Eleven games into the season, amazingly, the Thunder's Big 3 of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George had all scored exactly 201 points -- George on 175 field goal attempts, Westbrook on 174 and Melo on 171. At that point, the Thunder were 4-7 and on the heels of a three-game losing streak that prompted the always-ominous "players only" meeting. There were plenty of on-court issues to be discussed, but surely such equal shot distribution among OKC's newly-formed Big 3 was one of the bright spots of an otherwise dim start to the season.
Or was it?
Before we discuss that thought, let's first note that while the Thunder certainly aren't in as good of shape as their top-five point differential would suggest and they're also not in as bad of shape as their. In truth, they're somewhere in the middle, more in need of a few tweaks than an overhaul, which brings us back to that shot distribution.
To suggest OKC's newly-formed triumvirate should be striving for such offensive equality is to imply that they are, in fact, equal offensive players, which isn't the case. You can argue about who the No. 2 option should be, though that will likely alternate from night to night, but the constant is that everything runs through Westbrook. He's the best player on a team with two other guys with a lifetime of enjoying that designation. He decides where the ball goes. So far, he's just not consistently making the right decisions, but when you look at the tape they're easy fixes. And it all starts with his going back to prioritizing his own scoring out of the pick-and-roll.
Notice I said out of the pick-and-roll. He doesn't need to prioritize his scoring all the time. I've watched every single one of Russ' shots this young season, and no doubt he's taking too many isolation, contested jumpers. Passing on those, even if he hits them at an acceptable rate, it''s never going to be a bad thing.
"That's the dry line for Russell," said David Thorpe, who was with ESPN for 10 years as an NBA analyst and has long been a consultant, personal coach and advisor to NBA teams and players. "Don't pass up the uncontested 12- or 15- or even 18-footer. Pass up the contested ones. It comes down to Russ making that simple decision, when to attack and when to throw it out to his future Hall of Fame teammates.
"It looks like right now he's really looking for those two guys at times," said Thorpe. "He doesn't want to lose them. He already lost Durant."
With that in mind, let's go to the first clip.
As Westbrook comes off the pick-and-roll, notice how he has a shot at the top of the key, a shot at the free-throw line, and a shot at the dotted line. If he's thinking score first, he takes one of those shots every time, which he should. He's unstoppable coming downhill off picks. That free-throw line jumper is almost free money because bigs have to sag for fear of his burst to the rim. But instead, he's thinking pass first. His first instinct is to locate George for a kick-out three before he's even determined if George is open, which he isn't. So now Westbrook is scrambled, and in that split second of indecision he goes from a wide-open, in-rhythm 12-15 footer to, well, this:
Here again, he has an open window at the extended elbow, but instead stalls out and kicks to Andre Roberson, a terrible shooter, in the corner. Russ never sees the ball again and the possession ends with a contested Anthony jumper as the shot clock is winding down.
You hear a lot about the NBA being a make-or-miss league, but that ignores the very important qualifier that you have to first be getting the right shots for that to be true. The right shot on this possession was the one Russ had early in the clock; the wrong one was the one Melo ended up with. Little decisions like this, when you add them up over the course of a game, is what it means to be a true floor general.
Now, compare those last two clips to Westbrook's decisiveness on this play:
Simple, right? The big drops, Russ pops. No hesitation. Here he does it again, this time from farther out:
Again, two dibbles, get the big on his heels, and rise. This is a shot Russ can and will hit over the long haul if he takes it in rhythm. But he has to be hunting his shot. It's not easy for a guy like Westbrook to incorporate two other stars without compromising his own aggression, but as the leader of a team with championship aspirations, not to mention, as Thorpe alluded to, a team that is basically conducting a season-long sales pitch for Anthony and George to re-sign this summer long-term, the burden is on him to capably navigate that fine line every night.
We saw the same thing last season with Stephen Curry and his own struggles to remain aggressive as he prioritized the integration of Kevin Durant and making sure he got his touches and shots. But Curry eventually went back to hunting his shot, which starts the chain reaction of ball movement with the first domino to fall being the extra defender he demands. Westbrook is going to demand roughly the same attention as Curry, if not as far from the basket, and when defenses do commit to him, that's when George feasts on shots like this:
That's when Melo gets this in-rhythm three:
Pay no mind to the fact that neither of these shots went in. They were the right shots, and they'll go in plenty. George is shooting just under 42 percent from three. Melo has a solid 56.4 effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoots, via Synergy, whereas he's posting a dismal 27.8 percent eFG on off-the-dribble jumpers ... like this one:
That is no bueno. When Melo is in the post this season, he's been terrific, in the 76th percentile via Synergy, and he looks really good shooting those kick-out and transition threes. These size-the-defender-up contested mid-rangers, which he can obviously make, are the killers. This is on Melo to stop settling for these shots even though he's made a Hall of Fame career out of making thousands of them, but it's also on Russ, again, as the floor general, to not put him in these spots.
If you look at the above clip, nobody is within 10 feet of Russ at the 3-point line as Melo is getting into his triple threat with almost 20 seconds still left on the shot clock. Demand the ball back and run a pick-and-roll with Anthony. Or don't give it to him in the first place in that spot, because you know his tendencies to shoot that. Make him get deeper position on the block before you feed him. That's high-level point guard play -- not only know who to pass it to, but when and where to hit them. It's Russ's game to control.
"If you remember back when Miami first got its Big 3 together, they kind of struggled early on, and LeBron was in the same mental space as Westbrook where he was a little hesitant to take control at times," Thorpe said. "So Wade said publicly that this is LeBron's team. That gave LeBron the green light to do his thing, and he knew Wade could play off him.
"If I were coaching Carmelo or Paul George, I would tell them to address the same thing. In the media or at least in the locker room. And maybe they have. But be clear that Russ is our best player. He's the MVP. Give Russ that same green light to just go do you, and we can figure our part out. I don't know if OKC can figure it out the same way Miami did, but Carmelo and George and Westbrook, that's three really smart players. So we'll see."