Oklahoma City Thunder's star triumvirate embrace new roles to foster friendship, success
Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George are trying to change their games this season
OKLAHOMA CITY — A comfort zone is an insular place, a safe spot meant to agree with our desires, and any departure is sure to be brief and only if necessary. And so, Russell Westbrook found himself fidgety on a fishing boat with Paul George. This very important story about sacrifice and bro bonding starts there.
George is at peace with a vest, tackle box and a rod. This would probably be his day job if only he could make $25 million a year reeling bass. As a kid, he became hooked on the catch-and-release almost as quickly as the catch-and-shoot jumper. George and his father were a duo until the neighborhood kids joined in, to the point where the son borrowed a line from “Jaws” and suggested they’re gonna need a bigger boat.
“One reason why I love fishing with my father,” said George, “is because it’s a way to get to know one another better. Just us on a lake together.”
Westbrook is a feet-on-the-soil guy himself, who wasn’t raised in the LA suburbs like George, but inside the city where — contrary to the NBA team he worshipped as a kid — there are no lakes. Westbrook’s game away from the game is poker, and he is seriously good at it, according to industry types, which is odd for someone who gives anything but a stone face after one of his volcanic tomahawk dunks.
But on this day, his first with a pole and bait, Westbrook took one for the team, for the sake of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And while he was pleasant enough company, George sized him up quickly.
“It doesn’t fit Russ, you know?” said George. “I don’t think Russ can fake that. He’s not a fisherman. It’s just not his thing.”
It didn’t matter. This boat trip late last summer had a purpose and reason and so Westbrook was totally on board, so to speak.
“I’ve never been fishing before so, you know, it’s always a good thing to build a team bond and figure out what other guys like to do,” Westbrook said. “Obviously Paul likes fishing, so that’s what we did. We might go again.”
And what did you catch?
“Nothing,” said Westbrook.
Then the hyper-competitive Westbrook was quick to add: “He didn’t either.”
Some assembly required
And where was the third member of this collection of future Hall of Famers pasted together last summer to send a shiver from here to the Bay Area? Contrary to the somewhat faulty perception of the NBA’s fourth-leading active scorer, Carmelo Anthony did pass. He was busy transitioning from New York to OKC (speaking of tricky exits from one’s comfort zone).
While the brotherhood was off to a curious start, here’s an update: Westbrook, George and Anthony are hard at work getting their act together with the Thunder, emphasis on together.
“Those two guys,” said Westbrook, who has warmed up quickly to the newcomers, “are making it easier for everyone.”
If anything during the first month of the NBA season, Westbrook, George and Anthony have been too sensitive about stepping on toes and egos. This is understandable given the mutual respect and the collective determination to make this situation succeed because of the somewhat dire circumstances.
Unlike other assembled super teams, the Thunder lack the luxury of time. The whole experiment can blow up next summer from free agency. Therefore, they’d rather go atomic this season — just in case. There’s lots on the line and little on the clock, given the urgency and the reputations of three stars who’ve earned everything except an NBA championship.
We all know what each individual can and can’t do on the court. I know how special Russ is, how special ‘Melo is. As much as they’re scorers, they’re also playmakers.”
Paul George, on his new teammates
To chug champagne next June, they’ll need good health and maybe a witch doctor to hex the Golden State Warriors. Those are beyond their control. What’s within their grasp is how well, and quickly, they mesh and give themselves a chance come springtime. Westbrook, Anthony and George are three lead singers who need to be a barbershop triplet and harmonize the right verse.
They insist this will not be an issue.
“We all know what each individual can and can’t do on the court,” said George. “I know how special Russ is, how special ‘Melo is. As much as they’re scorers, they’re also playmakers. They’re going to get us the shot. There’s no awkward moments, no, ‘Hey, I was open.’ We all know when the other’s open and we try to make the best play, regardless of who makes it.”
That OKC is 7-9 despite ranking No. 3 in Defensive Rating is a mild irritant, a necessarily rocky ritual that others (see LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat) also experienced at the start while folks screamed red alert. The OKC Three do need to polish their clutch chemistry as the Thunder are 0-4 in games decided by five points or less.
