The Carmelo Anthony trade officially went through today. Melo ‘heads’ to Atlanta, where he will immediately be released by the Hawks, and then according to most pundits, it’ll be on to Houston.
Getting past Melo was first and foremost a money-saving move; OKC will save a fortune in luxury tax payments by turning Anthony’s $28 million salary into Dennis Schroder and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot’s combined $17 million. But the players OKC took back matter too. TLC is mostly an upside play, an athletic prospect who OKC can bring along slowly. But in Schroder, they get a starting caliber point guard who can run the second unit.
Considering where Melo is in his career, Schroder is the best player involved in this trade. Getting an actual useful player — to be sure, a player also with major red flags that must be addressed — while clearing Melo’s salary is a win for Sam Presti, and it sounds like Schroder is happy to be in OKC: he says Russell Westbrook is his favorite player.
That makes sense, since Schroder is a poor man’s Russell Westbrook in a lot of ways. I don’t mean that as a compliment or an insult really- it’s just an apt comparison. He’s a scoring point guard (nearly 20 points per game last year, admittedly on a bad team) who relies heavily on his athleticism to get to the rim. Like Russ, he doesn’t rely much on crossovers or dribble moves to create separation, instead using his speed and strength to get by defenders. Percentage-wise, Schroder is actually better than Russ at pull-up jump shots- Russ hit just 36% of such shots, compared to 42% for Schroder, per NBA.com. Both are at their best when they get close to the rim (Westbrook, if it needs to be said, is better at this than Schroder is). And both guards are abysmal at 3 pointers yet keep taking them- Russ hit 29% last year and Schroder hit 30%, yet both took more than 4 per game. There are differences too- Schroder is a better pure passer, while Westbrook is a better scorer, defender and rebounder- but the similarities between the two are real.
Schroder being stylistically close to Russ is useful for the minutes when Westbrook heads to the bench- the Thunder will be able to use a pretty similar style when Russ plays as when he sits, as Schroder can seamlessly take over the role of the uber-athletic lead guard who runs a ton of pick and roll (just as Nerlens Noel can slot relatively well into the Steven Adams role). Ray Felton, for his strengths, is not that kind of player- a lot of second unit minutes devolved into Felton over dribbling and chucking up a 3 or Paul George and Carmelo Anthony attacking in isolation. Yuck.
George can be a creator with the ball in his hands, but he’s at his best coming off screens to take 3’s or drive, and at slicing a defense disoriented by someone else’s initial attack. Last year, there was no one else. This year there’s Schroder, who’s more than capable of running a solid pick and roll attack and then hitting George. On possessions where George does play the role of creator, Schroder can use what he’s learned from playing in the Hawks ball movement heavy system to still be effective as a cutter. That’s good, because as he’s a floor spacer, he’s almost useless- he shot just 28% on catch and shoot 3 pointers last year. To be effective off the ball, he won’t be able to rely on his outside shooting.
That of course raises the issue of how he’ll look playing next to Westbrook. When Mr. Triple Double sits, Schroder will have the controls, but that tends to be only about 15 minutes a night in the regular season- and even less in the playoffs. Between what the team is paying Schroder, his talent level, and his own ego, all parties involved will want to see him get more minutes- which means 10 to 15 minutes per night sharing the court with Russell Westbrook. If all Schroder is able to do is keep the team afloat when Russ sits he’ll still be an upgrade on the the last two seasons, but to reach Sixth Man of the Year levels, and for the Thunder to be at their best as a team, he’ll need to figure out how to succeed next to Russ. That will require creativity on the part of both guards and head coach Billy Donovan.
Luckily, both players have experience and success playing in dual point guard line-ups in the past. Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks head coach for all of Schroder’s career, has frequently tinkered with such sets. Last year Schroder shared the court for 571 possessions with fellow point guard Malcolm Delaney. The Hawks posted a net rating of -8.1 during that time (that is, they were outscored by 8 points per 100 possessions) per Cleaning The Glass, which is far from ideal, but not much worse than the hawks net rating on the season of -6.6. Those lineups were actually better on offense than the hawks average (107 net rating vs 104), but gave back everything they earned and more on the defensive end.
