Welcome to Thunderous Thoughts, a weekly look at the OKC Thunder. This week, things are great. But not everything is good.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have figured a lot of things out on offense over the last couple of weeks. Most importantly, Russell Westbrook has found his mid-range shot that has made him so deadly over the years.
Westbrook’s shot is falling, Carmelo Anthony has become more of a catch-and-shooter player and Andre Roberson isn’t hanging around the three-point line. All three of those things have helped propel the Thunder to looking like a respectable offensive team in recent weeks.
One area that remains a concern is the second-unit. Paul George with the bench mob of Raymond Felton, Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines, Josh Huestis and/or Patrick Patterson has produced less than desirable results. It was evident on Monday against Houston, when the George-led bench failed to score a single point to start the fourth quarter, while Houston was resting James Harden. It was also evident in the first half against the Raptors, when a 15-point swing occurred.
Prior to the addition of Anthony, we all knew what a luxury it would be to have George alongside Westbrook. The two would work much like Kevin Durant and Westbrook, in that Billy Donovan could stagger them, leaving one All-Star on the court at all times. When Donovan made this adjustment after the 2016 All-Star break, it was a rough start. The Thunder went 4-8 during that stretch, with Durant looking all out of sorts leading the second-unit. He averaged 5.6 assists to 4.8 turnovers in those 12 games.
Eventually, Durant became more comfortable and the results spoke for themselves.
That’s what Thunder fans expected when George was acquired during the summer. The addition of Anthony should have made things easier. Now, OKC could leave two stars on the court at once against opposing bench units if they so desired.
Early in the season, Anthony was used as the leader of the bench unit. The results were good. A lineup of Anthony, Abrines, Felton, Grant, and Patterson produced a 4.5 net rating in 37 total minutes. Unfortunately, the Thunder lost a handful of those games thanks to poor crunch time play, leading Donovan to constantly tinker with his rotations.
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Since the start of December, he’s gone almost exclusively to a bench unit led by George. The results are….bad.
The five-man unit of George, Huestis, Felton, Grant, and Patterson has a net rating of -2.6 in 29 total minutes. Swap out Huestis with Abrines and that net rating drops to -5.8 in 25 total minutes.
In theory, George is the guy you want leading the bench. He’s better off the ball and as a creator than Anthony. When Anthony led the second-unit early in the season, much of the offense was vintage Carmelo, meaning a lot of jab steps and post-ups. To his credit, he was hitting those shots, which is how the team built leads while Westbrook was on the bench. They only blew those games because Westbrook was playing as bad as he could possibly play early in the season.
The good news is that the Thunder have been winning recently, buying George and the bench time to figure things out. If they are able to figure it out, we should see less games come down to crunch-time as the team will be able to build a lead when Westbrook sits. However, if these struggles continue, going back to Anthony should not be ruled out.
With Anthony being more willing to play off the ball, the second-unit offense can continue to run in the hands of Felton. And if the team needs a basket, letting Anthony work on the wing for a possession isn’t the worst plan in the world, especially if he’s not forcing things and is willing to pass if extra pressure comes.
(Note: Stats provided by NBA.com/Stats)
Other Thunder Thoughts
*A lot of Alex Abrines trade chatter as he’s looking less-and-less playable against teams like Houston and Golden State. I think it’s too early to give up on the second year shooter, but this is a team in “win now” mode and he’s the most attractive piece. I think Josh Huestis is a more likely trade candidate. OKC declined his option, making him an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. The extra year of control on Abrines contract makes him more desirable. However, teams may not want Huestis to hit the open market, so trading for him now and signing him before he hits unrestricted free agency could be an option for a rebuilding team.
*Aside from George clicking with the bench, this team’s biggest problem is forgetting about Steven Adams after the first quarter. He can’t go 6-8 in the first quarter and then get one shot the rest of the game. Keeping him involved and engaged is a must for this team to take that next step.