Now that Paul George has taken on Russell Westbrook’s role as the Thunder’s most important player and MVP candidate, the team has to solve a conundrum with George that it faced with Westbrook for the last two years:
How the hell do we survive for the minutes this guy needs to rest?
During the two previous seasons, the Thunder became a sinkhole when Westbrook went to the bench. They posted a net rating -9.5 (meaning they were outscored by 9.5 points per every 100 possessions) when Russ sat in 2016-17, (this was a major talking point in Russ’s case for MVP) and -5.0 without him in 2017-18 (George was unable to help with that- the team were a horrendous -11.6 when George played and Russ sat that season). This year the team is surviving alright when Russ sits — they’re actually +1.7 when he’s off the court — a monstrous +11.2 when George plays without Russ. But they’re collapsing without George on the floor, falling to -9.5 when he sits. The Thunder with PG off the court have the exact same net rating as the Thunder did without Westbrook two seasons ago. Yikes.
George has played like an MVP, but he still needs his rest. George played nearly 42 minutes a game in the playoffs last year, which might actually be a little high- a little more rest could help him perform closer to the MVP candidate he’s been this year and avoid another collapse like he had in last year’s playoffs. Still, George can comfortably be penciled in for 40 minutes a game when the playoffs hit. What then, should the Thunder do about those perilous 8 minutes he rests?
The simplest solution: play the other 4 starters along with Dennis Schroder. Russ and Schroder are the team’s best (and really, only) shot creators outside of George. In past years, Russ could carry just about any unit himself, but his shooting struggles this year have changed that. The team is -4.5 when Russ plays without George, and -1.7 when Russ and Schroder play together without George.
But the duo are a less natural fit together than George-Westbrook or George-Schroder. George has probably been the best off-ball player in the league this year, depending how you count Giannis Antetokounmpo, while Westbrook and Schroder are both most comfortable playing with the ball, and neither are particularly good long-range shooters. I would not expect Westbrook’s combined 11-25 from deep over the last two games to sustain. If Russ was actually that good of a 3 point shooter he’d be the best player in the league.
Since Westbrook and Schroder are below-average shooters, surrounding them with 3 point shooters is the most obvious way to maximize them. If George is resting, Terrance Ferguson is the best shooter the team has left at 38%, followed closely by Jerami Grant at 37%. The shooting of those two is perhaps the most important variable to watch for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. If these two really are as good as their season averages indicate, it completely changes how opponents have to defend OKC- teams can’t pack the lane the way the Jazz did in the playoffs last year if Grant and 3-Ferg are going to punish them for doing so.
Ferguson is also the team’s best wing defender besides George, and while he can’t guard the very best small forwards in the league, he can more than hold his own against second unit guys while George rests. Adams makes more sense than Nerlens Noel because his screening and offensive rebounding help this lineup scrounge up more points, and he’s a superior rim protector to Noel, helping the team survive without George’s elite wing defense.
So far, that Schroder + starters unit is an excellent +13.4 in 115 possessions together. The problem- they’ve gotten there by virtue of ridiculous offensive efficiency, hitting 45% of their 3’s en route to an offensive rating of 127.8. Golden State has the best offense in the league with a 117.6 offensive rating, so it’s safe to say that offensive mark will come down. And that lovely offensive rating is hiding a defensive rating of 114.4, which would be in the bottom 5 in the league.
Still, while the offense has been partly sustained by luck, the defense has been marred by bad luck- opponents are hitting 43% of their mid-rangers and a preposterous 71% of their corner 3’s against this group, and shooting an equally insane 74% at the rim. George sitting is naturally going to hurt your defense, but it shouldn’t hurt it that much. Just as I would expect this unit to start missing shots, I would expect opponents to start missing against them, resulting in a defensive rating closer to league average.
Playing Schroeder and the other starters together necessitates playing PG alongside multiple bench players. That’s fine- he’s more capable of carrying a bench heavy unit than Westbrook is/ The Thunder have stopped playing pure bench units in favor of always having at least one of Westbrook or George on court. This is the correct decision; their net rating is an awful -13.8 when Westbrook and George both sit. And PG’s gravity is starting to approach the most dangerous long-range snipers — Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and now newcomer Buddy Hield.
But the exact permutation of that unit could change. The most used unit (Schroder-Abdel Nader-George-Patrick Patterson-Nerlens Noel) has been meh, posting a +2.4 net rating over 125 possessions. The Thunder will try Markieff Morris in Patterson’s place, and could also try playing Grant there and slotting Morris in elsewhere. If the Thunder don’t trust Nader, they could play Ferguson in that lineup instead, and play Westbrook-Schroder-George together for the minutes Ferguson needs to rest. That could work, but the Thunder would be stretching it’s players awfully thin.
Even as Abdel Nader has been a surprising positive for this team, including stepping up big when Ferguson fouled out in overtime against Utah Friday night, OKC is still clearly one wing player short of a full rotation. At some point in the playoffs, Billy Donovan probably will give him a shot (those may be the tensest non-crunch time minutes of the game for OKC). If he can’t rely on Nader, Donovan will have to both Ferguson and Schroder for over 30 minutes each, and Westbrook and George for around 40.
Billy Donovan played the starters + Schroder group for a few minutes in both game of the Thunder’s recent back to back against Utah and Sacramento, and they acquitted themselves well. He also tried other things, including playing all three of Westbrook Schroder & Ray Felton in the 4th quarter of the Sacramento game (I am generally pro-tinkering with lineups in the regular season, but that may not have been the best time to try that particular group).
I would expect Donovan to experiment with a few other things as well as the seasons winds down, including other lineups for when George rests. But my bet would be that unit being the answer when the playoffs roll around.