Timberwolves Thunder Basketball

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony (7) shoots over Minnesota Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson (67) in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Oklahoma City won 111-107. 

Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan has a conundrum.

His theory makes sense. Shifting Paul George to play with the bench unit after using Carmelo Anthony in similar lineups early in the season allows Russell Westbrook to create more catch-and-shoot 3s for Anthony in the first unit. It allows George, who has always been a top-notch pick-and-roll ball handler, more opportunities to facilitate. 

Get George more shots. Create more efficient ones for Anthony. Of course, that’s in theory.

The numbers say using George with the reserves, as Donovan has done over the past few weeks, isn’t working as well as he would have hoped — though it’s for different reasons than offense.

“One thing I’d like to try to be able to do is try to generate shots for Carmelo,” Donovan said. “I know he can generate a lot on his own when he gets to his spots on the floor, but certainly generating 3s for him is really helpful for our team with as elite a 3-point shooter as he is.”

Yet, the Westbrook-Anthony duo hasn't been as successful without George as the Westbrook-George one has been without Anthony.

Past results don’t mean Donovan’s logic won’t prove true over the larger sample size. As the Thunder's favorite cliché goes, "It's still early." But it hasn’t worked so far. And it’s because of the defense.

The Thunder have outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook and George are the only two members of the big three playing. Most of that production comes on the defensive end, where the Thunder are allowing only 94.9 points per 100 possessions, a figure so elite it would lead the NBA if it belonged to a team. 

The results with Anthony and Westbrook as the two big three members playing are flipped. The Thunder are getting outscored by a vicious 11.0 points per 100 in those moments. And it’s the defense that’s doing them in. Those lineups are allowing 115.7 points per 100 possessions, which would be dead last in the NBA if it belonged to a team. The offense, meanwhile, has been merely average.

It’s not like the bench units with George have worked all too well, either. The Thunder are getting outscored by 17.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s the only big three member on the floor. When all three play together, the Thunder are besting opponents by 4.7 points per 100. 

Maybe that’s why Donovan has changed around lineups of late, something he’s never been adverse to doing.

He’s pinned second-year sharpshooter Alex Abrines to the bench for what he described as defensive reasons. He’s gone situationally to wings Josh Huestis and Terrance Ferguson. He began Friday’s second quarter with George and Steven Adams on the floor against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He included defensive stopper Andre Roberson, too. He had previously tried a similar lineup against the Golden State Warriors. And he admitted on Saturday he might stick with a similar rotation — even though George’s 42 minutes Friday were something neither party wants to continue.

“God knows how he feels today,” Donovan said.

George and Adams, specifically, worked well together against Minnesota. George remains one of the NBA’s most competent pick-and-roll ball handlers. Yet, he hasn’t had a chance to dribble around many ball screens this season. Playing without Westbrook and Anthony allows him to do so. Adding Adams to the mix gives him a screener.

“If he presents himself, I’m [going to] try my hardest to get him the ball, and I’m [going to] look to get him the ball,” George said. “As you’ve seen, he can finish really well around that rim. He’s a weapon.”

For all the talk this season of Anthony, George and Westbrook learning each other, there hasn’t been much about Donovan having to adjust to a new roster, too. It’s not like he’s been able to mend a consistent identity through his first three years as an NBA coach.

First, there was the Westbrook and Kevin Durant-led Western Conference Finals team. Then, there was the year of Westbrook’s solo act. Now, there’s whatever this is bound to become. Figuring everything out goes beyond just enforcing ball movement and running plays.

He’s trying to keep players in rotations that work best for them, too. He's trying to create open 3s and maintain guys' fresh legs. 

Using Anthony with the bench unit while keeping him in the starting lineup means having to sub him out one more time per half. It means one more time a 33-year-old has to go from hot to cold to hot again. George, meanwhile, is still spry enough to play 42 minutes during a random December game.

As long as Anthony starts, that will play a role, too.

“We’ve kind of tinkered around with it all preseason with having different rotations, different guys with the bench unit,” George said. “I just was more comfortable playing with that unit.”

Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.

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