After a frenetic summer filled with stunning free agent defections, big trades and exciting rookies, our heads are still spinning as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign. With so many new faces in new places, it leaves fans to wonder how things will shake out this year. Over the next two weeks, RealGM will attempt to ask (and answer) 10 of the more pressing questions you may have about the upcoming season.
- Did the Carmelo Anthony trade add the Oklahoma City Thunder to the list of title contenders?
Saying it was quite an offseason for Thunder is a massive understatement.
When the Thunder acquired Paul George from the Pacers in late June, it was mostly considered a calculated gamble to import some star-level talent around reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. OKC clearly got better, but it was hard to see the addition of George as enough to help Westbrook and company leap past San Antonio and Houston, let alone the Warriors. It wasn’t until the end of September, when Carmelo Anthony come on board, that OKC appeared to have closed the gap in starpower between them and the true title contenders out West.
It’s relatively easy to see where George fits into this team. At just 27, he’s a two-way player smack dab in his prime. In OKC, he’ll look to tangle with the best wing of opponents on one end while taking some of the burden off Westbrook on the other.
Anthony’s case is a bit different. The veteran forward’s name recognition make it hard to parse his current form from his past exploits. Because to be clear, the Thunder aren’t getting ‘Denver Melo’ to join up with Westbrook and George. Slotting in Anthony alongside his two younger counterparts isn’t going to be a simple process.
A good place to start assessing Anthony’s potential role is taking a look at his raw numbers. Last year, Anthony shot just 43.3 percent from the field, his lowest mark since the 10-11 season. Anthony also set a career low in trips to the foul line for the third straight season, attempting just 4.9 per game as the Knicks tangled with their Triangle demons.
Another worrying marker for a decline in Anthony’s game is that only 161 of his 1389 field goal attempts were classified as “layups” per NBAsavant’s shooting data. In the seven years of data available on the site, Anthony has only attempted less of those shots in one campaign -- the 14-15 season where he played in just 40 games. As we’ve seen with numerous other aging stars, as the miles accrue on their legs, those drives toward the basket become less and less frequent. Anthony obviously isn’t bucking this trend.
Dig into the advanced numbers and things don’t get much rosier. Anthony spent 670 possessions operating in either isolations or post ups -- traditionally his preferred way to attack NBA defenses -- according to Synergy sports data. He was mostly above average in those situations; ranking in the 78th percentile in ISO’s and 63rd in post ups. A little more concerning, however, is that those rankings got worse when Anthony had either ISO’s or post ups against switches in pick-and-rolls (though we’ll dive into that more in a sec). In fact, the only category in which Anthony placed near the top of the league was spot ups, where he did manage to generate an impressive 1.233 points per possession.
If you were viewing Anthony as a player the Thunder could toss the ball to and keep the their offense chugging along while Westbrook sat or was in the midst of an off night, these numbers wouldn’t agree with you. Instead they paint a picture of player that needs to see his role redefined. The Anthony that takes on all comers with his fearsome ISO game isn’t (and could be argued, hasn’t ever been) an efficient player anymore. So what does OKC need to do with him in order to reach The Finals?
For starters, Anthony could provide a big upgrade to the Thunder simply by transitioning from volume “scorer” to volume “shooter.” This past season, Anthony shot a sterling 42.6 percent on 3.5 catch-and-shoot opportunities per game from behind the arc, per NBA.com player tracking data. That’s nearly seven percentage points higher than the 35.9 mark he posted from 3-point territory overall last year. Given that Westbrook created 19.6 assist opportunities per game this past season, it stands to reason that Anthony will see his attempts in those situations rise dramatically without any real emphasis -- which is great news for the Thunder.
As a team, Oklahoma City only converted 32.8 percent of their shots from deep last year, placing them firmly at the bottom of the league. With Westbrook’s ability to collapse a defense, the Thunder sorely lacked a feared long-range bomber behind the arc, especially at the power forward position. Between with his lightening quick release and promising numbers, the Thunder’s primary goal for Anthony should be to lead the league in catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts (Klay Thompson held that title last year with 7.1 per game). Though it’s a tough pill to swallow for a player used to being a ball-dominant force for his teams, Anthony transitioning to a Ryan Anderson-esque role would be hugely beneficial to OKC.
Now that doesn’t mean that Anthony’s sole effective use will be standing idly behind the 3-point line as Westbrook runs wild and George plays the role of sidekick. Despite middling numbers, there’s still a time and place for Anthony’s ISO-game. It’s just out of pick-and-rolls.
With switching being used to neuter pick-and-rolls more now than ever before, being able to take advantage of size/strength mismatches in post ups or ISOs is somewhat back in vogue. Anthony’s ISO numbers versus pick-and-roll switches weren’t very good last year but they’re actually a little misleading. In New York, Anthony would run some 4-5/3-5 pick-and-rolls -- where Anthony handled another Knicks big man set the screen. Teams naturally would counter this by just switching their 5-man onto Anthony, daring him to defy his aging legs and get to the rim against a big playing him for his jumpshot.
