How the Thunder and Rockets raged against the inevitable

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As someone who writes about the NBA, I typically get asked the same question whenever I’m out with friends or family, “Is there any chance the Warriors don’t win the title this year?”

The answer I always give is, “sure, anything can happen, but Golden State is a very heavy favorite.” 

It was fun watching teams in the West scramble to put together a roster that can at least compete with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant,  and company. The Rockets now have Chris Paul, and the Thunder added both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and while the offseason exploits of both these teams made for interesting conversation, it did not change the landscape of the league in a meaningful way. Which is to say, this is now, and for the foreseeable future, the Warriors time to dominate. 

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The thinking behind the Rocket’s move to get Chris Paul is sound. The Rockets needed another star to be truly competitive at a championship level, someone who could lighten the playmaking burden on James Harden. Paul is one of the best playmakers this league has ever seen. The 32-year-old point guard has been evolving his game, last he boasted his best true shooting percentage of his career while taking almost 39% of his shots from beyond the three-point line. It’s almost as if he was preparing himself for a transition to Houston’s three-point addicted offense. 

This is what Rocket's Head Coach Mike D’Antoni had to say when asked about how the Paul-Harden fit:

There'll be a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor at all times for 48 minutes—that's good. And then they're really good off the ball also. Chris Paul is one of the better shooters in the league; James has played off the ball his whole career and was runner-up for MVP off the ball ... I don't see that much of a problem.

It’s going to take a while, Paul, and Harden, to work out a dynamic when they are both on the court. Harden really blossomed last year when he was handed the reigns to the Rocket’s dynamic, read heavy offense, and Chris Paul has made a hall of fame career out of being a hyper-efficient ball hog. So what gives? The easiest way to get around this problem is two stagger the two stars minutes whenever possible. Paul only played 31 minutes a game last season, and I doubt that number will go up in Houston. 

The interesting questions I have about this Rockets team is what happens when they are in the fourth quarter of close games and have to make plays in the halfcourt? How much leeway does Chris Paul have to work the pick and roll, and shoot midrange jumpers in an offense that detests any shot not taken at the rim or behind the three-point line? We know how incredibly efficient the Rockets can be with James Harden at the controls, what happens to Harden’s game when he has to play 25-50% of his offensive possessions off of the ball? He was certainly effective playing off of the ball in Oklahoma City, feasting on open three-pointers and clear slashing lanes, but he is a completely different player now, remade in D’Antoni’s image. 

I don’t doubt that the Rockets will win a ton of regular season games with this roster. You have to give credit to Rockets GM Daryl Morey for going out and finding highly skilled athletes like Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker, who can defend and hit open shots. These are the kinds of players you need if you want to compete with the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Houston’s roster has the best mix of athleticism and shot making ability outside of Golden State. I just don’t see a five-man lineup that can compete with the Warriors death lineup of Steph, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. If the Rockets try to play small with a lineup of Paul, Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, they get torched on defense. If they take out Anderson, who is an amazing shooter at 6-10, for a guy like Clint Capela or Nene Hilario, all of a sudden they lack the firepower necessary to push Golden State’s swarming defense to its breaking point. 

I’m highly interested in following this team throughout the year to see how the Paul-Harden dynamic morphs with time. How many games will take for Chris Paul to snap at Harden for taking defensive possessions off here and there, and when, if ever, do we start hearing locker room chatter about Harden not being happy with how much Paul pounds the ball on offense? It’s in Chris Paul’s interest to take a backseat to Harden at this point in his career if the Hall of Famer ever wants to make a Western Conference finals. This team certainly has the talent to make it to a showdown with Golden State, but if things fall apart during the season, it will be interesting to see if Chris Paul becomes a trade chip. Paul is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and I think the only way he sticks around in Houston is if he thinks the team stands a reasonable shot at winning a title. Daryl Morey finally landed the second superstar he has always coveted, now the real test is seeing how long he can keep that player around. 

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Speaking of teams that were desperate to keep their superstar player on the roster, congratulations to everyone associated with the Oklahoma City Thunder for not losing two future Hall of Famers in three years! When Kevin Durant decided to leave OKC last summer, a lot of people around the league assumed that Russell Westbrook would at least test the free agency waters in 2019. Westbrook is coming off one of the most dominant statistical seasons in NBA history, averaging a triple-double while leading the league in scoring, and basically single-handedly dragging the Thunder to the playoffs. For his efforts Westbrook was not only rewarded financially, to the tune of a 5-yr/$205 million max extension, but his GM Sam Presti also went out and pulled off a double coup in trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second-round draft pick. 

There has been plenty of ink spilled on the subject of whether or not Sam Presti is a good GM. He is the same guy who had the foresight to draft Durant, Westbrook and Harden, but he’s also the guy who let Harden go over a few million dollars. A lot of people blame Presti’s moves, or lack thereof, with Durant leaving, but he also essentially turned Serge Ibaka and some spare NBA parts, into two of the league's best players. It’s been quite a career for a GM who is only 41 years old. His legacy will be further shaped by what happens this season. 

