Russell Westbrook is back where he started. After one unforgettable season as a one-man show, he has a second chance at a Big Three in Oklahoma City. Just like the first time, the pressure is on him to make it work. The Thunder have a short window to convince Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to stay. Both guys have player options in their contracts for next season. Westbrook has to walk a fine line between looking for his shot and keeping his new costars involved. He doesn’t want to freeze them out, but he can’t play conservatively either. Go too far in either direction and history could repeat itself in Oklahoma City.
In the first few weeks of the season, Westbrook is doing everything he can to make the adjustment process as smooth as possible. The guy who shattered the record for usage rate in a season is gone. Westbrook is shooting less than both Carmelo and George are, and his 15.4 attempts per game is the lowest since his second season in the league. The result is a more balanced offense. Instead of Oklahoma City’s second-leading scorer (Victor Oladipo) taking 10 fewer shots a game than Westbrook was, their Big Three all average between 15 and 18. Westbrook still holds the ball for most of the game, but he’s looking to pass as much as he is to score. He is not a volume shooter anymore. The guy whose extreme athleticism redefined the point guard position suddenly has the numbers of a traditional point guard. Westbrook is averaging career highs in assists (11.7) and field goal percentage (47.2).
Westbrook is playing smarter. He is only a career 31.3 percent 3-point shooter, but that never stopped him from bombing away from deep. He led the Thunder in 3-point attempts last season at 7.2 per game. He has cut that number in half, and he’s taking roughly a third as many shots in the long-2 range between 16 feet and the 3-point line. Being more selective has made him a better shooter. Westbrook has career-high percentages from 3 (36 percent) and at the rim (65.5 percent). He has finally realized that just because you can create a shot doesn’t mean you always have to take it. Westbrook is like a free-swinging hitter who learned how to control the plate. Pass up pitches out of the strike zone and you can get better ones later in the at-bat.
Westbrook doesn’t have to put his head down and barrel into the lane this season. Oklahoma City has done a better job of spacing the floor, allowing him to take his time and penetrate with a purpose. The team went from 18th in the league in 3-point attempts and dead last in 3-point percentage to sixth in attempts and 18th in percentage. George (40.4 percent from 3 on 7.4 attempts per game) is a better shooter than Oladipo, while Carmelo (34.7 percent from 3 on seven attempts per game) is taking more than twice as many 3s as Taj Gibson and Domantas Sabonis, their starting 4s last season. The division of labor is clear. Westbrook attacks the lane then kicks the ball out to his two costars.
All the pieces fit together in a way they didn’t last season. The Thunder weren’t prepared for Kevin Durant to leave, and the team they put together was an ill-fitting collection of parts. They made two in-season trades and had 19 different players in the rotation over the course of the season. The plan was to give Westbrook the ball and hope for the best. Great players can change the way they play to adapt to the personnel around them. The job description of the best player on a team that can’t score or space the floor is much different than one on a team overflowing with perimeter firepower. Westbrook didn’t play point guard at UCLA, and he has gradually learned how to play the position over the course of his NBA career. His MVP season was a one-year detour on his learning curve toward becoming a complete player.
It’s hard for a guard who scores as easily as Westbrook to give up the ball. The temptation to hijack the offense can be overwhelming when you can take over the game at any time. Last season was his twist on Kobe Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign without Shaquille O’Neal. Like Kobe, Westbrook spent his first eight seasons in the NBA in the shadow of another all-time great. Experience is the best teacher, and sometimes the only way to learn that something won’t work is to try it. Westbrook averaged 37.4 points per game in the Thunder’s first-round loss to the Rockets and had a mind-boggling usage rate of 47. The Thunder still lost in five games. Westbrook put together one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history, but no one can win on their own in the playoffs.
The biggest thing Oklahoma City has going for it is that all of its stars have something to prove. Westbrook wants to show he can play well with others. Carmelo wants to win: He has played in the conference finals only once in 14 seasons in the NBA, and he didn’t make the playoffs in his last four years in New York. George has never made an All-NBA team. He slipped off the radar of the casual fan following a gruesome leg injury and Indiana’s slide into mediocrity. None of them will look good if the Thunder fall apart this season.
They have their work cut out for them. The new Big Three in Oklahoma City isn’t as talented as the original. The only edge they have is experience. Westbrook was 23 when the Thunder made the NBA Finals in 2012. He was raw, still learning how to play the game and how good he could be. Six seasons later, Westbrook is a fully formed product who has complete control of the game. When Durant left the Thunder, it was seen as an indictment of his point guard. If George and Carmelo stay, it will be because Westbrook is too good for them to leave.
Replacing Andre Roberson
Oklahoma City has spent the past five seasons trying to turn Roberson into a player defenses have to respect. It hasn’t worked. He still regularly shoots balls off the side of the backboard, and he air-balled two consecutive free throws in a game against Minnesota. Roberson is shooting 23.1 percent from 3 despite all his shots coming on wide-open looks. The best he ever looked on offense came in the 2016 Western Conference finals, when he was the roll man in a spread floor with Durant at the 4 and Serge Ibaka at the 5. That won’t work with a non-shooter like Steven Adams at center. The only solution the Thunder have found to the Roberson problem is to stop playing him.
Roberson is averaging only 18.3 minutes a game this season. It’s the least he has played since he was a rookie. He’s still a starter, but he has been overtaken by Jerami Grant, who is averaging 22.4 minutes a game. The Thunder acquired Grant from the 76ers last season, and he has quietly become one of the most important players on their team. Grant comes from an NBA family. He’s the younger brother of Bulls guard Jerian Grant; the son of Harvey Grant, who played 11 seasons in the NBA; and the nephew of Horace Grant. A fourth-year player from Syracuse who is still only 23, Grant is coming into his own this season, and he’s already a much better two-way player than Roberson.
