What happens when a top-10 offensive and defensive team gets rid of one of the worst players in the league?
The Thunder seek to answer that very question in 2019, as Carmelo Anthony is gone, off to Houston and taking his “talents” (and by talents I mean washed-up negative-VORP ass) with him.
Melo had a -1.1 VORP, which translates to three wins taken off the board compared to slotting a G-League player into his roster spot.
The Thunder won 48 games last year and Vegas has them down for 50.5 this year. Do the math, folks, this isn’t going to be the easiest of predictions.
Will Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, and a cast of rogues and hornswogglers (bet you didn’t think you’d see that word in a sports article, but I’ve seen “Blazing Saddles” one too many times) find the secret to overachieving? Or will injuries and chemistry problems—read: Russ hitting about 28 percent of his threes and putting up a usage rate that gets him triple-doubles in losses all season—submarine their efforts?
2017-18 record: 48-34
2018-19 over/under: 50.5
Melo Out And Chill
Patrick Patterson started three games at PF for the Thunder last year. Jerami Grant started once. Those two guys were otherwise solid glue guys off the bench—Grant’s a much better defender than Melo’s become, and Patterson’s positive VORP was more or less purely a function of his defensive prowess.
And while power forward isn’t going to be the engine of the offense for the Thunder, it’s possible that the team could slot PG13 into the stretch 4 position and use a guy like Dennis Schroder in intriguing small-ball lineups that haven’t been possible with the personnel the Thunder have had on their squad.
The question is whether coach Billy Donovan is astute enough to know how to use his team, something we haven’t seen him do since he’s been coach.
The Adams Family
The big New Zealander is one of my favorite players, because he’s keeping the spirit alive of the putback scorer and offensive rebounder.
On some level it’s necessary—Westbrook is such a shotgun shooter rather than a rifleman that if defenses limited the Thunder to one shot, they’d be a 30-win team—but on another, it’s just artistry.
Not since Dennis Rodman has there been a guy so adept at cleaning the glass on his own team’s end of the floor.
Whether Adams is good for anything else is an open question, but who cares? The guy’s a throwback whose best skill matches well for overcoming his team’s biggest weakness.
Seriously, What’s With Westbrook?
The Brodie has averaged a triple-double in two straight years now, but it’s still a bit of an open question whether his pursuit of counting stats is actually doing the Thunder any good.
A guy who shoots 29.8 percent on four threes a game is taking a lot of points off the board (to the extent he’s not giving Kobe assists to Adams.)
Westbrook’s also infamous for selfish assists and stolen rebounds. But this is not a referendum on who’s getting the counting stats.
Way back in the day, when the NBA was about making one pass from the primary ballhandler to the open shooter or executing a pick-and-roll, guys like John Stockton could put up assist percentages well over 50 and have their teams be perennial deep-playoff-run squads.
These days, though, Westbrook assisting on 49.8 percent of his teammate’s baskets (and 57.3 percent in 2016-17) is a sign that the Thunder’s offense doesn’t move the ball well enough to generate points without Westbrook having to be the guy who throws the last pass.
All the same, seventh in Offensive Rating is nothing to sneeze at.
The Andre Roberson Question
Plenty of ink has been spilled about Roberson’s injury creating problems with the Thunder’s roster and forcing them to strip their bench depth.
But at the same time, how much is Roberson’s absence really a bad thing when he’s got a 9.8 career PER, shot 22.2 percent from three last year and sits at 25.7 percent for his career?
His points last year came close to the basket; he’s a 68.3 percent shooter in the restricted area. Which, for someone who attempts just four shots a game in 27 minutes, tells its own story.
It’s just hard to see where a situational player is so mission-critical on a star-driven team.
Until you remember that Roberson is a guy who, given a full season, makes a very strong case for inclusion on an All-Defense team; it’s between him and Victor Oladipo (last year’s first-team All-Defense selection at shooting guard) if Roberson stays healthy all season long.
Wait, There’s A Theme Here
That’s right, there is. And it’s a theme of a team that could become a more offensively potent version of those old Spurs teams that won titles by scoring the ball while holding the enemy’s score way down.
The offensive numbers don’t look like anything special. The shooting is lousy and necessitates a great offensive rebounder in order not to give the ball away with an empty possession.
But the Spurs and the Jazz have shown the value of this sort of approach. As long as Westbrook and George get their points, and as long as Adams gets his putbacks, welcome to 110-108 City, right in Tornado Alley.
So about that 51-win goal.
Well, what happens when you have an elite defensive team that can score the ball? The Jazz finished the regular-season 29-6 with that.
You see where this is going. The Thunder have a shot at the Western Conference Finals and a Revenge Series against Kevin Durant. It’d make a great storyline and it’s absolutely in the cards.
I’m calling this one Confirmed and Over. Mechanically, this Thunder team’s as good as any I’ve seen in recent years. I’m seeing 54-28.