After toiling for years with the lackluster New York Knicks, Carmelo Anthony got his wish to play for a contender, and will team up with reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook and three-time All-NBA forward Paul George to form a nucleus that could make the Oklahoma City Thunder a legitimate title threat in the Western Conference.
Getting two superstars to coexist is no sure thing, especially when they each like to control the action, and adding a third in Anthony will only push the envelope of possession, but if the Golden State Warriors learned how to share the ball effectively, the Thunder can, too.
Westbrook touched the ball a league-leading 99.5 times per game last season. George ranked 12th among forwards (62.7 per game) and Anthony had the ball in his hands more than 60 times per game. The key to how well Anthony fits in, however, will be tied to how willing he is to adapt his game and how he adjusts to being the second or third option on offense.
Since his first full season with the Knicks in 2011-12, Anthony has led the team in usage rate, never falling below 29.1 percent. On the Thunder, Westbrook was the only player to have a usage rate higher than 27.3 percent last season, and he had the highest usage rate ever seen since the league adopted the three-point line in 1979 (41.7 percent). George’s usage rate with the Indiana Pacers was 28.9 percent in 2016-17, with a three-year high of 32.8 percent during the 2014-15 season.
There needs to be a compromise as to how Anthony uses the possessions he does get, which sounds like a tough sell, but Anthony has adjusted his game when sharing the court with superstars before, as a member of Team USA.
His offense in New York came primarily from one-on-one plays in isolation last season (23.1 percent), a play type that isn’t used frequently by Oklahoma City. In fact, Anthony’s frequency of plays in isolation were three times as high as the Thunder employed last season (7.7 percent). However, according to Nick Hauselman of BballBreakdown, Anthony’s isolation rates with the national team oscillated between 10.1 percent and 11.1 percent from 2007 to 2012, a much better fit with Oklahoma City’s basketball philosophy.
That change would allow the Thunder to take advantage of Anthony’s ability as a spot-up shooter (1.23 points per shot, top 6 percent of the NBA) and as a scoring threat in the pick and roll, where Anthony can hit three-point shots or pull up for midrange jumpers.
Anthony should welcome this change because, unlike in New York, defenses won’t be able to double-team him as easily, for fear Westbrook or George, two good pick-and-roll players, would be left wide open or without a help defender close by. And this is where Anthony could shine.
He hit 43 of his 96 wide-open three-point shots (44.8 percent) last season and had an effective field goal percentage of 63.7 percent on unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts. That would be a huge help to the Thunder, who managed 11.3 wide-open three-point shots per game last season (13th most) mostly due to defenses keying in on Westbrook.
Anthony would also not be going up against an opponent’s top defender, and might not even be matched up against their second-best defender. Anthony scored almost a point per possession in isolation — fourth-most efficient scorer among 16 players with at least 200 isolation possessions — and 0.92 points per possession in the post against teams game planning for him; imagine what he could do against a team’s second- or third-best defender.
The addition of Anthony will also help Westbrook and George get better looks.
According to data provided by SportVU, the NBA’s camera-based tracking system in 2016-17, Westbrook had the sixth-lowest distraction score (48.6) among the league’s top 50 scorers last season. Distraction score quantifies how much a player’s defender is willing to help off him to stop the ballhandler, with a lower number indicating a player that is less likely to be abandoned defensively. George’s distraction score of 51.5 ranked 25th.
Anthony, meanwhile, received the highest gravity score (81.4) among the league’s top 50 scorers last season. Gravity score attempts to quantify how much defensive attention a player receives when he’s off the ball, with a higher number indicating a player considered to be more a threat on the court.
In other words, Oklahoma City is adding a player who attracts the most defensive attention without the ball alongside two scorers whose defenders rarely give any help for fear of leaving them wide open, creating matchup problems all over the court.
If the defense decides to switch on the pick-and-roll, Westbrook can make a play against a less-agile big.
If they switch on Anthony, he can make a smaller guard look foolish in the post. Or, if double teamed, he can dish it off to a teammate cutting to the basket.
The Thunder do need to create more quality looks near the rim. Last season, a third of their shot attempts in the half court were around the basket (seventh-most in the NBA) but they managed just 1.13 points per possession, the third-lowest rate in the league.
Unfortunately, if the preseason is any guide, Anthony hasn’t yet made the changes Oklahoma City needs him to make. Of his 63 possessions in the half-court offense, 17 have been in isolation — the most of any play type — producing just 11 points. He’s 2 for 9 out of the post, with just one assist on a three-point shot. It will take time for the team to develop chemistry, but it is okay to be optimistic about the Thunder’s chances in the meantime.
Before Anthony was traded to Oklahoma City, the Thunder had odds of 66-to-1 to win the 2017-18 NBA title, which carries an implied probability of 1.49 percent. After the trade, the team’s odds dropped to 16-to-1, giving them a 6 percent chance, only slightly worse odds than the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. It also gives Anthony a better chance to become the eighth member of the exclusive Triple Crown club — players who have won the NCAA title, and Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship.
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