There may not have been a more important offseason move than the Thunder acquiring Paul George, a 6-9 small forward who plays incredible defense, is a career 37% three-point shooter and does back down when going up against the best players in the league. After a horrifying knee injury suffered while playing in a Team USA exhibition game, some questioned whether or not George would ever be the same player. In the two full seasons he’s played since the injury he has posted career-high numbers in scoring and true-shooting percentage. He belongs in the conversation of best two players in the game with Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. 

The other blockbuster trade the Thunder made this offseason did not garner such rave reviews. There’s no question that going out and getting a scorer like Carmelo Anthony makes your team better. Coming into his 14th season, Anthony may not be the apex predator he once was, but the 12-time All-Star was still able to score 22 points a game playing for a dreadful Knicks team. At 6-8 Melo has the size and post up game to play the four for the Thunder, creating almost impossible matchup scenarios for any opposing defense. The number of easy baskets OKC will get off of a Westbrook/Anthony, 1-4, pick and roll seems almost endless. 

As good as a Westbrook/George/Anthony lineup looks on paper, there are some real questions the team is going to have to address when it comes to playing the league's best teams. The biggest question has to be how the team deals with ball distribution, or who gets the ball when the game is on the line? How easily will Russell Westbrook be able to switch out of do-everything, triple-double machine, and how willing will he be to defer to George or Anthony when the occasion calls for it? There was speculation that Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, at least in part, because of Westbrook’s poor decision making. We know Westbrook can rack up numbers in every statistical category but can be the playmaker his team needs to win a championship? 

One of the most fun asides of this summer in the NBA was watching Melo play pick-up ball in a hoodie. Anthony has always had a flair for dramatic headwear, but “hoodie Melo” became one of the offseason top memes. Come these playoffs, everyone will once again be talking about Anthony, who has spent the last handful of seasons in relative hoops obscurity and will be interesting to see how Melo adjusts to being back in the spotlight. One of the big knocks on Anthony over the years is that he was not willing to do what it took to be a championship caliber player and that he was happy to just get his, whether it be points or cash. For the Thunder to be championship caliber Anthony is going to have to play a lot of minutes at power forward, something that he has bristled at in the past. When playing a team like Golden State, power forward is the only position that makes sense for Anthony. He is not fast enough to keep up with the Warriors perimeter players, and his best chance at exploiting opposing defenses is by playing small ball. 

There’s an argument to be made for Anthony coming off of the bench, but it’s almost impossible for Thunder Coach Billy Donovan to even ask that of the six-time All NBA forward, no matter how devastating Melo would be going up against second units. If by some chance this does happen though, it not only lightens the load of both Westbrook and George, it also naturally resolves some of the logistical issues of the Thunders offense. 

No matter who starts for OKC, the minutes will have to be divided up in a way that at least one of their big three can be on the court to bolster the team’s second unit. If there is a fatal flaw with this squad it is almost certainly its lack of depth, especially with Patrick Peterson starting the year recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. The Thunder have no playmakers outside of their starting five, and even have some serious question marks in the starting rotation. The lineup that matches up best defensively with Golden State is Westbrook, Andre Roberson, George, Anthony and Steven Adams, but Roberson is such a terrible shooter that other teams often opt to not even guard him on offense. This allows Golden State to basically rest Stephen Curry on defense, having him play a kind of zone coverage on defense while maximizing his offensive minutes. If you take Roberson out of the rotation, you lose one of the best defenders in the league and a vital piece in solving the Warriors from a defensive standpoint. 

While I think the Rockets could win more games in the regular season due to their depth and offensive philosophy, I think it’s the Thunder that poses the biggest challenge to Golden State. Unlike the Rockets, who have two of the league's best players who unfortunately play the same position, I think the Thunder have a chance to be much more dynamic on offense. If Paul George can take a page out of Klay Thompson’s offensive handbook, and feast on the scraps that Westbrook and Anthony throw his way, he could become the league’s most efficient player. He also becomes a cornerstone defensive player who can guard everyone from Kevin Durant to Kawhi Leonard. Adding Anthony to the lineup gives them another player who can score when offenses bog down in the playoffs, someone who is not afraid of taking the big shot when the game is on the line. You add these two weapons to a team that already features the most athletically imposing point guard to ever play the game, and who knows what could happen in a seven-game series.  

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Maybe the biggest compliment you can give to the 2018 Golden State Warriors is that they forced the league to make the most dramatic year-to-year transition in its history, and yet, impossibly, be the overwhelming favorite to win the title. There are detractors who say that the Warriors have made the league less interesting with their dominance, but would teams be making these kinds of moves had Kevin Durant stayed in Oklahoma City two years ago? This NBA Season is like going to see a great action film, sure you probably know how it’s going to end, but what happens in the interim will be so dazzling you won’t have time to care about the inevitable outcome. Don’t try to overthink what is going to happen this season, just sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.