In ballet, a complicated story is impossible to tell…we can’t dance synonyms.
— George Balanchine, world renowned choreographer
They danced in Los Angeles last week, the men of Oklahoma City, in town for several days, two games and renewed hope. The future was not to be brooded over; there wasn’t portent in either Paul George’s parents sitting courtside Wednesday, just a quick hour’s drive from the family’s hometown of Palmdale, nor in his going over to hug them during the game. Or maybe there was.
But in back-to-back wins over the Lakers and Clippers, the Thunder displayed what they could be in May and June — which may not matter by July. Such is the conundrum OKC has been in since it went all in this year — acquiring George from Indiana and Carmelo Anthony from New York just before the start of training camp, knowing that both George and Anthony have player options for the 2018-19 season (George will otherwise get $20.7 million next year; Anthony, $27.9 million), and that George made it clear last year while with the Pacers that he’d like to return to L.A. next summer and play for the Lakers.
The task for the Thunder remains to convince George there’s a long-term, multi-year path to the Finals that runs through Chesapeake Energy Arena. OKC’s cupboard isn’t bare: getting George helped convince Russell Westbrook to a five-year, $205 million extension through 2023. In turn, knowing Westbrook now isn’t going to explore free agency in 2018, George is more inclined to give the Thunder a real look this summer. Yet that will further depend on what OKC does in the playoffs: will the Thunder be a legit threat to the Warriors or Rockets or Spurs in the West, or just second-round fodder?
But, today, the educated sense is that OKC has impressed enough, especially after a rocky November on the floor, to be in a primary position to keep George this summer.
That doesn’t mean, if two superstars are determined to play together, that George couldn’t still bounce. But the landscape is favorable to the Thunder. Westbrook is 29 and in his prime; Anthony has acquiesced to the Chris Bosh/Kevin Love role, and the Thunder have shown since moving to Oklahoma City that they are always willing to make another deal, flip another asset, to surround its core group with developing talent.
“Like I said, at the end of the day, only I would know, in terms of what’s the right move in terms of where we place, where we finish, how I feel, together,” George said Thursday, before the Thunder played the Clippers. “I’m not going to leave a team where…at the end of the day, all I wanted was to win. That’s what I wanted in Indiana; I wanted to win, and win at a high level. So I will determine that once this season is up. I like what we have here. I love this locker room, I love this organization. They’ve been unbelievable. Teaming up with Russ has been unbelievable. I think everybody knows where, ultimately, I stated where I wanted to play. But at the same time, I’m putting all that aside. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m happy with this situation.”
Everyone is on their best behavior, not wishing to offend. It’s hard not to think about the classic Twilight Zone episode where a six-year-old boy, not necessarily evil but certainly not a blessing, had unlimited, omniscient powers, and made people and cities and anything he didn’t like disappear, never to return. What choice does OKC have, other than to do everything George wants, lest he wish their franchise into the cornfield by going to L.A.?
But George says he can’t ask more from the Thunder so far than what they’ve done, on and off the court.
“They’ve matched everything,” he said. “Oklahoma has definitely matched any, a player — especially a star player in this league — wants out of an organization. They’ve matched everything I think I could check off.”
OKC, as ever, keeps its cards clutched tight to what must be, after all these years, the world’s most uncomfortable vest. While George has been “off the charts,” on and off the court, one league source says, the Thunder aren’t taking any chances, and aren’t pressing George to agree to a long-term deal, hoping to be in maximum bargaining position this summer.
The Thunder were awful out of the gate — a 4-9 November included losses to Sacramento, Dallas and Orlando, and left OKC with an 8-12 record at the season’s quarter pole. George shot just 41.7 percent from the floor that month. But the Thunder began December with big consecutive wins over Minnesota and San Antonio, and the team’s three stars started to figure out how best to work together.
Read: George and Anthony patted the ball a little less, and let Westbrook pat it a lot more.
Westbrook’s usage rate had to come down from last season’s insane 41.7, when he won MVP by controlling almost every possession from start to finish in averaging a triple-double for the season. But the 30.2 usage rate of October was way too big an adjustment. In November, it was 34.3. Last month, it was 37.1.
“We don’t want to take away what he’s great at — applying pressure, pushing the ball,” Anthony said of Westbrook. “His toughness. What he brings to the game. As a result, he was MVP last year, and we don’t want to take that away from him. This is his thing.”
