Paul George’s Welcome Party Is Over in OKC

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The Thunder pulled out all of the stops after they traded for Paul George in June, throwing the All-Star ahead a lavish welcome get together with one eye on the playoffs and the opposite on his 2018 free company. That particularly heat embrace was step one of a shrewd and self-aware retention technique, one designed to border the Thunder as a household that cares, not merely a brand-building platform. What Oklahoma City would possibly lack in nightlife or glamour, the pitch went, it makes up for with all the pieces a star might wishes: a profitable atmosphere, an MVP captain in Russell Westbrook, a confirmed GM in Sam Presti, a low-key possession group, and an ultra-pbadionate fan base.

Three weeks in, George has each proper to wonder if the Thunder will be capable to ship on their imaginative and prescient.

Put apart Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas, each of whom are sidelined with accidents, and George has endured the rockiest begin to 2017-18 of any outstanding star traded this calendar yr. Unlike Kyrie Irving, he hasn’t loved a profile increase because the face of a franchise. Unlike Jimmy Butler, his particular person sacrifices haven’t led to instant staff success. And not like DeMarcus Cousins, he hasn’t even been in place to put up loopy numbers.

Acclaim? Nope. Winning? Not but. Stats? Not actually. Remember, George is a 27-year-old scoring ahead with a signature shoe, a sports activities drink industrial, and a primary date with unrestricted free company in simply eight months. Under regular circumstances, he needs to be peaking on all fronts.

The story in Oklahoma City up to now has been certainly one of regression, quite than ascension. George has been squeezed on each side by Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, left with that trio’s third-highest utilization price. Compared to final yr, George’s scoring is down, his pictures are down, and his badists are down. Meanwhile, his touches, time of possession and free-throw makes an attempt are all approach down.

To make issues worse, he doesn’t have a lot to indicate for that narrowing position: His taking pictures effectivity has fallen general, Oklahoma City’s star-studded headliners haven’t actually clicked, and he’s largely been a crunch-time bystander because the Thunder have compiled an Zero-6 document in shut video games. If voting had been performed right now, George could be left off the West’s All-Star staff and he could be on the surface trying in on the All-NBA dialog.

Playing with a high-level level guard for the primary time in his profession ought to theoretically be a godsend. Instead, the badociation has typically left George trying like an afterthought. As Oklahoma City fell to Portland, Sacramento and Denver in succession this week, George shot simply three of 10 mixed within the fourth quarter. In 23 minutes of clutch play this season, George has tried simply eight pictures to Westbrook’s 18. It’s tough to build up sufficient footage to movie a Gatorade industrial once you solely get to shoot as soon as each three minutes with the sport on the road.

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To George’s credit score, he’s but to boost a fuss, in distinction to his loud squawking in Indiana over his late-game position throughout the 2017 playoffs. Following an unsightly loss to the Kings earlier this week, he diplomatically said that the Thunder “have a whole year to figure it out.” He’s additionally finished very nicely to make his presence felt defensively, main the NBA in each steals and deflections.

Preaching endurance is normal working process for any staff in early November, a lot much less one making an attempt to rapidly merge three alphas who share an inclination to shoot to a lot. But there are crimson flags aplenty in Oklahoma City’s early physique of labor, beginning with the mediocre play of the Westbrook/George/Anthony trio.

Oklahoma City’s new Big three has posted a -Zero.7 internet score by 11 video games. Aside from bad the Bucks and a pleasant first-half towards the Celtics, the Thunder have but to display the flexibility to type an entire larger than the sum of its components towards a high quality opponent.

This is especially ominous as a result of Presti sacrificed his already restricted depth to ambad George and Anthony, buying and selling away 4 rotation gamers (Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott) for the promise of two stars. The end result has been a top-heavy roster whose high merely isn’t pulling sufficient weight in comparison with current comparability factors. Last yr, the Westbrook/Oladipo/Steven Adams trio posted a +6.7 internet score. The yr earlier than, Westbrook/Kevin Durant/Serge Ibaka performed at a championship-caliber +12.three internet score.

There isn’t a easy repair to make OKC’s Big three hum. Westbrook’s personal scoring and utilization are down sharply this yr; He’s making an attempt, albeit very awkwardly, to clear room for his new sidekicks. Expecting the 33-year-old Anthony to dramatically rework his sport is a idiot’s errand. As per expectations, he’s been a succesful catch-and-shoot goal for Westbrook’s pbades and a persistent weak hyperlink on the defensive finish. That’s who he’s, whether or not or not he dons the legendary hooded sweatshirt.

All three of Oklahoma City’s stars are too keen to pound and settle, however they’re additionally inspired to revert to these unhealthy habits by lineups that function not less than one, and generally two, non-scoring threats. Too typically, a foul jumper by George or Anthony goes up as a result of it’s nonetheless a greater concept than a very good Andre Roberson jumper. There additionally isn’t a lot ball motion or systemic help to grease the skids, as Oklahoma City ranks useless final by making simply 256.2 pbades per sport. Playing Westbrook and Raymond Felton collectively would theoretically badist the Thunder’s stream, however doing so requires trade-offs on the defensive finish.

Speaking of protection, Oklahoma City’s calling card has become its Achilles heel in crunch time. The NBA’s second-ranked protection drops to useless final within the clutch, posting an abominable 162.1 defensive score within the final 5 minutes of video games determined by 5 or fewer factors. A chart evaluating Oklahoma City’s clutch protection to the opposite 29 groups appears to be like like a typographical error.

Why, precisely, does Oklahoma City’s protection flip right into a funnel when it issues? One persistent space of exploitation has been its lack of rim safety except for Adams. All 4 opponents throughout Oklahoma City’s present shedding streak have discovered success by pulling Adams away from the ring—both in excessive pick-and-rolls or just by deploying scoring large males above the elbow—in order that Anthony and wings like George and Andre Roberson had been left because the back-side defenders. That easy technique has led to a parade of lay-ups from cutters, a number of pressured fouls to forestall dunks, and high quality kick-out threes as soon as Oklahoma City’s protection collapses in panic.

In postseasons previous, Adams had Ibaka and Durant, gamers with vital size and shot-blocking potential, to supply cowl. The present Thunder haven’t any gamers becoming that invoice, least of all Anthony. This looms as a long-term concern on condition that Adams, as a conventional heart, isn’t ideally suited to masking stretch fives. On paper and up to now in follow, Oklahoma City’s most well-liked closing lineup contains each a middle who can’t at all times cowl distance rapidly sufficient to problem three-point shooters and an influence ahead who can’t contest pictures above the rim. That’s problematic.  

Oklahoma City’s clutch play, and particularly its clutch protection, will enhance as a result of there’s nowhere to go however up. Repetitions are essential for a staff with so many new items and new roles. It’s additionally cheap to anticipate that Westbrook will take his sport to a different degree, responding to the Thunder’s shedding streak by deferring much less and taking up a larger scoring burden. As final yr proved, his drive of will is usually a profitable formulation all by itself, not less than within the common season.

The downside there, although, is that whereas extra Westbrook may be higher for the Thunder, it most likely received’t be higher for George. A real return of kamikaze Westbrook would essentially come on the expense of George, Anthony or each. Meanwhile, it could take Oklahoma City even additional away from the Westbrook/George celebrity tandem picture that needed to be scrapped upon Anthony’s late-summer arrival.

Given the prospect of George’s impending free company and the huge luxurious tax funds required to maintain this core group collectively, Presti and firm are already on the level the place they should present main progress on the query that may outline the group’s subsequent chapter.

What can the Thunder do to enhance Paul George’s life? 

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