One of the craziest offseasons in recent history has not only shaken up the league’s hierarchy, it’s altered the path for several prominent teams and players heading into the 2017-18 season. For Golden Opportunity Week, the third of four weeklong series leading up to the tipoff of a new NBA year, we're taking long, hard looks at the most intriguing situations in the league—and what comes next for everyone involved.
Noted Lil Uzi Vert crooner Russell Westbrook took the Philadelphia rapper’s mantra to heart last season, doing whatever he wanted on offense for the Thunder en route to the first triple-double season in 55 years. The results earned Russ his first MVP and, on Friday, the richest contract in league history (a five-year, $205 million extension). But despite all of Westbrook’s individual success, the Thunder flamed out in the first round of the playoffs, losing in five games to the Rockets. For him and the new-look Thunder to take full advantage of the next era, Russ will need to keep his inner Lil Uzi Vert in the car and away from the court.
After Thunder general manager Sam Presti pulled off a miracle by trading for both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this offseason, Westbrook now has teammates worth sharing with. Like Westbrook, both George and Anthony have experienced their share of playoff disappointments. They know the burden of trying to build a winner without another superstar on their side. “Honestly, in this league, it’s hard to [win] alone. Russ averages a triple-double and couldn’t get out of the first round,” George said at Thunder media day. “You just need guys of that stature and that level to be able to help and create something special.”
The Thunder still aren’t favorites in the loaded West. But 15 months after losing Kevin Durant, they’re suddenly in the conversation as a team that can go toe-to-toe with the Warriors. Both George and Anthony have player options for the 2018-19 season. Their futures are uncertain—and costly. But that beats any alternatives that don’t involve George and Anthony. The Thunder are built to win. To what extent, however, lands largely on Westbrook’s chiseled shoulders.
The George-Melo Effect
The mere presence of Anthony and George will make the game easier on Westbrook, who won’t need to carry such a heavy load on offense after posting the highest usage percentage in NBA history last season (41.7 percent of possessions). The Thunder didn’t have anyone else to turn to, but a usage that high isn’t a formula for sustainable success. Only 12 different players have ever logged seasons with a usage rating of 35 or greater, per Basketball-Reference. The player’s team missed the playoffs in eight of those instances, including Westbrook’s 45-win Thunder in 2014-15. Six lost in the opening round, including Westbrook’s Thunder last season. Five others lost in the second or third round, including Carmelo’s 2012-13 Knicks. Only one made the Finals: Allen Iverson’s Sixers in 2000-01. The likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant found themselves on this list, too. No matter how otherworldly the player’s season was, no one can do it alone in the playoffs.
“It’s going to take a level of sacrifice by everybody,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said last Wednesday. That will start with Westbrook’s usage, which should dip now that he’s paired with two supporting stars. Melo is a rare scorer whose lesser role could cause his efficiency to skyrocket as it had in the past playing for Team USA. George is a do-it-all forward who can serve as a go-to scorer if needed and lock down the opponent’s best scorer. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan should stagger lineups so that he always has one of his stars on the floor, allowing all three to conserve their energy over the course of the long season. If Westbrook’s usage drops to the 30-32 range—similar to LeBron James over the past eight seasons or Stephen Curry over the past three—his afterburners won’t cool by the postseason.
Russ will still have his hands on a lot of Oklahoma City’s action, of course. But having more weapons should improve the quality of his possessions. Having Carmelo on the pick-and-pop sure beats having Enes Kanter:
Over the past four seasons, Anthony shot 40.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA.com. Kanter shot 28.6 percent from 3 after being acquired by the Thunder in 2014-15. Melo’s spacing far exceeds what any Thunder player could provide last season. Anthony has posted a usage rate over 28 in all 14 of his NBA seasons. He’ll need to find a rhythm in a lesser role, but he seems willing to accommodate. “I didn’t want to come here to try to outshine Paul or Russ, and vice versa. We’re trying to win basketball games,” Melo said on media day. “I’ve always been kind of a product of my environment, being able to just be a chameleon, in the sense of blending into my situation … whether that was with the New York Knicks, or the USA team, and even here in Oklahoma.”
