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Combining All-Star-level players Paul George and Carmelo Anthony with reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook on a team that finished a respectable sixth in the Western Conference standings suggested OKC would undergo the type of transformation that would yield contention for one of the top spots in the conference playoffs. Instead, after 20 games, the Thunder’s eight wins place them tied for ninth in the West.
Perhaps even more surprising, the offense — which endured 2016-17 challenges perhaps best evidenced by the fact that that Andre Roberson was one of the team’s top five scorers — is actually about two points per 100 possessions worse than last season’s version. The Thunder’s struggles can be blamed partially on the offensive structure, and partially on each of the three stars underperforming in key areas of their games. Are the problems fixable? That question lays at the feet of Billy Donovan and his new-look group.
Some of it is the system
The 2016-17 Thunder averaged the fewest passes per possession in the entire NBA — just 2.7 per trip. Meanwhile, they were middle of the pack in isolation plays — about 12 per 100 possessions, 15th in the league.
One season later, while their rate of isolations has jumped to 19 per 100 possessions (third in the league), OKC remains last in the league with just 2.8 passes per trip. What this says is that instead of embracing ball movement and motion basketball, the Thunder have become more dependent on “hero ball.”
Even more surprising, despite having multiple offensive threats to spread defenses out and theoretically create better shots, the Thunder have a quantitative Shot Quality (qSQ) of 51.5 percent — essentially unchanged from last season. Since qSQ accounts for shot location, shot type and defensive pressure, this means the presence of Anthony and George has not created better scoring opportunities for the Thunder so far this season.
So, are the principles of the offense the core issue? If each member of the Thunder Three was playing at their previous levels, they wouldn’t be. Peak performance from Westbrook, Anthony and George would mean OKC was converting more of the opportunities than the Thunder did last season, leading to a more efficient offense. That hasn’t happened in large part due to one key deficiency from each member of the trio.
Russ’ signature shot has gone missing
Regular observers of the Thunder are familiar with Westbrook’s signature move of driving to the foul line or elbow and launching an (often contested) 2-point jump shot. It’s a shot that makes some fans of efficient shooting cringe, but it’s his, and he’s not going to stop taking it any time soon. Over the previous three seasons, Russ took this shot about eight times per 100 possessions and had a quantified Shooter Impact (qSI) of 1.6 percent on such attempts. This means he hit those shots 1.6 percentage points above what an average shooter would have.
This season, Westbrook is taking fewer of these two-pointers (only 6.5 shots per 100 possessions), but he is not making them at the same clip. He has a qSI on those shots of minus-9.7 in 2017-18 — well below not only his career average, but that of an average shooter. Given Russ’ long track record on those shots, it is unlikely that he suddenly became bad at them. It’s plausible to argue that he’s not fully comfortable with his new teammates, so his timing in those situations is off — which in turn has caused the shots not to fall.
Wanted: Catch-and-shoot 3-pointers from Melo
Carmelo Anthony’s addition to an already star-studded lineup in Oklahoma City elicited great hopes for the return of “Olympic Melo” — the dominant player who helped Team USA win Gold in Rio — and not the inconsistent Anthony asked to prop up a mess of a Knicks franchise for his final few years in New York.
The hopes for the return of Olympic Melo have yet to bear fruit, and it’s Anthony’s shooting from distance in the half court that has been a culprit.
Westbrook sets up Anthony for about 10 catch-and-shoot opportunities per 100 possessions, and Anthony has been generally good in those situations with a qSI of 5 percent. When those opportunities have been 3-pointers generated off of Westbrook pick-and-rolls, however, Anthony has a qSI of minus-11.8 percent, down dramatically from his plus-4 percent mark of the previous four seasons.
What this suggests is that the connection between Westbrook and Anthony in those situations is not yet smooth enough. Does Anthony get the pass where he is most comfortable to launch into his shooting motion? With more reps together, it seems reasonable to believe that Westbrook and Anthony will find a rhythm, and Melo will get back to being a strong catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter in all situations.
George must attend finishing school
Like his most famous teammates, Paul George is facing his own offensive struggles. The former Pacer is responsible for about one-third of the Thunder’s isolation opportunities, but is not making the most of them. Last season, George averaged nearly 1 point per iso, while this season he is scoring only 0.7 points per iso, 34th among the 38 players with at least 50 isolations this season.
George’s drop in effective scoring off of isos this season can be traced largely to shooting well below average on 2-point shots from outside the paint. Last season, he had a qSI of 10.6 on non-paint 2s off of isolations, while so far in 2017-18 he has a qSI of minus-10.1 — on shots with nearly identical shot quality. The question is whether this season is the anomaly and, like his teammates, George just needs some adjustment time, or whether last season was a mirage. We have data on 258 shots that George had taken in these situations in 2015-16 and before, and he posted a qSI of minus-3.8 on those shots. The unfortunate reality is that number is a lot closer to this season’s shaky performance on such attempts than last season’s strong one.
While George has many strengths, it may time for Donovan to acknowledge that isolations are not the best use of his talents.
Overall, what the Thunder need most is time for the offense to jell and the new teammates to adjust to each other. When they do, there’s reason to believe the shots will begin to fall, and the Thunder’s offense will more closely resemble that of their fans’ preseason fantasies.
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