This situation accounted for a good chunk of Anthony’s total ISO’s out of pick-and-roll switches. Because that’s a lot harder mismatch for him to beat nowadays, Anthony’s overall numbers were pretty poor. But when he acted as the screener and received switches onto smaller players, Anthony was, and still can be, brutally effective when he used his strength to create quality shots deep in the paint:
If touches out of those situations along with an increase in spot up opportunities aren’t enough to keep Anthony happy, the Thunder coaching staff could have a little fun with some creative wrinkles. Inverted pick-and-rolls -- where Westbrook acts as the screener while Anthony handles -- would certainly trouble opposing defenses. So too would be the Thunder digging out the inverted pin down play the team used to great effect when Kevin Durant was still in town. There are certainly plenty of ways to keep Anthony involved without having Westbrook dribble up and mindlessly throw his new frontcourt teammate the ball at the elbow or on the block.
Now while solutions exist on the offensive end, the other end of the floor things is where things will always be a bit dicey. When most teams go small at the 4, they do so with players capable of guarding multiple positions. This allows for switching both on and off ball actions without leaving exploitable mismatches for offenses to attack. Anthony isn’t a player that fits that bill, especially now that’s he’s 33 years old.
While he’d gamely battle against most switches, Anthony’s declining quickness left him exposed, even when giving cushions to players with shaky outside jumpers like Dennis Schroder:
The Knicks adapted to this by having Anthony play a more traditional coverage when put into pick-and-rolls. Against ballhandlers that don’t shoot the ball well, Anthony would “push up” or basically hug the screener while his teammate guarding the ball scooted underneath the pick. In other situations, Anthony would play a “drop” coverage, like most traditional centers do, hanging below the screen, corralling the ballhandler before recovering back out to the screener.
The problem with using those “drop” coverages is that pick-and-roll ballhandlers that do shoot it well -- like say Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and other Western Conference guards the team could see in a playoff series-- have become really adept at pulling up quickly at the point of the screen if a big sags too far back. Even players like Wayne Ellington, someone not exactly on the level of Curry, can burn Anthony in those drop coverages if he isn’t locked in:
The Thunder coaching staff will have to be very careful in protecting Anthony on that end of the floor. Hiding him on a non-threatening wing is obviously the best course of action. But in a loaded West, there may not be many players to hide him on, especially come playoff time. It’s definitely cause for concern that will be compounded if Anthony spends his time on the other end of the floor in less than efficient situations.
The ironic thing about Anthony fulfilling his destiny as the missing piece to the Thunder’s championship puzzle is, well, part of it doesn’t have anything to do with him. No matter how the coaching staff chooses to utilize him on offense or defense, the players around Anthony will go a long way in determining how much the star veteran raises the ceiling of this team. In particular, three role players -- Patrick Patterson, Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson -- will have interesting roles as the Thunder try to create a championship cocktail.
How the Thunder use Patterson will probably be the most interesting. There’s arguments to be made to use Patterson as a straight back up to Anthony at power forward, as a floor-spacing 5 in super small lineups and even to create jumbo lineups that see Anthony and George occupying the wing. Each of these lineup combinations involving Patterson will shift Anthony’s roles and responsibilities, along with exacerbating some of the weaknesses in his game.
The Abrines/Roberson dilemma is more straightforward. One player is an excellent perimeter shooter who offers little value on the other end of the floor. Roberson’s shooting deficiencies are as well documented as his defensive chops. If Abrines joins forces with Westbrook, George and Anthony, it’ll be one less player who can help keep Anthony free from a key defensive responsibility. At the same time, Abrines’ shooting could cover up a disjointed offensive approach that let’s Anthony go into ISO mode relatively frequently.
If Roberson is out there, the Thunder need to be very precise with their playcalling. Letting Anthony or George -- the only two real floor spacers in such a lineup -- handle or look to attack in one-on-one situations means Westbrook, Roberson and Steven Adams are the ones responsible for drawing defenders away from the basket. Because Westbrook is not even close to as threatening without the ball, haphazard play calling with Roberson present is a recipe for a stalled offense. And make no mistake about it, the key to the Thunder’s success with Anthony in the fold is creating as many 5-man lineup combinations that can compete against the league’s very best.
At 33 years old and with nearly 1,000 regular season NBA games behind him, Anthony is not the same superstar player he was in his prime. That doesn’t mean, however, he can’t still be a very impactful one. Given the massive presence of Westbrook and the fellow addition of George, the Thunder don’t need Anthony to be a dominant franchise centerpiece anymore in order to challenge teams at the top of the Western Conference. Instead they need to build a scheme and rotation where Anthony can be a star, albeit in a defined role. And if OKC does that, it may give the club a real chance to at a special season.