George has never played with teammates of Anthony and Westbrook’s caliber. By the time George rose to prominence, Danny Granger’s knees had torpedoed his career and Roy Hibbert was fading fast as the league began placing a greater emphasis on shooting. George will now get easier shots than ever in a role that could look a bit like Durant’s did in Oklahoma City. Like Durant, George is versatile. He’s excellent in the pick-and-roll. He can spot up and stroke 3s. He scores in isolations. George is also an superb scorer off screens, much like Durant.
“Night in and night out, we’re dealing with triple-teams, we’re dealing with traps. You can’t do that now,” George told NBA TV. You can’t double off of Russ. You can’t double off Carmelo. And those guys are shooters you can’t double off me.” George is right about that. It’ll be a lot harder to defend them individually. Westbrook will have more options to pass to, which will only open up opportunities for himself.
“This is not something that’s new with three guys being paired up. It’s not gonna be about who’s getting shots. All of us, we talked about this, it’s whoever has the flow, whoever has it going,” George said on media day. “I’ve always played the game as you let the game dictates who shoots. And those guys play the game the same way. I’m not worried about shots and neither are those two guys. We want to win and that’s it.”
The Progressive Movement
But Oklahoma City’s success needs to be about more than simply adding Anthony and George. This new era can’t be a repeat of the old. To avoid history repeating itself, Westbrook will need to shred old habits that date back to his time with Durant. It wasn’t too long ago Durant and Westbrook took turns isolating as everyone else on their team stood around and we debated who was more to blame for their annual fall.
Durant has acclimated in Golden State while Westbrook became the center of the solar system in Oklahoma City. The Thunder ranked near the bottom of the barrel in key passing categories last season: They were 30th in passes per possession and 27th in assist percentage, according to NBA.com. As transcendent as Westbrook was, the team ranked only 17th in offensive rating. No one should expect Oklahoma City to start whipping the ball around like the Spurs, but the Thunder need to be less stagnant if they want any hope of beating the Warriors in the playoffs.
For a clue at what they should do, consider Donovan’s 19-year tenure as head coach at the University of Florida, during which the Gators went to four Final Fours and won two national titles. Donovan’s Florida offense featured a heavy dose of ball screens, along with a ton of fast-paced half-court actions with quick movement and crisp passing. College is different than the pros, but these principles are found in basketball at all levels, including the NBA.
Oklahoma City has incorporated some of this style, but there’s still a lot of holding the ball. Its half-court offense still slogged as it held the ball for the fourth-longest amount of time per touch, per SportVU. A big part of OKC’s style is a result of its personnel. Westbrook was the centerpiece, and as any good coach should, Donovan adapted to what he has at his disposal. But now the roster is better built to incorporate some of the motion principles, and there’s simply more talent. Times could indeed be changing.
“Energetic, energetic, energetic. That’s the one word I can say about how we’ve played and how we’ve looked,” George said after the Thunder’s second practice. “It’s been a very energetic, fast-paced, fun-watching team right now.” Could the Thunder start attacking more like the Gators? We won’t know for sure until the season gets rolling, and it’ll take time to develop chemistry over the course of the season. But it’s worth noting that Presti suggested Donovan will get more creative this season.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be willing to go through some of the creative process in order to get the benefit of progress,” Presti said at Thunder media day after praising Donovan’s coaching ability. “I think we'll see some of that. I hope we see some of that, to be honest with you. I hope we see some stretching. I hope we see some things that we didn’t think about or haven’t thought about yet because that’s the only way I think you can break through and continue to make progress versus just stay in the lane.”
Westbrook is one of the NBA’s most devastating forces with the ball in his hands, both in the pick-and-roll and in isolation. But with more talented teammates, Westbrook’s usage can be diversified by putting him in spots where he doesn’t need to self-manufacture buckets.