When this formula gets right, the specs could be scary as this group unites the reigning Kia MVP (Westbrook), an unselfish two-way star (George) and a lethal isolation scorer (Anthony), all still in different stages of their prime. Plus, OKC won 48 games in 2016-17 with only Westbrook at the controls.
Westbrook’s new burden
Undoubtedly, much of the burden rests with Westbrook. This remains his team, his town and he’s the only one guaranteed to return next season after inking a five-year extension. How chilly would that be if he’s on an island without Anthony, who can opt-out of his contract, and George, who’s an unrestricted free agent?
Westbrook needs to shatter a prickly perception that he’s partly the reason Kevin Durant fled two summers ago for Golden State. Whether that’s true or not, the idea of Westbrook using this season with Anthony and George to emphasize how good a teammate he is for anyone — and especially for a fellow All-Star or two — doesn’t seem far-fetched.
He’s making room for two additional stars, giving shots, minutes, spotlight, anything to win and keep the red carpet unfurled for them. To date, Westbrook’s scoring average (19.9 points per game) in 2017-18 is down 11.7 points per game from his 31.6 ppg in 2016-17.
They’re great players. My job is to make sure they’re comfortable in their spots and comfortable doing things that best benefits their game.”
“Russ is our leader,” George said. “He wants to make sure everybody is comfortable and on board, been that way since the day I stepped on the floor with him. It was, ‘What can I do for you?’ He’s a true point guard in terms of wanting everyone around him to feel connected and be a part of something.”
Westbrook remains hot-wired and locked in pit-bull mode. Yet, he has never been more accommodating than now, unlike last season when he historically dropped triple-doubles (almost out of necessity in that first year without Durant). It’s little things, like Westbrook not being the last Thunder starter introduced during games (an honor usually reserved for the franchise player).
“That’s a part of my job, to make sure those guys can come here and be themselves,” Westbrook said. “They’re great players. My job is to make sure they’re comfortable in their spots and comfortable doing things that best benefits their game. They’ll look at me and I’ll give them the look that tells them to shoot it.
“It’s a process and a long season and we’re figuring out what works best and where guys like the ball. We’re getting a better sense of that now. We’re not worried about who shoots what and when. Whoever has it going that’s where the ball’s going. The game will tell you what to do.”
Westbrook’s efficiency is suffering as a result. He’s shooting a career-worst 39.4 percent, perhaps because he doesn’t dominate the ball as much.
Donovan, Anthony face tall task
This whole process starts with Thunder coach Billy Donovan. To him, this is a collaboration, which shows how much respect Donovan has for his three stars who have earned the right to audible.
“I’ve had the most experience with Russell with that and he has been phenomenal,” Donovan said. “There are times things he sees matchup wise he feels he can exploit and that’s fine. If Paul’s got something and has the ability to put the ball on the floor and create, I’m not going to say, ‘No, you can’t do that’ cause he’s great at it, same with Carmelo.
“There’s a balance to that as a coach. I don’t think you can let them do that all the time, and I also don’t think you can’t not let them do that none of the time because those guys are special players. You can’t box them into a system where their own individual talent can’t flourish.”
Anthony finds the Thunder a refreshing change from the dysfunction he wallowed in the last few seasons with the New York Knicks. Still, it wasn’t an easy departure because Anthony, despite it all, loved playing in New York. He connected with the culture, the tabloids, the demands and the trappings — and the city loved him back.
But the Knicks also took the best years of his career and never leveraged that into a championship or even sustained respectability. Anthony is done blaming ex-team president Phil Jackson and the insistence on the triangle offense for those shortcomings — although others won’t surrender so easy. His college coach and confidant, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, still burns.
“Carmelo was professional about it — unlike other people — and played as good as he could play in that system,” said Boeheim. “The coach (Jeff Hornacek) wasn’t allowed to coach. It’s different when you watch the Knicks play this year because they actually run plays. You got to let the coach coach the team his way. Mike Krzyzewski is a good coach and even he couldn’t go to New York and coach the triangle.”
When the trade went down, Boeheim dialed Donovan and told the former college coaching rival that Anthony, who agreed to play power forward, would blend well with Westbrook and George. Boehiem was an assistant coach on Krzyzewski’s USA Basketball team staff and said there’s no downside, no peril to putting together stars.
