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  • In a feat of engineering, the Thunder picked up Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, fitting the frame of a superteam around reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
By Rob Mahoney
September 25, 2017

The remaking of the Oklahoma City Thunder is less a series of moves than a feat of engineering. Consider the raw materials involved: Victor Oladipo, locked into a questionable four-year, $85 million deal; Enes Kanter, whose severe limitations on defense rendered him a 20-minutes-a-game player; the reasonably promising (but situationally miscast) Domantas Sabonis; and Doug McDermott, whom the Bulls jettisoned to OKC last season in a fit of exasperation. It’s from those four players (along with a second-round pick) that the Thunder landed Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, fitting the frame of a superteam around reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.

Opportunism is a powerful catalyst. Neither of the Thunder’s big offseason trades were anywhere near talent-equitable. Still they were consummated because OKC built trade packages reasonable enough to consider and waited patiently for the inciting circumstances to ferment. It is impossible to parse the Melo deal without regard for its timing. A Knicks team itching to turn the page just traded away the face of its previous era days before the start of training camp. This was less a decision to trade Anthony than a decision to move on. The Thunder, again, reap the benefits.

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Any intersection of talent on this level brings questions of allocation. The first wave of response after a trade like this is one of awe and surprise. The Thunder got Melo for what?! Once that subsides, conversation inevitably turns to the balance of three stars sharing the ball. Westbrook, the biggest usage workhorse in league history, grew accustomed to a certain level of control last season. Anthony and George enter with their own expectations as long-standing first options in their own right. Each will have to surrender something to make their partnership work. But the very formation of a superteam can do wonders for the spirit of compromise. Anthony, in particular, elected to be here. His deal was only finalized because he waived his no-trade clause to allow it. That alone affirms a certain level of buy-in, greasing the wheels of a team with much left to sort out.

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The firepower involved is self-evident. Just as interesting, however, is the synergy that could elevate what was already a top-10 defense last season after dealing away two of its worst defensive players. Anthony may be a lacking defender in his own right, but Kanter and McDermott are liabilities well beyond him—too slow to cover ground in an increasingly fluid league. His union with George, too, might finally convince both of the merits of small ball. George wasn’t willing to guard power forwards for the sake of C.J. Miles, but he might for Melo. And Anthony didn’t want to play up a position if he didn’t have to, but he might if it means maximizing his minutes with George. Burden sharing among stars can be a persuasive dynamic. 

Their level of mutual investment is also its own form of accountability. We’ve seen in Miami, Cleveland, and Golden State how loading up a team with stars can raise individual defensive standards—enough for Chris Bosh to become a transformational defender, for Kevin Love to get a crucial, title-securing stop, and for Stephen Curry to blend into one of the league’s best defenses. Anthony has it in him to compete. Westbrook might never be a disciplined defender, but he could stand to rebalance his game now that he won’t be carrying the weight of an entire offense. The combination of George, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams is, in terms of ability, close to ideal for putting a defensive bubble around Anthony and Westbrook. Even passable work in coverage from those two should make the Thunder one of the most bothersome team defenses in the league. 

Roberson is a skeleton key. Few defenders in the league (if any) do so well in locking down opposing stars across all three perimeter positions. With that comes the freedom to control Westbrook’s defensive matchups and the luxury of saving George’s vexing length for when it’s needed most. Any team that relies on both its wings to initiate offense will have to pivot to third and fourth options, detours that come at an operational cost. If the Thunder wanted, they could even extend the logjam by having George check an opponent’s star power forward when the situation allows, particularly if Anthony can hide out by guarding a more static spot-up wing. Devising the means to work around both Roberson and George requires more high-level creators than most teams have at their disposal. Both are so flexible as to leave no safe harbor.

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Oklahoma City was in the bottom third of the league last season in opponent free throw rate, a product of unreliable on-ball coverage that demanded fouls to compensate. Unsurprisingly, those problems were mitigated when Roberson was on the floor. George’s arrival should provide a constant buttress—as will smaller, more mobile lineups in general. It’s encouraging, too, that George’s Pacers ranked sixth in the league in forced turnovers last season—an area where the Thunder finished the year below the league average. No longer will OKC be pressed to merely stay solid considering that Roberson and George can be counted on to attack the ball without selling out their defensive positioning. 

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Anthony has never in his life had this much defensive help, save for his stints on Team USA. “Olympic Melo” cuts both ways: Not only does surrounding talent allow Anthony to be his most efficient self (provided he’s willing), but also his least damaging. The same principles apply for Anthony in Oklahoma City. Between George, Roberson, Adams, Westbrook, and even Patrick Patterson, it’s as if the entire infrastructure is built to protect him. 

Therein lies the miracle of the Thunder's transformation. The moves for George and Anthony—both one-year rentals, in effect—were not months in the making as the teams involved circled one another. These are products of circumstance that just so happened to serve the needs and weaknesses of every star involved.

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