Going back farther, during the 2014-15 season where the hawks won 60 games and a #1 playoff seed, lineups that featured both Schroder and Jeff Teague were able to at least tread water, posting a net rating of +1.1. That’s a big drop from what the starting lineup posted during that remarkable season, but Schroder’s role was merely to keep the team afloat while others rested- the same role he’ll have on OKC this season. There is evidence he can do that even while playing alongside another point guard (though it should be noted that those Teague-Schroder lineups were a disaster the following season).
The only time Westbrook has played alongside another point guard as good as Schroder (not counting James Harden) in his career was when Reggie Jackson was still on the Thunder. There seems to be a tendency to remember that as a disaster- Jackson wasn’t exactly beloved by his teammates and badly wanted to be the leader of his own team, which wasn’t going to happen alongside Westbrook and Durant. OKC eventually traded him to the Pistons, and Westbrook was as petty as expected to his erstwhile teammate. Personal beef aside, however, Westbrook and Jackson were quite dynamic when they played together. Prior to Jackson being traded at the deadline in 2015, he and Westbrook logged 800+ possessions alongside each other, and the Thunder had a net rating of +5.5 during those possessions - higher than the team’s overall net rating of +3.0. They were even better together in 2013-14, posting a ludicrous net rating of +15.6 over a similar number of possessions. The duo clearly worked well together on the court, despite both being below 30% 3 point shooters who liked to have the ball in their hands- the same on paper fit issue that Westbrook and Schroder now face.
Here’s a practical question: What’s the best kind of role player to put around Russell Westbrook? You might think 3 point shooters. You might be right, but there’s really no way to know, because throughout his career, Westbrook has rarely played with a bunch of good 3 point shooters. Per cleaning the glass again, here are the lineups most used by OKC in the last 4 seasons of the KD era, and the 3 point percentages of those players:
2012-13: Westbrook (32%) Thabo Sefolosha (41%) Kevin Durant (41%) Serge Ibaka (35%) Kendrick Perkins (0%)
2013-14: Westbrook (32%) Sefolosha (31%) Durant (39%) Ibaka (38%) Perkins (0%)
2014-15: Westbrook (29%) Andre Roberson (25%) Durant (40%) Ibaka (37%) Steven Adams (0%)
2015-16: Westbrook (29%) Roberson (31%) Durant (39%) Ibaka (32%) Adams (0%).
The Thunder were really good in those first two seasons, with a ton of long-range shooting around Westbrook and Durant. They could’ve won a championship in either of hose seasons had it not been for injuries. The success in those years makes me wish the current iteration of the Thunder had more long range bombers- Russ with a properly spaced floor is very dangerous. But the Thunder were also really good in the last two years of the Durant era, particularly the final season, where they were 1 game away from toppling Golden State. They continued to be an elite team despite swapping out Sefolosha’s shooting for Roberson’s complete lack of shooting, making up for it with elite defense. Westbrook has shown he can still score and facilitate in a cramped offense. He and Jackson thrived together because Jackson, despite not being a good shooter, was an athlete, a finisher and a passer. If Westbrook drew the entire defense towards him, Jackson’s lack of shooting matters less- with his defender helping off him, he has a runway to gain momentum once Russ swings it to him, and is a good enough slasher and playmaker to beat a defense scrambling trying to recover. Schroder provides that same option, something players like Roberson and Abrines don’t. The presence of an additional skilled ballhandler gives the Thunder a deadlier offense, even if Schroder isn’t a weapon from beyond the arc. Westbrook is a smart enough player to know when, where and how to get each of his teammates the ball in accordance with their own skills.
When Schroder is the one with the ball, Westbrook will have to find new ways to be deadly. Russ deservedly takes a lot of criticism for standing around and watching when other players handle the ball. At least when he was playing alongside Melo, you could argue Russ was needed to enter the ball to him and the rest he gained from taking a possession off allowed him to play more minutes. With Schroder, neither of those things are needed- Schroder can be a primary ballhandler, no entry pass needed, and if Russ is looking to grab some rest he should just be on the bench and let a better shooter or defender play with Schroder. And hopefully Schroder’s presence does mean Russ gets to sit a little more- the presence of a real NBA point guard should mean the team doesn’t completely fall apart without Russ, meaning he can get a few extra minutes of recovery per game.
