The Oklahoma City Thunder Have a Big Three Problem

The individual talent in OKC is undeniable, but the team's early-season struggles might just be a matter of pecking order.

We've seen this before. In the era of NBA Big Threes, star-filled teams can take time to get acclimated.

In LeBron James' first year in Miami, the Heat's James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Big Three went just 9-8 through 17 games. After that, they hit their stride with 12 straight wins before finishing the year with a 58-24 record and an appearance in the Finals.

The same kind of thing happened when Chris Paul landed with the Los Angeles Clippers. Eventually, he, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan played their way to 40 wins and a playoff berth, but they started out 1-2 through three games, 4-3 through seven, and 9-6 through 15.

But the Oklahoma City Thunder's slow start is unlike any we've seen in recent history.

Good But Bad

While the Thunder have performed like one of the best defensive squads in the NBA, their struggles on the offensive end are unprecedented for a team that sports the All-Star firepower of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. In fact, their defense has actually catapulted them into the top-5 in our power rankings.

And it doesn't start and end there -- the numbers like the Thunder across the board.

Oklahoma City Thunder NBA Rank
Net Rating 6th
Margin of Victory 7th
Simple Rating System 7th

It's definitely perplexing. The Thunder's 7-9 record currently ranks just ninth in the Western Conference, and their .438 win percentage places them in a four-way tie for 19th in all of the Association. Nonetheless, these three different metrics (which all involve point differential in one way or another) say that they should be in the top-10.

It could be a matter of regression, but to the naked eye and the numbers, their offense is dragging them down. What gives?


Through the early portion of the season, head coach Billy Donovan has opted to take George off the floor first after roughly five or six minutes the first frame. George then returns to play the last two-to-four minutes, bringing his first-quarter average to 10 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Anthony's played the first 8.4 minutes before heading to the bench for the remainder of the first.

For the second quarter, George remains with Westbrook, returning to play the last eight-plus minutes, on average. Anthony also reenters to log eight-plus minutes in the second, with George heading to the bench for a stint in the middle of the quarter prior to returning for a total of nine minutes. All in all, George plays 19 first-half minutes, followed by 18.1 for Westbrook and 16.7 for Anthony. The second half generally follows a similar routine.

Side-by-side, the trio logs an average of 11.5 minutes in the first, 10.6 minutes in the second, and 22.1 over the full 48 minutes. But when you break it down two-by-two, here's how that has worked out to this point.

Lineup MPG Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg
Westbrook-George 30.2 105.7 98.5 7.3
Westbrook-Anthony 25.7 107.8 102.2 5.6
George-Anthony 23.8 106.7 99.7 7.0

Each of the duos have had their fair share of success over a 100-possession basis. With George's elite defense on the floor, the Thunder D is far more potent, but both of Anthony's sets are slightly better offensively.

But what about in the fourth quarter and in clutch time?

In the final frame, the combination of Westbrook, George, and Anthony has a net rating of -20.2 on the season. Westbrook and George are a -18.3, but the Westbrook-Anthony and George-Anthony duos haven't fared much better at -16.7 and -11.5, respectively.

Again, what gives?

All About Usage

Per, Westbrook leads the Thunder with a usage rate of 31% through 16 games this season. That's down from 40.8% a year ago, so although he ranks eighth in the league in percentage of plays used, he has made adjustments to his game.

As the point guard, it makes sense that the reigning MVP is the primary ballhandler. But for his sidekicks George and Anthony, there seems to be an issue as to who should have the rock in their hands.

After Westbrook, Anthony is second on the team with a usage rate of 27.1%, followed by George and his 26.2%. It's a minimal difference between the two, however, George played in one game without Anthony, which naturally provided a bump to George's playmaking role. In that lone outing, the small forward used 30.9% of possessions -- trailing only Westbrook among OKC starters -- en route to an efficient 37 points in a 13-point win over the Dallas Mavericks.

Based on that one game, there's actually a trend as it pertains to George's spot in the usage pecking order and Thunder victories.

When... OKC Record
George Has Higher Usage 4-1
Anthony Has Higher Usage 2-8

For further confirmation, look no further than the Thunder's putrid fourth-quarters, where Anthony has managed to widen the usage gap between he (29.1%) and George (25.35%) while Westbrook cruises at his 33.5% rate. The issue? George has been the best, most-efficient player of the three this season.

It's still somewhat of a limited sample size, but the proof is in the results: when George is featured more heavily than Anthony, the Thunder win. He has a higher three-point attempt rate, effective field goal percentage, and offensive win share total while rating out as the only player of the three in the top-50 of our power rankings. His 1.4 nERD -- a player ranking that measures a player's overall contributions, based on efficiency -- is second on the team behind Steven Adams (2.1) and is substantially better than the marks of Anthony (0.9) and Westbrook (0.5).

The solution isn't as easy as pointing out the problem. Westbrook's gonna Westbrook, and at 33, Anthony's playing in his 15th NBA season. He has never been the type of guy to take a backseat to anyone, but to compete for a title, it might be time for Anthony to swallow his pride and alter his role for the betterment of the team.