The question was simple, and Russell Westbrook‘s answer was equally so. After another perplexing loss, this one at home against the Charlotte Hornets, Westbrook was asked about the Thunder’s disappointing record through 26 games.
“Twenty-six games,” he said. “Eighty-two-game season.”
That wasn’t surprising at all from Westbrook, who is as confident and full of self-belief as any player in professional sports. But that was also him keeping the lens wide and sticking to the message his team has been using since day one: It’s going to take time.
The Oklahoma City Thunder sit at 12-14, ninth in the Western Conference, with an offense that ranks in the bottom half of the league. Twenty-six games into a season that was supposed to be about the league’s latest superteam positioned to compete at the top of the West, the Thunder are an inconsistent collection of talent.
Like Westbrook alluded to, it’s still too early to declare that OKC’s Big Three experiment won’t be successful, but to this point, it simply hasn’t been.
Westbrook has found discomfort in trying to adapt following the brilliance of an MVP season. Carmelo Anthony has struggled with a reduced role and shot selection recalibration. Paul George has been inconsistent in staying offensively engaged.
Oklahoma City is dealing with more questions than it has answers for, and with two hyped reunion games this week — at the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks — the uncertainty is bubbling up at the worst possible time.
“I think for the most part we know what we want to do, how we want to play,” Anthony said. “When we stick to that script, we’re a helluva team to beat. We put a lot of fear in teams when we play the right way, when we do the right things, when we execute what we have to execute offensively and defensively. We show why we’re one of the top teams out there.
“And then there’s spurts when we don’t do that, and we show some cracks in our armor, [and] the questions start coming. ‘Are we really that good of a team?’ ‘What do we have to do?'”
STACKING THREE STARS was supposed to cure last season’s biggest ailment for the Thunder: They dove off a cliff when Westbrook sat. With the MVP on the bench in 2016-17, Oklahoma City morphed into the league’s second-worst offense.
Adding George and Anthony hasn’t helped. With Westbrook sitting and George on the court, the Thunder score 91.7 points per 100 possessions, which would be dead last in the NBA, and their scoring margin is minus-10.9, which would also be a league worst.
The young season has already been full of adjustments, but the player who has been asked to change the most is Anthony. That has meant fewer plays in isolation, less time between dribbles and shots, and a bevy of catch-and-shoot attempts coming off passes from two All-NBA talents. It’s the formula that created the uber-efficient “Olympic Melo” who looked unstoppable in four stints with Team USA, but that version of Anthony hasn’t yet made its way to Chesapeake Energy Arena.
He has been intentional in trying to make extra passes and get off the ball, and as he said a couple weeks ago, he’s happy to sacrifice his scoring numbers — as long as the Thunder win. Anthony was brought to OKC as a risk/reward proposition, but his fit has made the more natural Westbrook-George pairing more complicated. Even so, Anthony’s arrival also raises the Thunder’s ceiling, even if they’re nowhere near it right now.
They have a roster that can blow out the Warriors. They also have one that can be blown out by the Mavericks. In Westbrook and Anthony, the Thunder have two middling efficiency players using a lot of their offense, with the way they play engrained into the fiber of their being.
Progression isn’t linear, and like Walter White explained in class, chemistry is the study of change. Growth, then decay, then transformation.
It seems the Thunder have been stuck on the decay part for a while now.
THE FINAL QUESTION was thrown George’s way after Monday’s deflating loss to the Hornets. It was about his upcoming return to Indianapolis, the city in which he played the first seven years of his career and then left by way of a shocking trade to Oklahoma City last summer.
“Where?” George said. He cracked a small smile, followed by the standard platitudes about how he’s excited to return. But as he and the Thunder make their way to Indiana and then to a pit stop to face the Philadelphia 76ers before the Madison Square Garden return for Carmelo Anthony, things aren’t exactly in the place they anticipated.
But while it might seem like there’s some fracturing happening, with Anthony skipping out on talking to reporters on Monday or George firmly saying “It’s gotta stop,” the Thunder say they’re connected and committed.
As George heads back to Indy to face his old team, one with a 16-11 record behind the main piece the Pacers got in return for George, there could be a sense of second-guessing. Instead, George has remained as steady as anyone, preaching patience and expressing confidence in the players around him.
“We’re just not enjoying the losses, but we’re enjoying this grind. We’re enjoying the battles,” George said. “We’re enjoying the target on our backs. We’re enjoying everything that brought this team together. We’re just not enjoying the losing.
“At some point, like I’ve been saying, we’ve got to switch our destiny and start going on the upward.”
This is what George wanted. This is what he was after when he informed the Pacers that he wasn’t going to re-sign.
The aspirations of the Thunder align with what George is looking for. He believes they can still be great. George left Indiana with dignity and has remained consistent in his message post-Pacers. With George, there are no clandestine messages about fitting with a former teammate or a front-office decision he didn’t like that pushed him out door. There’s no passive-aggressive attempt at justification.
“We’re enjoying the target on our backs. We’re enjoying everything that brought this team together. We’re just not enjoying the losing.”
Thunder F Paul George
“I’ve been a part of and grew up around some of the best people I’ve ever met in Indiana,” George said. “In life, some of the best people I’ve ever met in life are in Indiana. It’ll be emotional from the standpoint of seeing them, being around them, talking to them, telling them about my new addition to the family and just talking about where I’m at in life, so it’ll be emotional in that standpoint, but on the other end, it’ll be business-like as well.”
Still, he’s expecting boos.
“I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way,” he said. “The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. But it’s something I’m looking forward to.”
“When he gets booed, we get booed,” Anthony said of George. “We’re in this together.”
IT’S DECEMBER, YET the road trip feels a tad season-defining for the Thunder, with the homecomings of George and Anthony bookending it. With the team sputtering and games in familiar places ahead, there’s a clear setup for narrative and, maybe, something to galvanize the team.
“It’s a chance for us to be even closer, be even tighter, be more connected,” George said. “Because in those two arenas, that’s all we got. We have to play that way. We can’t allow the environment or the hostility to break us apart. That’s where we’ve got to be as close as we’ve been all season. We need each other in those moments.”
The Thunder have caught the attention of many around the league, with rival executives already wondering if George could potentially find his way back on the trade block if things don’t improve.
Stephen A. Smith is growing concerned that Thunder head coach Billy Donovan isn’t capable of handling the “three-headed-monster” in OKC.
There’s also curiosity about Billy Donovan and his part in the early struggles, though the Thunder are firmly behind their coach on all sides.
“The respect level is high. No one’s going against Billy,” George said. “He’s given us an incredible game plan all season long. There’s a high level of respect for his position and what he’s wanting from us. There’s no line of disrespect at all toward what Coach wants us to do.”
The Thunder put together what most saw as a monster, one with the kind of top-heavy talent that positions them to compete with the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors of the world. But the frustration is becoming real, and the more the baffling losses pile up, the louder the noise becomes. The Thunder have blocked almost all of it out to this point.
“For the most part, what I like about it is that guys are trying to figure it out, guys are trying to make it work, guys are trying to be unselfish and figure this thing out,” Anthony said. “We’re sticking with it. There’s nothing at this point that’s so far gone and out of our hands.”
Like George said Monday night, at some point, it has to stop. Is game No. 27 in Indianapolis the moment it finally will?