When the Thunder’s general manager, Sam Presti, acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, it was with the knowledge that the two might skip town as soon as their contracts expire. George has been linked to Los Angeles for years and Anthony might jump to another contender when his contract is up in 2019.
But for at least one season, Oklahoma City has a roster with a combined 20 All-Star appearances on and a chance to define the future of the NBA.
A decade ago, having a player with Anthony’s scoring prowess as your third option would have made you the Finals favorite. Today, it doesn’t guarantee you anything higher than fourth in the Western Conference.
Golden State has four of the NBA’s elite in their starting lineup, but the reason the Warriors are a truly special team is in how well their stars’ individual games compliment each other.
The days of big men clogging the paint have gone the way of flip phones, Webkinz and Avril Lavigne. “Pace and space” is the mantra most coaches live by in 2017. Part of what makes Golden State so hard to defend is how well they move off the ball on the perimeter. Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green can all work as well off the ball as they can with it. Klay Thompson only needs the ball for half a second at a time and he will still drop 20 points.
If a team is ever going to beat Golden State, it’s going to have to be a defensive juggernaut full of versatile defenders and install an unselfish offense just like the Warriors. If all the pieces align, the Thunder may be that team for both this season and those in the immediate future.
The Thunder’s main concern will be how their three stars click on offense. All three ranked in the top-20 in usage rate last season. The hope is that Anthony can emulate the player they’ve seen in the last four Olympics. On the world stage, surrounded by the NBA’s elite and playing against lesser talent, Anthony has thrived as a spot up shooter.
Westbrook will do what he always does, slashing through the defense with murderous intent. The difference this year is that, when Westbrook is met with three defenders at the rim, he’ll be able to kick it out to Anthony and his 45 percent spot-up shooting.
Anthony is going to shift the power forward spot, which isn’t as big of a deal as it would have been five years ago. Last year, Boston, Cleveland and Golden State all used one big primarily to protect the rim while letting the other space the floor on the perimeter. There will be nights when Anthony will be guarding players much larger than him but it’s not as much of a concern as it was even five years ago when he slid to four in New York.
George is a basketball Swiss army knife. With Westbrook attacking the rim and Anthony picking his spots, George will fill in the gaps and will likely be very effective doing it. Like Durant, deadly enough attacking the rim that you have to be able to provide help on defense. George provides another layer to the Thunder’s offense that will be crucial to keep pace with the league’s elite offenses.
But where Oklahoma City is truly going to separate themselves is on the defensive end. Guard Andre Roberson and center Steven Adams are two of the best at their positions and George has somehow become one of the more underrated defenders in the league after toiling away in NBA purgatory for the last couple years.
George first gained national attention partly due to his ability to guard elite players at multiple positions. In 2011, George guarded Derrick Rose in the Pacers’ first round playoff series. Even though the Pacers lost five games, George held the reigning MVP to 37 percent shooting. George and the Pacers then met LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the playoffs the next three years. George held his own against James in all three series.
Now George will once again be called on to defend multiple MVPs when he lines up across from Durant and Curry this year. The Thunder will likely use him to guard Durant and Curry interchangeably with Roberson providing backup.
Westbrook isn’t a slouch defensively either. He’s not great, being prone to gambling too much, but if head coach Billy Donovan can reign him in a little more, the Thunder have multiple players capable of guarding every position on the perimeter.
Golden State is going to force to try to force mismatches and switches as much as they can. Against Cleveland, the Warriors were able to isolate Kyrie Irving defensively onto Curry or Thompson. They won’t have that luxury against the Thunder. Green on Anthony is a matchup in which you can say that Golden State has an advantage, but Green is never going to be the Warriors first look on offense. Green has never been a pure scorer, doing his best work distributing the ball and setting screens.
Westbrook and Roberson are capable of matching up on Curry or Thompson. Likewise for George, but you can also add Durant and Green to that list. By having an array of versatile defenders, the Thunder might not leave any mismatches to exploit. Having players who can guard multiple positions is the only way to throw an offense like Golden State’s off its rhythm.
The Warriors are a historically good offensive team. If their stars are hot, the best defense in the world might not be enough to stop them, but the Thunder have the best roster to give it a shot. If the defense is elite and their stars compliment each other half as well as Golden State’s do, the Thunder can give the defending champions more than a scare in the playoffs.
If the Thunder meet expectations this season and their three stars all commit to the future, they could be the Warriors’ greatest threat in the conference for years. Even if all three leave, they might have provided the blueprint for the next team to take their spot.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @OfficialBrett.