But when the two point guards do share the floor, Russ will need to be better at offball movement. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be had there. Russ is a bad 3 point shooter off the dribble, and since that’s how he takes most of his 3’s, he gets a reputation as a bad overall 3 point shooter. But he’s actually decent at catch and shoot 3 pointers, hitting 36% last year and 34% the year before. Those numbers may not be anything to write home about, but they’re solid. If Russ is better at slipping into open space when he’s off ball (something Billy Donovan can help with by calling for more offball screens for Russ while Schroder runs the main action on the other side of the floor), he can find more opportunities for catch and shoot 3’s this season, something that will raise his efficiency and, if he’s good enough at them, force defenders to be more honest when he’s off the ball- which will make the team as a whole more dynamic.
Part of the reason Russ’s off ball movement has been so bad is that the only times he’s been without the ball have been designated isolation possessions for Carmelo and Paul George last year, or Durant in the past. Nothing happens in a vacuum in the NBA. Those guys are looking to score on those plays, so Russ doesn’t bother to cut, and because he’s not cutting, those guys have even less reason to pass and so continue to look to score. It’s a cycle.
Schroder offers a chance to break that cycle. Schroder is a good scorer, but he also came into the league with Rajon Rondo comparisons. Those were always overblown, but Schroder is still a gifted playmaker, and if Russ gets himself open while Schroder is running a pick and roll, the German will find him. And the more he finds Russ, the more willing to move and cut Russ will be. Just as stagnancy compounds itself, movement compounds itself- but Russ has to start the cycle by moving when he’s off ball. Donovan can encourage this with more set plays, but, as always with OKC, it comes down to Russ.
In transition, Schroder’s athleticism will make him deadly — with or without Russ — but you can only get transition opportunities if you get a stop on defense. This is where Russ alongside Schroder gets tricky. Westbrook is not a bad defender, but he tends to lose his man off-ball at times and make bad gambles on defense. Schroder, however, is a sieve.
At worst, the two figure to have Steven Adams or Nerlens Noel protecting the rim behind them, and both should be good in that role. But who else plays alongside them? Andre Roberson sliding to the 3 provides you with another great wing stopper, but then you’re dangerously low on shooting. Playing PG at the 4 would help, and OKC should experiment a little more with small ball groups featuring George at the 4. George at the 3 and Jerami Grant at the 4 would also provide a lot of athleticism and defense while still having some shooting, particularly if Grant can get back to shooting the way he did two seasons ago.
Of course, George will need to rest at some point, and the minutes Russ and Schroder share might be a good time for that. The trouble is OKC really doesn’t have a backup 3 behind George. Roberson can slide down, but if George is sitting, they will have no spacing. They could try Alex Abrines there, but defensively, Westbrook-Schroder-Abrines is asking for trouble. Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo remain more theoretical options, though each should get a little bit of time during the long NBA season. Who the Thunder should look to in crunch time isn’t even clear yet- Russ, George and Adams are locks, but any two of Schroder, Abrines, Roberson, Grant and even Patrick Patterson could fit around them. The configuration I’m most curious to see at this moment would be Westbrook, Schroder, George, Grant and Adams or Noel- enough defense to hopefully make up for the guards, enough shooting from George (and maybe Grant) to give the offense breathing room, and a ton of speed and athleticism to run in transition. It’s a long season, and Donovan would be wise to give lots of different match-ups a try during the year.
The first time we see Russ and Schroder on the court together, it may not look great. The fit issues are real, although Russ’s history with Reggie Jackson should be reason for optimism, at least on the court. Schroder is a bit of a prickly personality himself, just like Jackson, although he’s supposedly willing to take the role of sixth man. We’ll see.
But talent trumps fit, and the Thunder were short on ways to add talent. Getting Schroder in return for Carmelo Anthony was the best Sam Presti could have hoped for, and now it’s on Russ, Schroder and Donovan to make the fit work. If the duo can thrive together, it will give the Thunder a much less predictable offense, which should mean a better offense.
Russ has been hesitant to give up the controls in the past, but that’s partly been because he hasn’t played with other players who are good at making things happen. Schroder is the type of player OKC hasn’t had since the Jackson days. If he and Russ are able to coexist, this should be the Thunder’s most dangerous and dynamic offense since the Durant era.
Do you think a backcourt with both Westbrook and Schroder will work?
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