Meanwhile, Anthony’s usage rate dropped from 28.2 in October to 21.9 last month. He’s not laying out in the short corner and waiting, exactly, but he’s not the first look most of the time in the halfcourt — unless he’s got a small on him after a switch.
I like what we have here. I love this locker room, I love this organization. Teaming up with [Russell Westbrook] has been unbelievable. I think everybody knows where, ultimately, I stated where I wanted to play. But at the same time, I’m putting all that aside. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m happy with this situation.”
It’s a role similar to that in which Anthony has always appeared happiest in recent years — his elder statesman pose at the Olympics in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016, an aging lion revered by the younger cubs. (It was not for nothing that OKC’s promising first-round pick, Terrance Ferguson, said that he grew out his braids when he was a kid because of Carmelo — then begged me and the other reporters not to print that.)
“I’ve accepted kind of what this team needs from me,” Anthony said. “I think early on in the season, beginning of the season, it was like, all of us was like, we’re just going to come in, do what we do and play our game. It doesn’t work like that. It took a little bit of time for us to figure that part out.”
But the Thunder have also jumped within striking distance of a top four seed in the West by virtue of what it’s done at the other end.
OKC is currently fifth in the NBA in Defensive Rating (102.8), up from 10th last season. George may not be first team All-Defense as he was three years ago, but he’s still awfully good. And paired on the wing with 2016-17 second team all-Defense recipient Andre Roberson, OKC can allow Westbrook to gamble and be hyper-aggressive on the ball. (Have to disagree with the Chuckster here.)
Per NBA.com/Stats, the Thunder lead the league in steals (9.5 per game), deflections per (18.3) and loose balls recovered per (9), and is top 10 in fast break points allowed (9.8 per game, seventh-best in the league) and overall field goal percentage allowed (47.9, seventh-best) and 3-point percentage allowed (35.7, eighth-best).
“Paul, maybe even more than Andre, than Russell…Paul’s got incredible range,” Coach Billy Donovan said. “There’s a lot of times, I think even for offensive players, they think passes can get through. And just his ability to get into passing lanes and deflect balls has been really impressive.”
Donovan and his staff made some schematic changes to the Thunder’s defense from last season, too.
“The subtle differences are really just, we’re back to, when a drive’s coming, we’re helping, not thinking about it, and then rotating and solving problems,” said veteran forward Nick Collison, the team’s longest-tenured player.
“For a while, we were trying to stay home on shooters sometimes, and help sometimes, and I think Coach was real good this year at the start of camp about just go, keep a tight paint and follow the rest later,” Collison said. “There’s this change in the league where everybody’s shooting threes and we’re all scared of it, but you’ve still got to guard the rim first. We were bad at the rim the last couple of years, and with our talent, that shouldn’t have been the case.”
Collison also cites further improvement from center Steven Adams, both as the quarterback of OKC’s halfcourt defense and in being able to adjust in-game to what’s happening on the floor.
“The big thing is Steven just feeling, just understanding the game so much more, and understanding when to come help, when to stay, communicating pick and rolls,” Collison said. “That’s a little thing that people don’t always realize, but it makes a huge difference — when to come over and clog, stuff like that. I think we’ve got some more veteran guys to solve problems. When you can do that five or six times a game that you couldn’t do before, that’s a big difference.”
Adams says a tight paint also starts with OKC’s guards getting into the ball more, and forcing opponents to trap spots, rather than depending on shot blockers like Serge Ibaka to protect the front of the rim. And he acknowledges he’s better at calling out opponent looks earlier in the shot clock and getting that information disseminated.
“I feel with young guys, especially when I was young, it’s very difficult to talk, get used to talking,” Adams said. “Because you’ve got so much on your mind, and it’s hard — you don’t know what to say at that immediate time. Veterans know what to say, call (it) out. It definitely helps.”
When Roberson — currently out with patellar tendinitis in his left knee, and not expected back for at least another week — is on the floor, OKC has one of the top five-man defensive units in the league, even with the not-so-lockdown Anthony on the floor. The Thunder’s starting five is a top-10 defensive unit among those that have played more than 100 minutes together this season, allowing just 96.3 points per 100 possessions.
“We run off of our defense,” Westbrook said. “We feel when we defend at a high rate, offense is an easy fix. When we defend, we make sure that’s all that we’re about.”
OKC’s successfully implemented some of the old Utah “Hawk” actions that got Karl Malone, John Stockton or Jeff Hornacek open looks to get more movement when Westbrook, George and Anthony are together. Donovan experimented some with lineups where only one or none of them were on the floor. But experiments, by their nature, warn you what not to do much more than they reveal what you should.
