How do you fit in Carmelo Anthony and beat the best out West? For the new-look Thunder, it starts with Paul George.
Trading Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second-round pick for Carmelo Anthony was easy. Every GM in the league would have done that. Making it work in Oklahoma City will be the hard part.
After dealing for Carmelo and Paul George this offseason to play with Russell Westbrook, the Thunder now have three of the top 20 players in the NBA in usage rating last season on their roster. There will be an adjustment process, and they don’t have much time to figure it out. George will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, while Westbrook and Carmelo both have player options for 2018-19, although Westbrook could sign an extension within the next few weeks. If recent history is an indication, one guy in a Big Three has to take a step back. George, the most versatile of OKC’s three stars, is the obvious choice. To beat the top teams out West, the Thunder need George to be their version of Klay Thompson.
Talent alone isn’t enough. Golden State is dominant because of how well its stars fit together. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Draymond Green all need the ball in their hands. Thompson is one of the few stars who makes sense as a fourth option. He does most of his damage off the ball, whether it’s running off screens, getting out in transition, spotting up, or cutting to the basket. According to NBA.com/stats, of the 32 players who averaged at least 20 points per game last season, Thompson was dead last in number of touches (48.4), with less than half as many as Westbrook (99.5). Just as important, Thompson channels the energy he saves on offense and diverts it toward the other end of the floor. He’s an elite defensive player, and his versatility allows the Warriors to hide Curry and keep him off other point guards.
All of Oklahoma City’s stars will have to share the ball. There’s just less value in asking Westbrook and Carmelo to. Their ability to put up big numbers is what makes them great. Neither has ever been much of a defender. Westbrook either rests or gambles. Carmelo is famous for his indifference, and at 33, he no longer has the footspeed to keep up with the best guys at his position. Westbrook isn’t big enough to switch screens and guard bigger players, while Carmelo isn’t fast enough to match up with smaller ones. George, on the other hand, is one of the most versatile defenders in the league.
George is an elite athlete with the size (6-foot-9, 220 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) and speed to guard four positions. As a rookie in the 2011 playoffs, the Pacers used him on Derrick Rose, and he helped hold the league MVP to 37.1 percent shooting in the series. Even as his offensive responsibility grew over the years in Indiana, George remained an elite defender. He was a cornerstone of the best defense in the NBA when Indiana was Miami’s top challenger in the East, and he went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the playoffs several times. When the Pacers were falling apart around him, he was one of the only first options in the league who took the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s top scorer. George can match up with any of Golden State’s four stars in a playoff series, or either of Houston’s star point guards.
He can shape-shift on offense, too. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, coming off screens was George’s biggest source of offense (19 percent) last season. Defenses have to respect his shot—he’s shot 37 percent from 3 on 5.4 attempts per game for his career. If given the chance, he would thrive as a secondary playmaker. He can attack a closeout, get to the rim and either finish or draw the foul, and make the extra pass if the defense collapses. George has never played with other elite players. The Pacers were a defensive-minded team who won by slowing the game to a crawl. His most dynamic teammate off the bounce was Lance Stephenson, which kind of says it all.
Unlike Carmelo and Westbrook, George can be great without the ball. Westbrook just won the MVP award with one of the greatest one-man shows in NBA history. Even when he played with Kevin Durant and James Harden, he would hijack the offense by forcing up difficult shots. He’s a career 31.3 percent shooter from 3 at his best when attacking the rim. Carmelo can fall back on his Olympic Melo days, but he’s better jab-stepping at the elbow than running through a blizzard of screens or diving to the rim. And when the game slows down in the fourth quarter, he can still take over as an isolation scorer. If the Thunder offense devolves into a repeat of 2016, when Durant and Westbrook took turns isolating and everyone else stood around watching, George is the guy who can be most effective in a complementary role.
But sacrificing won’t be easy for a 27-year-old in the prime of his career. George has been a killer in the playoffs, from dropping 37 points on LeBron in Game 5 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals to almost single-handedly knocking out a 56-win Raptors team in 2016. Billy Donovan has to handle the relationship between his three stars carefully. If George doesn’t like the situation in Oklahoma City, his hometown Los Angeles Lakers will pounce. It’s hard to be a supporting player in a small market when you can be the featured attraction in Hollywood. (Of course, the spotlight isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, as Carmelo can tell him.)
George was miscast in Indiana. He can lead a team, but he’s not a one-man offense. He’s not a great ball handler, so he settles for a lot of midrange jumpers when he plays one-on-one. He took 28.3 percent of his shots last season in the dreaded “long 2” range (i.e., between 16-23 feet). He has never averaged more than 4.1 assists per game or had an assist-to-turnover ratio higher than 1.4:1. His biggest strength is not taking over games through sheer will. It’s doing so many different things well that he subtly shifts the outcome in his team’s direction. Unlike Westbrook and Carmelo, George doesn’t have any defined weaknesses. He can score, pass, shoot, rebound, and defend at a high level. He’s a Swiss army knife who had to be a machete the last few seasons.
That’s why it’s easy to overlook George. The eye is naturally attracted to the ball and we remember what we see last, so players who go into the teeth of the defense and make tough shots with the game on the line stand out in our minds. Those are the guys who get talked about on First Take. Conversely, a player who does a little bit of everything over the course of the game can get lost in the shuffle, especially when he isn’t a supremely gifted individual scorer. It takes mental strength to raise up for a shot in crunch time, but so does fighting over a screen in the middle of the second quarter. If anything, it’s harder to consistently do the latter because no one is watching. Having a closer only matters if you can give them a chance to pull out the win. The impact of making enough little plays can outweigh hitting a few big shots late.
When Kevin Love was putting up all-world numbers in Minnesota, he was widely considered one of the best players in the NBA. His limitations only became clear when he teamed up with LeBron and Kyrie Irving and had to do things besides score. While Love was better at dominating the ball than Chris Bosh, he wasn’t as good at deferring to others and doing the small things a team needs from a secondary option. A willingness to defer is often seen as a weakness in the macho world of the NBA, but it’s crucial to lasting success. Just look at what happened in Cleveland this summer. The days of stars being spread evenly throughout the league are over. This is an era of constellations, not supernovas. Stars who can shine next to other stars are the most valuable players in the game. That’s why George is the key to OKC’s season. And if LeBron goes to Los Angeles next summer, George is the first guy he should call. The team that beats Golden State will need several guys like Paul George on it.