OKC's Big 3 Suddenly Has Fighter's Chance Against Western Conference Elites

Jon HammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterSeptember 23, 2017

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) are pictured in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. New York won 93-90. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

General manager Sam Presti tried to keep expectations in check when he gave his end-of-season press conference in early May. His Oklahoma City Thunder had just completed a 47-35 effort with a first-round exit, losing to the Houston Rockets in five games. The Thunder finished with the franchise's third-youngest roster.

"The age of the team is a great foundation for us in terms of player development," Presti said. "I think we do have to be intentional with the development of the group going forward. Throughout the roster, I think there's opportunity for a lot of different guys to improve and get better."

In reality, that was the Thunder's fallback plan. Perhaps a worst-case scenario.

As Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins wrote in July, Presti, after the season, handed his staff pictures of MacGyver, the resourceful 1980s TV secret agent with a penchant for solving problems with scotch tape and matchsticks—anything handy. It sent a message that Oklahoma City would have to be creative to improve.

The franchise had the 21st pick in the upcoming NBA draft but could not trade another one until 2024. Its young players weren't blue-chip prospects. The Thunder needed to become opportunistic to make significant improvements.

Nearly three months after taking a chance on Paul George, the Thunder stunned the NBA again by trading for 10-time All-Star and four-time U.S. Olympian Carmelo Anthony, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and The Vertical's Shams Charania.

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 12:  Carmelo Anthony #20 and Russell Westbrook #31 of the 2015 USA Basketball Men's National Team attend a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on August 12, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The cost for both players? Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round pick acquired from Chicago. It's like buying a winning lottery ticket with the loose change in your pockets, lint included.

On Friday, Presti met with the media to address the upcoming season. He was asked about the risk of acquiring George despite the forward's uncertain future. "There's only a few guys on this earth that impact the game at that level," Presti said. In Melo, he's found another.

Anthony, like George, can become a free agent next summer (Westbrook falls into that same category). But also like George, he had buy-low potential. The Knicks had all but shoved their star player onto the tarmac at La Guardia, and Anthony had ultimate control of his fate thanks to a no-trade clause.

That gave the Thunder a tiny opening to work with. The Knicks and Houston Rockets, Anthony's original desired destination, were unable to come to terms. With training camp approaching, Anthony blinked and reportedly added Oklahoma City and Cleveland to his acceptable trade list. If it weren't for the George trade, the Thunder probably wouldn't have wound up on Anthony's radar.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 20:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks handles the ball against Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers during a game on December 20, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

There are natural questions about how the pieces fit. All three members of the new "OK3" were in the top 20 in usage rate last season, per Basketball Reference, with Westbrook logging a record-breaking 41.7 percent. The three All-Stars will have to learn how to share the basketball as well as how to help the team without it.

On the other hand, life just became much easier for all three. Most likely, either George or Anthony will get plenty of opportunities to tear up opposing second units.

If the stars can come to terms on that arrangement, there are still questions about how George and Anthony will buy into their new roles. Both have been the marquee names for their respective teams for years. Now they both assume "also starring" credits. Coach Billy Donovan faces a challenge of keeping his new Big Three happy while also developing Steven Adams, Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant. Newcomers Patrick Patterson and Ray Felton need to be involved as well.

The key to making this all click is Westbrook. The reigning MVP unleashed a John Wick-like tear last season in the wake of Kevin Durant's departure. While it made for exciting moments—his late-game heroics likely played a significant role in his winning the MVP—it also made Oklahoma City predictable. The young roster also enabled Westbrook to accomplish his triple-double feat. The offseason additions give him no reason to duplicate that.

Swapping Kanter—an offensive beast but a defensive turnstile—for Anthony is probably a net positive defensively, though Anthony hasn't shown much defensive interest in years. Perhaps it was lack of motivation due to the sad state of the Knicks organization, but most likely he'll be a liability against the likes of Golden State, Houston and San Antonio.

The Thunder are hoping he'll provide enough on the offensive end—even if it's just added floor spacing—that it'll compensate.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Prior to the Anthony trade, Oklahoma City had a top-five defense on paper. That accounted for Patterson and Grant manning most of the minutes at the 4, with 20-plus minutes per game for Kanter. Now the Thunder downsize a bit, which could help against the likes of the Warriors and Rockets. The Spurs, however, are one team the Thunder could've punished with lineups featuring Adams and Kanter.

As with any team in the league, the measuring stick is the Warriors. Despite what the Thunder and Rockets have done this summer, both are probably a full step behind the Bay Area Monster. But all Oklahoma City wants is a chance. Basketball is a funky sport with hot streaks and slumps. Oklahoma City's offseason goal was to put itself in position to compete with the likes of Golden State.

Adding Anthony comes with a lot of risk, but there's a lot of potential rewards as well. Westbrook, George and Anthony are all now seasoned veterans in search of an NBA title. If all are willing to make the sacrifices they haven't had to make before, they could become something special.

For a fanbase hungry to get back into title chases, this sure beats another season of player development.

              

All quotes were obtained firsthand.