At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds with a wingspan close to 7-foot-3, Grant is a freakish athlete with the ability to switch screens and guard all five positions on the floor. He usually replaces Carmelo at power forward halfway through the first quarter, but he often closes the game in place of Roberson at shooting guard. He makes an impact whenever he’s in the game. He is one of only five players who have played more than five games this season in the NBA with a block rate higher than 4.5 percent and a steal rate higher than 2.5 percent, and the other four are all traditional big men who don’t roam as far from the basket. Grant can match up with anyone. Watch him slide his feet and draw a charge on Giannis Antetokounmpo in this sequence:
Grant can replace most of what Roberson gives on defense while also being a threat on offense. He’s not a great shooter, but he can’t be left wide open either. Grant has shot 36.5 percent from 3 on 126 attempts in Oklahoma City, a significant improvement from Roberson’s 25.9 percent on 398 career attempts. Unlike Roberson, he has gotten better at the free throw line, shooting a career-high 79.2 percent on 3.4 attempts per game this season. Grant also has the ability to create a shot when the play breaks down. Try to imagine Roberson ever doing this:
Steven Adams Keeps Getting Better
No player was impacted by the lack of 3-point shooting in Oklahoma City last season more than Adams. He was one of four non-shooters in the starting lineup, and his three most common frontcourt partners were Sabonis, Gibson, and Enes Kanter, none of whom could stretch the floor. There was nowhere for him to go on offense. He had no lanes to dive to the basket on pick-and-rolls, and no room to operate in the paint. After a breakout performance in the 2016 playoffs, Adams regressed to being an average starting center.
Now that he is playing in more space, Adams looks worthy of his four-year, $100 million contract. He is averaging career highs in points (14.4), rebounds (7.8), assists (1.4), steals (1.4), blocks (1.3), and field goal percentage (68.2 percent). He is the perfect center to play with three ball-dominant stars. Adams accepts his role and plays it perfectly. He sets devastating screens, runs the floor hard, and catches and finishes anything around the rim:
Even by the standards of NBA big men, Adams (7-foot and 255 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) is a massive human being. He moves well for a guy his size and he can dictate matchups against smaller centers. He played Clint Capela off the floor in the playoffs last season. Smaller and more agile centers have a tough time dealing with his sheer mass. He nearly got Draymond Green kicked out of the playoffs in 2016. If Adams can force the Warriors to play their more limited big men, it would change the dynamic of a hypothetical series.
The Dead Weight Is Gone
Billy Donovan didn’t have many guys on his bench he could trust last season. Semaj Christon was one of the worst backup point guards in the NBA. The biggest contribution he made was being so bad that it boosted Westbrook’s MVP candidacy by sinking the team whenever Westbrook was off the floor. The upgrade from Christon to Raymond Felton is immense. Felton won’t shoot 52.5 percent from the floor and 55.6 percent from 3 all season, but he’s a 13-year veteran who has reinvented himself as a high-level backup. Felton can run the offense, space the floor, and create his own shot, which is three more things than Christon, an overmatched rookie, could do.
The Thunder built their second unit around Enes Kanter, who was their third-leading scorer last season, but he was a disaster on defense. With Kanter gone, their backup center is Patrick Patterson, a stretch big man whom they signed to a bargain contract (three years, $16 million) because he was coming off knee surgery. Patterson is still rounding into shape, but he’s a career 36.6 percent 3-point shooter who plays good defense at both frontcourt positions. He has the versatility to replace Adams in a smaller lineup or play with him in a bigger one. Patterson was a key player for Toronto, and he’s the type of well-rounded reserve Oklahoma City has not had in recent years.
Carmelo has taken Kanter’s place as the primary second-unit scorer. Donovan typically takes him out halfway through the first and third quarters in order to bring him back in with the reserves. His role with the Thunder bench isn’t much different than what he did with the Knicks, except now he’s isolating against backup big men instead of the best perimeter defender on the other team. Oklahoma City’s second-most commonly used lineup this season is Carmelo with four bench players (Felton, Patterson, Grant, and Alex Abrines) who spread the floor for him. In two games against the Wolves, Carmelo spent a lot of time going up against traditional big men like Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica, who have no prayer of guarding him in space on the perimeter.
The Thunder Are Playing Great Defense
Oklahoma City has something to fall back on this season besides Westbrook: the second-rated defense in the NBA. While that is partly the result of playing Chicago and New York in its first seven games, OKC has the personnel to be a great defensive team. Roberson, George, and Grant are elite perimeter defenders, and Adams is becoming a better positional defender at the rim in his fifth season. The Thunder didn’t pick up the option on Josh Huestis’s contract for next season, but he has played in every game and he gives them another long and athletic wing who can guard multiple positions. They cover up the floor, leading the league in deflections per game (18.6).
Their ceiling as a team will depend on how well Westbrook and Carmelo defend. There’s nowhere to hide a poor defender in a series against Golden State, and the Warriors will put them both in pick-and-rolls down the stretch of games. The hope in Oklahoma City is that taking a smaller role on offense will allow the two to expend more energy on the other end of the floor. Carmelo is limited athletically at this stage of his career, but there’s no reason a locked-in Westbrook can’t play high-level defense. The exciting part about Golden State’s dominance is that it is forcing the rest of the league to raise its game. Russell Westbrook has to become a great defender to win an NBA championship.