Only 18.8 percent of Westbrook’s made field goals were assisted, per Basketball-Reference, which pales in comparison with other top point guards who scored more efficiently like Curry (53.1 percent), Kyrie Irving (30.4 percent), or Damian Lillard (29.9 percent). It might seem counterintuitive to take it away from a ruthlessly dominant scorer like Westbrook, but by relinquishing some control, he can be even more deadly by getting the ball back in dynamic, actionable positions that generally yield more efficient scoring possessions.
You’ll rarely find Russ catching the ball on the move, with the defender behind him, against a rotating defense. Donovan gets this type of motion on out-of-bounds plays, but the Thunder don’t use these types of actions too often in the general flow of play, like Donovan did when he coached at Florida. Donovan could get this type of motion in the half court by placing Westbrook through more dribble handoffs (like Lillard and Irving):
Or by using screens and cuts (like Curry):
Westbrook won’t and can’t start launching 3s like Curry, Irving, and Lillard do, but movement can be used to get Westbrook a head start toward the rim, whether the defender goes over or under a screen. On-ball and off-ball motion get defenses woozy and force mistakes by the rotating opposing players, allowing for even higher-percentage plays at the rim and behind the arc. Westbrook has made tremendous progress as a passer to take advantage of those passing situations. At UCLA and as a young NBA player, Westbrook played with blinders on. Now, he’s learned how to operate whether playing fast or slow.
It helps that the Thunder’s new star trio will be complemented by a pair of two-way bigs in Steven Adams and Patrick Patterson, high-level defenders in Andre Roberson and Jerami Grant, and two young sharpshooters in Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson. Donovan can mix and match lineups to put out the team best suited to win games. Patterson, in particular, is an intriguing piece. There should be situations where the Thunder go all offense with a small-ball lineup featuring Patterson at the 5, Melo and George at forward, and a floor-spacing wing like Abrines. Westbrook would have space to attack when he’s in the pick-and-roll or isolations, but there’d also be more room when he receives the ball off the catch.
Westbrook attacks closeouts like he’s a guillotine. Even with four defenders lurking in the paint, he couldn’t be stopped in the play above. But as appetizing as these highlights are, often Westbrook was forced to toss up a shot because his teammates simply couldn’t space the floor. This season, defenses might be less hesitant to help off perimeter shooters like George, Carmelo, or Patterson. Roberson and Grant still present spacing issues, but with more weapons, Donovan should be able to find more combinations that suffocate the paint like he did all last season.
Adding to the Repertoire
As any NBA player ages, he naturally needs to adapt to a smaller role. We’re seeing it happen with Dirk Nowitzki. Dwyane Wade will try to do it in Cleveland. Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, and Vince Carter have had to do the same. So will Melo in Oklahoma City. But keep in mind that Westbrook turns 29 in November, meaning he’ll be 34 when his contract is up at the end of the 2022-23 season. If Westbrook is the same cyborg athlete then as he is now, or at least close to it, then he’ll be one of the rare exceptions.
No matter how he ages, it’s vital that his game continues expanding. We’ve witnessed guards heavily reliant on their extraordinary athleticism flame out if they don’t evolve and adapt as they age. Gilbert Arenas and Steve Francis made it only to age 30. Baron Davis retired at 32. Allen Iverson and Kevin Johnson did at 34.
Westbrook is better now than any of them ever were—except maybe Iverson. He certainly takes better care of his body than Iverson did, too. And he benefits from the major advancements in sports medicine. (Yeah, science!) But injuries are usually the catalyst of a sudden decline, and Westbrook’s health record isn’t exactly spotless. In 2013 he had three surgeries to his right knee after tearing his lateral meniscus. He hasn’t missed a game because of a leg injury since then, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t cause some degree of worriment. Westbrook recently received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his left knee, which has kept him out of training camp. Presti said it’s not serious, but added, “I think he really wanted to make sure he took care of that in advance, so it wasn’t something that lingered through the year.” Then something is a bother, right? Don’t panic, but keep it in mind.
