“It’s finally over.”
That was my first thought as a Knicks fan when Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder a few days ago. Don’t get me wrong, Anthony was the best player to call Madison Square Garden home since Patrick Ewing, but it never really worked in New York. The Knicks repeatedly failed to build a competitive roster around Anthony, and the situation had grown increasingly sour. Six seasons after trading for Anthony, the Knicks were still one of the worst franchises in the NBA. The Carmelo Anthony era in New York has come to a merciful end.
Once the Knicks fan part of my brain had processed the trade, the NBA fan part kicked in. What does Anthony in Oklahoma City mean for the NBA this season?
The Thunder can now be considered a “super team.” With Anthony joining reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and recently acquired Paul George, OKC now has three top 30 players. What we need to figure out now is just how super can this team be?
Super teams have existed in the NBA much longer than many like to admit. Just look at the rosters of the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s if you believe the super team is a new phenomenon. The league became intrigued by the “Big Three” model when the 2008 Boston Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce. The “super team” label became a routine part of NBA debates following LeBron James’ infamous decision to take his talents to South Beach and join up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Many other organizations have attempted something like this in recent years (such as the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers) to varying degrees of success. Multiple All Stars is a great idea, but their success also depends on how those stars blend together.
For the Thunder to gel this season and be a legitimate contender in the West, they’ll need to find a way to seamlessly intertwine the styles of their new Big Three. The easiest part of this will likely be Paul George. George is a rare dominant player who doesn’t need to be ball dominant. He can quietly get 25 points while also playing stellar defense. The most difficult part will be how Carmelo Anthony accepts his new role.
Russell Westbrook is the reigning MVP and the Thunder are without question his team. Anthony, now 33 years old, is not the player he once was. Anthony has also never been on a team where he is not the focal point of the offense. In OKC, Anthony will be asked to be a second or at times even third option, which is a completely new situation for him. It is also likely that coach Billy Donovan chooses to start Anthony at power forward (which he should), which will be another adjustment. Anthony’s transition to his new circumstances may be the hardest thing for the Thunder to figure out.
Westbrook falls somewhere in the middle. After averaging a triple-double last year and having to do everything to give OKC a chance, he should welcome the reinforcements. OKC really didn’t have anyone who could score consistently besides Westbrook and Enes Kanter, who was was part of the Anthony trade. The firepower of George and Anthony should take a lot of pressure off Westbrook. On the other hand, how willing will he be to relinquish control? Remember, Westbrook and Kevin Durant had their fair share of issues coexisting when they were together. If any of those types of issues arise with George and Anthony, this team could be a highly talented train wreck.
The biggest concern however, has nothing to do with any of these players individually, but rather how they are utilized. Under Scott Brooks and then Billy Donovan, the Thunder have severely lacked creativity offensively. Their offensive system when Durant was there seemed to boil down to them getting the ball into his or Westbrook’s hands and letting them play isolation basketball. When Durant got to Golden State, Steve Kerr had to teach him to keep moving on offense if he didn’t get the ball in the first few seconds of a possession. That system (or lack thereof) cannot continue for OKC to have any chance of working. If they try to play a series of isolation plays for their three stars, they will be woefully outmatched by teams like Golden State and San Antonio.
The current benchmark for the super team is of course, Golden State. Yes, the combination of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green is tremendous. But what makes them great is not simply the talent, but the offensive system Steve Kerr puts that talent in. Shots come easy for the Warriors. When you combine easy shots with great shooters, you get wins. Oklahoma City is now very talented, and it will be up to Billy Donovan to maximize that talent. This team will win a lot of games with Westbrook, George and Anthony. Whether or not they can actually compete with Golden State depends on whether they become a talented team, rather than a team with three supreme talents.
Give the Thunder credit for their aggressiveness. Westbrook needed help so they got Paul George. Instead of being content with that, they went out and got Anthony. What’s interesting is the fact that it is very possible that none of the three are on the roster to start the 2018 season. If the Thunder go down, they’re going to go down swinging.