“We put the ball in (Westbrook’s) hands and he makes us better,” Anthony said. “But then there’s times where he has to rely on us to make him better and make the game easier.”
Donovan knew George — playing the Hornacek role in Oklahoma City — wanted movement before touching the ball, and Anthony (Malone) could always use his strength on the block or elbows for bully ball postups and fadeaways if the clock got on the Thunder’s back. Westbrook (Stockton) can be trusted to make the right read, and can get to the cup himself if need be against just about anyone, given that doubles and traps are far less likely to be effective with George and Anthony on the floor with him.
“You’re just trying to think of things, end of games, or just even different situations, where you incorporate the three of them at the same time,” Donovan said. “It’s not like, okay, we like this matchup; let’s just go at this matchup. I think on the Hawk, if Russell’s being guarded by a point guard, and they switch, you can post Carmelo on a point guard. Paul’s coming off of staggers, which he likes doing that. And you can play in pick and roll, and Russell’s done a pretty good job manipulating it. And we’ve tried to take some things out of that Hawk, and also run some things where the three of those guys are involved at the same time. But, when you have veteran guys, they’re always talking about different things they can do out of it.”
There will still be direct posts and pick and rolls if there are specific mismatches on a given night. But OKC’s getting more and more with the Hawk sets in crunch time, and Donovan’s working on wrinkles as opponents get more cutups.
“I think it kind of keys and highlights everything that we’re so good at,” George said. “Put ‘Melo at the elbow, and he screens for me coming off, where I like to get movement, and pretty good off of movement. If they switch that, ‘Melo’s got a small on him, and I’ve got a big chasing me. Then you’ve got the pick and roll with Russ and ‘Melo. How do you guard that? It’s good that all three of us is in the action. Teams are going to have to figure out what they want to give up, or how they’re going to guard that.”
OKC, though, is far from a finished product. The Thunder added Patrick Patterson from Toronto and Ray Felton from the Clippers to bolster its bench, but Patterson is struggling shooting so far (his .366 clip entering play Sunday would be the lowest of his seven-year career by far), and there’s no proven size in reserve. The Clippers showed what damage a potential playoff opponent could do to the Thunder defensively, when DeAndre Jordan bludgeoned the Thunder inside off of every switch that resulted with Anthony on him.
There aren’t many playoff teams out West that could do that to Oklahoma City inside, but there are a couple — San Antonio and New Orleans come to mind. Plus, who is guarding Kevin Durant in a potential seven-gamer if the Thunder play Golden State? One would guess that that player or players may not yet be on the current Thunder roster.
“It’s going to be tough,” George said of a potential playoff run in the West. “They’ve got star players like we’ve got star players. That’s not the part. I’m not really worried. I like what we’ve got in this locker room. We’ve shown that we can beat them if we play at a high level. It’s just going to come down to us having to do it over a series. But I like our chances.”
Presti has made an in-season deal in each of the last four years. The goal was of course to improve the team, but it was also to send a message to Westbrook — and, then, Durant: we’re never going to stand pat and we’re going to try and get you help. Sometimes it worked — oft-vilified James Harden trade in 2012 brought OKC the Draft pick that became Adams in 2013 — and sometimes it didn’t (see Kevin Martin, Dion Waiters, etc.). But the willingness to take chances helps with George; he was impressed that the Thunder had the guts to go get him in the first place, knowing the circumstances and potential blowup in the franchise’s face.
George was impressed when owner Clay Bennett sent his private jet to pick him up for the introductory press conference in Oklahoma City. He was impressed when the staff knew the names of his family members. He’s been impressed by the strong relationship that he’s already forged with Presti and the front office. He knows Donnie Strack, the Thunder’s Director of Medical Services, who grew up literally as a ball boy in the Pacers’ organization and whose relationships and work with Pacers greats like Reggie Miller was the stuff of legend in Indy.
It would be silly for George to tip his hand when he hasn’t seen all his cards yet. Any combo of Banana Boat riders and him would be formidable anywhere, and the pull of Los Angeles is strong throughout the league. But the Thunder aren’t folding, either. OKC has Westbrook, and it has Anthony, and it has George’s Bird Rights, and that’s way more than almost anybody else is showing at the moment.
“Of course, I keep saying L.A. is home, so it’s always going to be a destination,” George said. “But again, I’ll be stupid if we make the conference finals, or we go neck and neck with the Warriors, and this being our first year together, I’d be stupid to walk away from that.”
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