“We had guys who try to score: [James] Harden, [Kyrie] Irving, Durant, LeBron [James], all on the court on the same time. They work through that. Having good players is a good thing. It’s never a bad thing, never a problem. You gotta have two or three who can score if you gonna win a championship.”
We all talk, the communication is very high. We pick our spots. I let Russ do what he has to do to get himself going, same with Paul.”
Donovan had a collegiate Dream Team on those Florida squads that won back-to-back titles in 2006 and ’07. He also had experience with Westbrook and KD, and had no qualms about Anthony.
“I’ve always tried to take an approach that regardless what happened in the past with anybody, you build a relationship with that person,” said Donovan. “He’s one of the greatest scorers but there’s so much more to the game. He’s had a real strong mentality going into camp, trying to be better and put himself in position to make other guys better. Those are the things that stood out to me since he’s been here.”
Anthony is leaning on his vast Team USA experience to recall how to connect with teammates who are his equal or better. Admittedly, though, the dynamic is a bit different with only three big names instead of 12.
“We’re building a trust level,” he said. “On the USA team we’re all just out there. Here, you see things a bit different differently. We all talk, the communication is very high. We pick our spots. I let Russ do what he has to do to get himself going, same with Paul.”
Anthony is aware of both his basketball biological clock and the outside whispers that he can’t (or won’t) supply enough defense or intangibles to make a difference … and he scoffs at that. He agrees, though, that this is his best chance at a ring.
Reminded that he can escape his contract next summer (though he’d have to blowtorch $28 million for ‘18-19), he says something that hints toward the future:
“We’re just getting started here.”
George in transition, too
George has influenced OKC’s suddenly-sturdy defense while shooting 41 percent on 3-pointers shooting to maintain his rep as a two-way weapon. He’s the most efficient scorer of the three — his True Shooting percentage (56.7) edges Anthony (53.6) and Westbrook (48.7) — and his breezy personality hardly dominates the locker room.
He’s respectfully deferential to Westbrook. At the season’s low point — a road loss to Denver that gave OKC its fourth straight loss – George saddled up next to Westbrook following a team meeting.
“I asked him what he wanted from me. Then I did what he asked of me. I’ve been aggressive and looked for my shot. There’s no more guessing,” George said. “At the beginning of the season everything was so new. I felt like a rookie again.”
Westbrook said: “When he plays aggressive and plays his game he’s capable of doing it every single night and we’re encouraging him to do that each and every game. He’s a guy who wants to win, sacrifice what he needs to help us to make sure we’re a good team.”
I’m ready, Russ is ready and ‘Melo too. Outside of us, we’ve got guys who bring great depth. I don’t think we’re that far off. … We’re poised to win a title.”
Because he’s not the volume scorer Westbrook and Anthony are by nature, this transition has been relatively pain-free for George. Still, he must learn his cue during crunch time like the rest.
“I’m ready, Russ is ready and ‘Melo too. Outside of us, we’ve got guys who bring great depth. I don’t think we’re that far off. We’ve made steps in the right direction, like becoming a better defensive team. We’re poised to win a title.”
Some folks in Oakland might respond to George’s claims with: Oh, really? When Warriors forward Draymond Green saw OKC and Houston adding stars last summer, he told GQ “everybody is just in a [expletive] panic about what to do” and that “they know they don’t stand a chance.”
To that, George retorts, “Draymond’s always going to look for attention. I wouldn’t expect anything else. But teams are going to look to get better. And they understand what the Warriors are doing with multiple stars on the court.”
The big question about George, 27, is his future; raise your hand if you have him pegged for a homecoming next fall with the Lakers. Understand this, though: George isn’t the big-city guy you think he is (he fishes, remember).
“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been happy,” George said. “And I’m happy.”
Like Anthony, George planted roots in OKC with a charity event; Anthony fed the hungry while George held a (what else) fishing outing with 45 OKC public school kids, to get them outdoors and away from video games. As he did with Westbrook, George had to convert the neophytes and show them what they’re missing.
“For a lot of the kids it wasn’t just their first time fishing, it was their first time on a boat,” said George. “They were scared. They were all hugging up on me and holding me tight, to the point where I thought, man, if I go down, we’re all going down.”
Now that introductions are finally behind them, OKC is anxious to see what’s about to go down with this trio.
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