You will not be surprised to learn that the Sacramento Kings—a team with five rookies in the rotation and 10 players on rookie deals on the roster—set a record for first-half offensive futility against the Oklahoma City Thunder last night and farted up 23 turnovers. After all, the Thunder are led by a trio of superstars and a burly Kiwi center, and when they leaped out to a 15-point lead after a quarter and held Kings starters scoreless for almost the entire first half, it seemed that they were on their way to an easy blowout win.
Instead, OKC were down by halftime and wound up losing their third straight game. They’re now 4-6, just a half-game ahead of the Suns (yes, those Suns) and a half-game behind the Jazz. If this full-throttle Thunder season is a year-long exercise in shuffling the proper amount of cooks into a five-man kitchen, as was an achingly obvious potential pitfall once they traded for Carmelo Anthony, then last night showed that they still have a good ways to go. The pieces do not yet fit.
Anthony, Russell Westbrook, and Paul George combined for 15-of-54 shooting last night, and Anthony easily had the worst game of the three. His minus-21 was a game-low and he looked utterly uncomfortable for the duration of his 34 minutes, in which he had 16 points on 17 shots and was outplayed by spindly rookie Justin Jackson. When he wasn’t getting D’d up by Jackson (or for one possession by teeny-tiny rookie De’Aaron Fox, who is 75 pounds lighter than Melo), he was missing jumpers in isolation and sulking at the closest referee. Billy Donovan has smartly staggered his stars in a way Scott Brooks never did, although feeding Melo the same steady and corrosive diet of one-on-one shots is still as inefficient with the Thunder as it was with the Knicks. The only difference is, those shots matter now, since the Thunder have actual ambitions.
Melo picked up a frustration technical after getting stifled by the Kings rookie point guard and it’s a wonder it took him that long to get penalized.
Melo is one of the squarest pegs in the league, as is his compatriot and point guard, Russell Westbrook. Anthony will need some time to shake the hero ball habits he picked up in his farcical time with the Knicks, and even though his team made the playoffs last year, Westbrook seems like he’ll also need to course-correct after a 2016-17 season spent taking every shot, stealing every rebound, and treating every single possession like a diss track on Kevin Durant and a nation of doubters.
Put simply, Russ knows he needs to chill. He’s curtailed his usage rate from 41.7 percent to 31.7, though, in practice, that hasn’t made for cohesive basketball. He’s sharing the ball more but it feels more like a your-turn, my-turn situation than a truly democratic offense. The Thunder offense (rated 19th in the league) comes off as a discrete series of jumpers and drives rather than an active effort to find the best possible shot on every possession. They make the fewest passes per game in the NBA, and late-game Westbrook still loves to hoist running three-pointers like he did last season when he was trying to punch a crater into the surface of the Earth each time he touched the ball.
The Kings may be bad, but they’re the sort of bad team that can expose the flaws of a team that’s less than settled. Sacramento is led by a feisty group of youngsters, and since they regularly play lineups with three rookies, they lose a lot. But since they regularly play lineups with three rookies, they also play with energy and verve every time out. Fox is already among the fastest players in the NBA, and his sense for the game is obvious. Buddy Hield (who is debatably butt) dropped 15 in the first half and along with Jackson and Bogdanovic helps the Kings space the floor in a way they never could with DeMarcus Cousins in the fold. Neither Skal Labissiere nor Willie Cauley-Stein really get it yet, but that was fine last night, since Zach Randolph looked imperious and altogether too much for Steven Adams to handle. Here’s a pu pu platter of highlights.
For all that bluster, the Thunder still should have won the game, and they knew it. Afterwards, they were very clear that they were still working out the kinks:
“We have a whole year to figure it out,” George said. “We can’t really try to rush this. It’s something that’s step-by-step, day-by-day, [and], at this point, game-by-game.
“We’ve got to slowly get on the same page.”
“It’s always tough in the moment,” Anthony said. “That’s the challenging part.
“If you could not just kinda think about the moment and think about the big picture, then you’ll be okay.”
“I’m not worried,” said Westbrook, “I love nights like this. It does nothing but bring you closer — as a unit, as brothers. I’m encouraged by the group of guys we have in that room, and I will be better. Like I said before, I take ownership of how we’re playing, and I will be better. We will be better, so I’m not worried.”
Superteams always have an adjustment period, as the 9-8 start that the LeBron Heat got off to in their first year together showed. Westbrook and pals still have 72 games worth of runway to optimize their setup and decalcify the bad habits that took root last year. The good news is, a Thunder team taking full advantage of their talents probably doesn’t look too different from the version we’re seeing now.
For all his maddening iso play, Melo has happily defended starting PFs and done a good job of it. The Thunder are playing good defense and Adams has never looked better or burlier than he does at the eye of this particular storm. During the first half of their recent comeback loss to Boston, OKC was playing like the best possible version of themselves, alternating the rock between whoever had the hot hand and moving the ball liberally. It seems like an overly simplistic fix but the Thunder just need to work for better shots, which means passing more. As a team, they have so many ways to score, and utilizing them is probably a matter of time together more than anything. Melo likes to get the ball in spots that the Westbrook-only version of the Thunder offense eschews.
They’ll be fine, and the only real worry is that the entire experiment collapses under the heft of the egos involved. Given their quotes after the horrible loss last night and the pent-up frustration George and Anthony felt with their last teams, there’s reason to believe that it won’t get much worse than this.