Since 2008, when the Boston Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to pair with Paul Pierce and proceeded to win a championship, NBA teams have been focused on building their own big threes. The Heat knocked off the the Celtics in the East by assembling an All-Star trio of their own in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, eventually bringing home 2 championships. When LeBron returned to Cleveland, the Cavs immediately set out to acquire Kevin Love to complete a big three with LeBron and Kyrie Irving. The Golden State Warriors house a great big three of their own, built first via draft picks in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, and then expanded to a big four by signing Kevin Durant.
When Oklahoma City acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to flank reigning MVP Russell Westbrook in two blockbuster trades this summer, it appeared the Thunder had acquired a big three of their own. Halfway through the season, the Thunder do indeed have a big three- but not in the way people assumed. Paul George has been terrific, thrusting himself into the defensive player of the year conversation and having a career year from 3 point range on offense. Westbrook has been a slightly (very slightly) more restrained version of the player he was last year, while still putting up 25 points a night and leading the NBA in assists. But the team’s third star hasn’t been Melo- it’s been Steven Adams.
Adams, the noted Khal Drogo look-a-like, has posted a career high in points (14 per game on just 9.5 attempts per game) and rebounds (9.1 per game), and leads the league in offensive rebounds (5.2 per game), which has lead to the Thunder being the best offensive rebounding team in the league by a comfortable margin. And his impact goes beyond the box score. Last week the NBA published new stats that had previously not been publicly available, including box outs. To the surprise of no one, Adams leads the league in box-outs by a wide margin. That contributes both to his own rebounding, but also to to Russell Westbrook’s ability to grab rebounds and immediately push up the court in transition- of huge importance to a Thunder squad that is merely average (15th in the league, per Cleaning The Glass) in scoring against a set defense. Little things like that, which don’t show up in the box score but contribute immeasurably to winning, are key to any championship team, and Adams’ game is filled with them.
Melo, in contrast, has always been primarily about one thing as a player: scoring. There’s nothing wrong with being a scorer; scoring is the most crucial single skill in basketball. But if you’re going to be a scorer and nothing else, you better be a damn good scorer. Melo once was- he won the scoring title in 2013- but in the last few seasons his efficiency has steadily dropped. The hope in bringing him to OKC was that in a reduced role, playing off of Russ and PG instead of being the primary creator like he was in New York, Melo could become highly efficient on a smaller volume of attempts and help space the floor for his teammates.
To Melo’s credit, he has taken a lower volume of shots this season-he’s averaging 15.6 attempts per game, and his usage rate is 24.1%, both the lowest marks of his career. But the reduced role hasn’t resulted in an increased efficiency- it’s actually had the opposite effect. Melo is shooting just 41% from the field, easily the worst mark of his career, and a true shooting percentage of 50.6%, tied with his rookie season for worst of his career. The biggest problem is his distance shooting; he’s shooting nearly 60% in the restricted area and 50% on 2 pointers from 10-16 feet out, but he’s been dreadful on long two pointers (38%). Yet is taking a full 25% from his shots from that area of the court.
On this Thunder team, those long two’s should only be happening if the shot clock is about to expire. Otherwise, there’s no reason to have your third (fourth?) option on offense taking a shot that goes in less than 40% of the time (and only give you 2 points when it does), especially when you consider that Paul George is only taking 1 more shot per game than Melo, despite posting much better shooting numbers. Every possession that ends with a Melo long range 2 pointer early in the shot clock while Paul George or Russ is on the court is a waste.
The problem is, that’s Melo’s bread and butter shot- he’s staked a career in the midrange, and he has been more effective on it in the past. So the solution then is to give Melo time to work on that shot- when Russ and PG aren’t on the floor. I’m not advocating bringing him off the bench- it’s too late in the year for that, and there isn’t anyone on the bench who’s ready to take on starter minutes. But the Thunder should rejigger their rotations so Melo leaves earlier than the rest of the starters, then comes back in with the bench unit. That will give Melo the chance to go to work against second units, where he can be the primary playmaker, kill second unit defenders, and won’t have to worry as much about being a defensive liability on the other end. This shouldn’t just be done for Melo’s benefit either- it’s worked for the Thunder as a team all year. When Melo has played without Russ or PG this year, the Thunder have put up an unreal net rating of +20.3 (meaning they’ve outscored opponents by 20.3 points per 100 possessions) while when they’ve played Paul George without Melo or Russ they’ve been a miserable -15.1. The Thunder famously won the minutes Russ played against the Rockets in the playoffs last year, but still bowed out in just 5 games because they were run off the court when Russ sat. Melo can help them win, or at least stay even, in the minutes Russ sits this year- even if that’s only six minutes, every single possession matters come the playoffs.
That will also allow OKC to keep the dynamic duo of Russ and PG13 together at all times- when the two all-stars have shared the court without Melo, they’ve posted a net rating of +8.4. That will also open up playing time for Alex Abrines alongside them- the line-up of Westbrook, Abrines, George, Grant and Stevens has stomped opponents when used, but playing Abrines and Melo together does too much damage to the defense. Make no mistake- when the playoffs come, teams will hunt Melo in the pick and roll. The Timberwolves, OKC’s most likely first round opponent, did just that down the stretch in their games against the Thunder early this season, and made OKC pay the price. The Thunder may have to consider going to more defensively stout lineups in crunch time- giving Melo run with the second unit will open up minutes for players like Josh Huestis and Jerami Grant, both solid defenders when playing in position, to play alongside the Big three. By the time the playoffs come around, Billy Donovan should know what his best closing line-up is, and if that line-up doesn’t contain Melo in certain matchups, he shouldn’t hesitate to use it.
Saying Melo shouldn’t close games doesn’t mean he’s useless as a player- in contrast, he will be vitally important. Winning the minutes when Russ sits is key for an OKC team that has been putrid whenever Russ sits in the post-KD era, and alongside the starters Melo can still be valuable if he’s willing to abandon his iso game and mainly look to shoot 3’s or get to the rim attacking closeouts. There will still be plenty of those looks to go around if Melo is patient enough. If Melo can accept that reduced role, and dominate when playing with the bench, he can help push the Thunder into contention. But those long 2’s have got to go- every single possession counts in the playoffs, and a Melo possession at this stage of his career isn’t as likely to result in points as a Russ or Paul George possession. How willing Melo is to accept that reality could be the difference between a conference finals appearance and a first round exit for OKC; the margin truly is that thin for this talented yet flawed team.