness, though, it’s not like Oklahoma City’s getting off to brutal starts.
The Thunder are outscoring opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, second-best in the NBA behind only the rampaging Houston Rockets. All told, even in spite of their much-discussed crunch-time issues (a staggering -48 in 69 “clutch” minutes!), the Thunder still have a positive point differential on the season, which tends to be a better predictor of overall team strength than win-loss record. According to Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass, a team with OKC’s efficiency differential at this point in the season would be expected to be 13-7 rather than 8-12, and would be on pace to win 52 games.
The current Thunder starting lineup — Westbrook, George, Anthony, Roberson and center Steven Adams — has outscored opponents by 24 points in 270 shared minutes, 14th-best in the league among lineups to log at least 100 minutes together. Look a little closer, though, and you see that lineup’s positive effect comes down to playing lockdown defense behind the troika of Roberson, George and Adams.
The Thunder’s first five clamps down at a league-best rate, but has scored only 99.2 points per 100 possessions, a rate of offensive efficiency that would outpace only the woeful Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings over the course of the full season. According to shot-quality analysis from ESPN’s Ben Alamar, Oklahoma City’s struggling to get its top guns the looks on which they’ve tended to feast — Westbrook’s pull-up “cotton shot” from the right elbow, in-rhythm catch-and-shoot 3-pointers for Anthony, opportunities attacking on the move rather than in isolation sets for George — which has contributed to the Thunder offense stagnating, especially late.
You’ve surely heard the numbers by now: OKC again ranks dead last in the NBA in passes per game, ranks No. 1 with a bullet in isolation possessions, and earlier this week ranked 27th among 30 NBA teams in “ball reversals per game” (how frequently the ball changes sides of the floor on a given possession), according to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. For Oklahoma City to become the kind of offensive monster Presti, Donovan and Thunder fans envisioned heading into the season — to consistently look like the team that ripped the heads off of the Warriors last week — Westbrook, Anthony, George and company have to get on the move to develop a rhythm and a flow, to take the information learned from 20 games of stop-and-start action and turn it into meaningful on-court changes that put everyone in better position to succeed.
That’s exactly why Donovan doesn’t put to much credence into the idea that wholesale lineup changes are what his team needs. From Dawson:
“I think that what happens in these situations is sometimes people look for the change for the sake of change because it looks like you’re doing something,” Donovan said. “I’ve always been a big believer of pinpointing what the issues and the challenges are that we’ve got to overcome.”
And from Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:
“I think the whole benching thing, they’re gonna be back in the game anyway,” Donovan said. “They’re gonna come back in. So, I think what you try to do during timeouts, try to bring attention and awareness to it. They’re really good when you talk to them and explain things to them and show them the reasons why.” […]
“These guys are grown men,” Donovan said. “I think you communicate with them. They’ve got a lot of experience and generally, when you talk to them about something that we need to get better or they need to get better at. They’re really pretty good about trying to self correct or team correct pretty quickly.”
Donovan may well be right. There’s plenty of prior evidence of slow-starting “super-teams” eventualy clicking and blowing away their early-season performance down the final three-quarters of the season. To get there, though, the Thunder will have to snuff out stuff that hasn’t been working in favor of getting outside their comfort zones and developing the new habits Donovan’s calling for. They’ve got to care about getting right. On that score, as Anthony sees it, they’re on the right track. From Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript:
“Nobody is frustrated. I think guys are angry. I think guys are pissed,” Anthony said. “But [it] just comes from your competitive nature of wanting to win games, understanding what we have over here, the talent level that we have over here, and not being able to put it together right now. So that’s where the anger comes in at.
“I think in this game, you almost have to be angry when you’re losing basketball games. The way that we’re losing basketball games is more on us than anybody else. So the anger part comes in, and I think when you’re angry you show that you care.”
The Thunder will get the chance to take their anger out on someone else on Friday night, when they welcome Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and the Minnesota Timberwolves to Chesapeake Energy Arena. Judging by Anthony’s five nos and one “hell no,” I think it’s safe to say we’ll be seeing the same starting five for Friday’s opening tip.
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