As the NBA super team has returned to fashion over the last decade or so, basketball fans have been trained to rein in expectations — that putting together “on paper” talent full of volume scoring and high usage rates is a foolish way to assemble a fantasy team, let alone an NBA roster. They’ve been warned, in other words, against getting too excited about exactly what the Oklahoma City Thunder just did.
At first glance, Sam Presti and the Thunder pulling off yet another surprising trade — this time swapping Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second-round pick for 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony — seems like fool’s gold. There’s only one ball, and Anthony, Paul George (whom the Thunder acquired earlier in the offseason) and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook all used prolific amounts of it last season: Anthony had a usage rate of 29.1 percent, his lowest in a decade but still a top-20 figure in the league. George’s was 28.9, also in the top 20, and Westbrook’s, famously, was 41.7 — a single-season NBA record. Anthony isn’t what he once was and his Knicks haven’t made the playoffs since 2013; George’s Indiana Pacers and Westbrook’s Thunder washed out in the first round. There’s plenty reason to question whether this will work. But Oklahoma City isn’t just any rebuilding project, and that makes its needs unique.
It’s hard to evaluate the revamped Thunder by looking at these players as they existed on other teams. A player’s role can change drastically when going from a bad team to a contender (e.g. Kevin Love). More important is how they’ll fit on a Thunder team gunning for the Western Conference Finals and beyond. And unlike most teams adding star players to a modest roster, there’s a template in the team’s recent history for how the fit might go: The Kevin Durant-led 2015-16 Thunder went up 3-1 on the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals.
Westbrook, starting center Steven Adams and standout perimeter defender Andre Roberson are all holdovers from that team, and George will likely be asked to fill a trimmed-down Durant role. Anthony, meanwhile, has a surprising amount in common with another former OKC standout: Serge Ibaka.
This takes a bit of explaining. Ibaka’s defense has slipped recently, but he’s still a good defender overall and blocks shots at a high rate. Even in the 2016 playoffs, when Ibaka was no longer the fierce rim protector he was in earlier playoff runs, he held the Warriors to 40.8 percent shooting on attempts he defended in the conference finals. Meanwhile, Anthony can string together a few high-intensity defensive plays, but he has never shown the ability to do that over a season or even a playoff series. Big advantage for Serge. But Anthony has traditionally been a very good rebounder for his position and excels at Ibaka’s other major contribution: floor spacing from a “big” position.
Anthony had an effective field goal rate of 58.6 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers last season, better than known sharpshooters like Kevin Love and in the top half of players with at least 200 attempts. (This is more impressive than it sounds, because the ranks of players who are asked to take 200 spot-up jumpers is a heavily self-selected group. Anthony will obviously hold the ball more than Ibaka, but he’s also a better ball handler and passer. The who-does-what balance will be crucial, which it doesn’t take deep analysis to see. But at minimum, Melo walking into a spot-up shooting role — the role he played so well for Team USA — will help the Thunder no matter what else he does, simply because he’s a good enough shooter to space the floor. And the Thunder desperately needed spacing.
As a team, the Thunder had an effective field goal rate of 48.4 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers last season, third-worst in the league. The season before, they were middle-of-the-pack at 52.2 eFG, despite Ibaka underperforming and bricklayers like Roberson, Kyle Singler and Randy Foye eating up a lot of looks. Now they add Anthony, George was even better last season at 60.1 percent eFG and Patrick Patterson (55 percent eFG). The Thunder didn’t just address their need for shooters — they course-corrected their recent tendency to address shooting deficiencies with players who can only shoot, Anthony Morrow or Alex Abrines.
The bigger question for Oklahoma City is depth. The Thunder rotation was already perilously thin, and trading Kanter and McDermott for Anthony replaces two young players with a 33-year-old forward. But even that is offset by the ways Anthony and George fundamentally change the makeup of the roster. Last season, the Thunder scored 10.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when Westbrook sat, making role players like Roberson or fellow defensive standouts such as Jerami Grant much less valuable than they would be on a team that was competent offensively. So the fact that Anthony and George carried their respective offenses with fairly limited rosters should mean that Roberson, Grant and other role players can focus on their strengths rather than their deficiencies.
And that gets to the core of why the Westbrook-Anthony-George team-up isn’t quite like other recent collections of stars, Golden State notwithstanding. The core of a contending team was already in place but was gutted by Durant’s exit in free agency and general roster turnover. The Thunder were a good team with a few specific, extreme holes in the roster. Trading for Paul George filled a bunch of them, and trading for Melo has emphatically closed the rest.