History still holds some relevance. Jordan and Kobe lasted into their late 30s. Carter had knee surgery at age 25 and is still ticking away at 40. But the number of players who burn out tends to outweigh those who fade away. Longevity is a hallmark of greatness, and the guards who usually sustain success into their 30s are players who were never overly reliant on verticality (like Steve Nash and Sam Cassell), were hounds on defense (like Chauncey Billups and Gary Payton), or added a jumper (like Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson).
The precautionary measures for Westbrook shouldn’t end with a PRP injection; he’d be served well to add or enhance his secondary skills. Of the 172 players to launch at least 2,000 3-pointers, Westbrook ranks fifth-worst in percentage, per Basketball-Reference. Shooting is Westbrook’s one skill that’s still out of tune, but there has been some progress. Over the past four seasons (including playoffs), Westbrook has shot 33.6 percent on 444 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and 31 percent on 1,192 off-the-dribble 3s, per SportVU. That’s better than the first five seasons of his career (30.2 percent on 832 total 3s). But is his recent uptick a result of sample size rather than actual incremental progress?
The video above does an excellent job of detailing the minor and fixable flaws in Westbrook’s shooting mechanics. Westbrook gets so much lift on his shot that it often causes him to shoot on the way down, leading to balls clanking off the front of the rim. With a slight adjustment, he could see a huge boost in his percentages.
It’s not like Westbrook is unwilling to change his shooting form. Over the years, he’s quickened his release to launch his shot before it can be contested, tweaked the angle in which he holds the ball, and worked to make his footwork more consistent. Westbrook has a soft touch around the rim and excels at the free throw line (82.3 percent over his career), so there are signs that he can continue getting better at shooting 3s as he ages.
The Price of Success
Regardless of how Westbrook evolves over the next six seasons, Oklahoma City’s roster is about to get very, very expensive. Westbrook, Adams, and Roberson alone will earn $69.5 million in the 2018-19 season. Assuming Melo opts in, that number will reach $97.4. A max contract extension for George would send them soaring into the luxury tax. ESPN’s Bobby Marks said he was told “numerous times” that Oklahoma City ownership is willing to stomach a large tax bill next season, which could be “north of $140 million.”
As Oklahoma City’s bill rises, it’ll get increasingly difficult to add complementary talent. The Thunder will need to add minimum-cost veterans looking to tag along for a title. They’re sending their 2018 and 2020 first-round picks to Minnesota and Orlando, with top-14 and top-20 protections, respectively. That means it’s crucial they nail their 2019 and 2021 picks since cheap, homegrown talent is the best way to bolster a roster at a low cost. Westbrook will make roughly $46.7 million in the final year of his contract at age 34. There’s a possible outcome where Westbrook will still be at the top of his game by the end of his contract. There’s also a chance his deal will make Allan Houston’s albatross contract look modest. If the Thunder get smoked by the Warriors for multiple years, would ownership really be willing to keep paying the price? Is it possible that Presti is forced to strip down what he built in the name of saving money?
These are all possibilities. But it doesn’t matter right now. The cost is significant, but the alternatives were worse. Westbrook could’ve walked next summer. George and Anthony could walk next season without compensation—or never have been brought to town in the first place. Oklahoma City made the only choice that made sense, and that was re-signing its franchise point guard and future Hall of Famer. Sure, $205 million is a lot, but the Thunder aren’t just locking up Westbrook, they’re buying security. “We’ve been on an unbelievable start right now and for him to be committed here, it says a lot,” George said on Saturday. “I think when that time comes, the decision will be easier to make for myself.” By inking Westbrook long term, the Thunder have presumably opened the title window for the next six seasons. There are no guarantees they achieve the dreams they see when they turn out the light. But with a little help from his friends, everything now seems achievable for Westbrook and the Thunder.