Thunder Basketball

How Will the New Look Thunder Play? Part One: ‘Melo and Russ

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
How Will the New Look Thunder Play? Part One: ‘Melo and Russ

Once I heard the news that the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Carmelo Anthony, I pored over current NBA rosters for an NBA team composed quite like Oklahoma City.

There isn’t one.

An obvious comparison is Golden State, but let’s be real: they still hold the advantage in shooting. And, really, talent. If the Warriors are your standard, you’re going to have a tough time finding any comparison.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are perhaps the closest, and although their big three (LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, and Kevin Love) play similar positions to OKC’s, LeBron is such a singular talent that a comparison can’t really be made.

It’s not just that there’s no team constructed quite like the Thunder are right now — there perhaps has never been a team like them.

Thus, it’s tough to gain insight on how they might play. Hell, Billy Donovan is likely still figuring that out as training camp begins. But that won’t stop me from making an educated guess on how individual players might function on the new look Thunder.

This is the first in a multi-part series that will be released in full before the season begins in mid-October.

Let’s take a look at how Billy Donovan may choose to utilize his players — old and new:

Carmelo Anthony

The Carmelo Anthony deal materialized as quickly as a prairie thunderstorm and, like many of those storms, came to surreal and total fruition with only hours’ notice. And now we’re left in the wake of it.

(Alright, I couldn’t resist. It was low-hanging fruit as far as metaphors go.)

As strange it still feels to type, Carmelo Anthony is now a (willing!) member of the Thunder, waiving his no-trade clause to join Paul George and Russell Westbrook in the ever-escalating Western Conference arms race.

Training camp begins today, and players and coaches alike are scheming, plotting, and brainstorming about how best OKC’s new big three can be employed. Since this all came together just days ago, these are discussions that will continue to evolve as the season starts and beyond.

Since Andre Roberson is most effective when he’s on the floor with plenty of scoring, he’ll likely be the starting two or three — whichever one Paul George does not take. (Although the NBA becomes more and more positionless every season.)

Which means the Anthony will likely spend a lot of time at the four, a position he’s actually quite familiar with. Although he lacks the frame of a normal power forward, ‘Melo is a master of positioning, footwork, and finishing through contact:

In fact, at his first Thunder media availability, he let it be known that he prefers the four — although he pointed out that positions don’t matter as much as they used to.

Carmelo particularly excels in the high post, where he averaged 3rd among qualifying players with .63 points per elbow touch in 2016-2017. That’s more efficient than other tweeners like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and even new teammate Paul George. At 6’8″, 240 lbs., Anthony possesses rare size and strength for a combo forward. His size and unique skillset make him a killer on the elbow. (stats courtesy of NBA.com).

Considering Anthony’s help on the Knicks — which consisted of Lithuanian unicorn Kristaps Porzingis and, uh…that’s about it — it’s reasonable to expect that ‘Melo should be just as efficient from on of his favorite spots.

At Thunder media day, Sam Presti also hinted at Anthony’s underrated passing skills. Expect to see him used a bit as a playmaker in the high post, perhaps much the same way the Warriors employ Draymond Green on the elbow.

Playmaking ‘Melo is what I’m most fascinated to see. We’ve only seen glimpses of it, but Anthony really is quite the heady passer.

Of course, it’s hard to gauge how ‘Melo will mesh with his new teammates because Anthony has never played with teammates this good in the NBA

In international play, though, he has become used to playing with superstars. And, probably not coincidentally, the Olympics have been where Anthony has looked at his best and most complete.

As many know, ‘Melo is a different beast when he’s on a star-studded Team USA roster. Whereas in the NBA he plays as an isolation-heavy, inefficient brand of basketball, on Team USA he’s an efficient spot-up shooter who isn’t the focal point of his team.

Coach Nick of Bball Breakdown does a fantastic job of analyzing exactly what makes Olympic ‘Melo so much better than NBA ‘Melo, but the gist of it is pretty simple: Anthony excels as a spot-up shooter. He’s got a highly-developed iso game (and it certainly came out at times in the Olympics), but that developed out of necessity. A young Porzingis is arguably the best sidekick he’s had, although a past-his-prime Allen Iverson and an injury-prone Amar’e Stoudemire also qualify.

Over and over again in the Olympics, the USA’s great playmakers (Kobe, LeBron, etc.) would break down the defense as they drove in, kicking it out to an oft-open ‘Melo.

Remember that part about Westbrook’s bread and butter move earlier? This is where it comes together. Once the defense is broken down by a Westbrook drive, ‘Melo will lie in wait on the wings. If he’s open? Easy money. If he draws a defender? Westbrook or PG will likely be open. It’s similar (but not quite as devastating) as the Warriors’ pick-your-poison attack.

This is all in theory, of course. It’s very possible the Anthony will revert back to the iso-heavy style of play that has been perhaps his biggest criticism since coming into the league in 2003.

If Carmelo Anthony can play his role well — and he’s done it before when surrounded with talent — he’ll be an incredible pickup for the Thunder, especially considering the bargain bin price at which he was picked up.

But that’s the crux of it, right? I’ve long said that a role player who knows his role is more valuable than a superstar who does not. If Billy Donovan can carve out a great role for ‘Melo, and if ‘Melo follows it to a T, the sky is the limit.

If not? ‘Melo might just feel like dead weight by the end of the season. It doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of middle ground for him — or, for that matter, this team.


Russell Westbrook

Let’s get this out of the way: this is still Russell Westbrook’s team.

It’s a near guarantee that Russ won’t average a triple-double again this season — to do so would be at the detriment of his team. It also seems unlikely that Westbrook will secure the MVP award this season.

But that’s okay: he’s got more help than, well, ever.

The great (and, at times, frustrating) thing about Russell Westbrook is that he will always play the same way: downhill, breakneck, teetering on the brink of recklessness. The addition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony almost assuredly will not change that, but it may allow him to play to his strengths more. Which mostly amounts to not shooting three-pointers.

He did shoot a career-high from three-point range last season (a respectable 34%), but 7 (!!!) attempts per game is way too many. For perspective, that’s more attempts than either of his sharpshooting superstar cohorts did last season.

Last season, his volume was a function of available looks for Russ. Teams, knowing the Thunder had dreadful spacing, walled up in the paint, allowing few driving lanes. There were no feared scoring options on the Thunder besides Westbrook.

But now, with the addition of Anthony and George, teams will be forced to respect the Thunder’s spacing. Nobody benefits from that more than Steven Adams (we’ll get into that later), but Russell Westbrook is a close second.

He’ll still launch a number of three balls throughout the game, but the addition of Anthony and George (and for that matter, Patrick Patterson) will allow Russ to do much more.

Particularly, I’m excited to see Westbrook’s bread-and-butter move in action with his re-tooled roster. He excels at getting defenders one on one, and then deciding to do a number of things: pull up for a jumpshot (if the defender sags off a bit), drive for a layup (if the defender guards too closely), or dish it out to the open man on the wing.

It’s his favorite for a reason: he’s nearly perfected it.

Here’s a taste of how Westbrook breaks down his defenders:

It’s practically unguardable if he’s hitting the jump shot regularly. The possibility of a kickout to George or Anthony on the perimeter meanS that teams will have to pick their poison in a split-second. Even the most disciplined defender will have to exert a lot of effort to defend the action all game long.

There likely won’t be any huge adjustment from Westbrook’s side; he will simply be more effective than he was last year by virtue of his new teammates.

Crunch time is another beast entirely.

Keep an eye out for part two, where I analyze Paul George, Steven Adams, and preview what crunch time might look like the the Thunder this season.

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