The Oklahoma City Thunder had a remarkable offseason with their acquisitions of superstars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to pair with reigning NBA MVP Russell Westbrook. They seemingly stole those two All-Star wings as they gave up relatively few assets in the trades to get them.
But according to FiveThirtyEight’s Kyle Wagner, the Thunder are paying the price for making those deals in terms of their declining rebounding, which has long been one of the team’s signature strengths.
This offseason, Enes Kanter, who is virtually unplayable on the defensive end but one of the best rebounders in the league, went to New York in the trade for Anthony. Domantas Sabonis, whose draft rights were acquired in the Ibaka trade, was a throw-in to the deal for George with Indiana. The trades have forced the Thunder to play almost exclusively small, with Patrick Patterson slowly working his way into the rotation after offseason knee surgery and looking very rough in the minutes he’s seen. The team has undeniably added talent with George and Anthony, but it has also traded big-for-small — and may have weakened its bedrock identity in the process.
The Thunder likely knew the tradeoff they were essentially making when they did those moves. Going primarily smaller would affect their rebounding, but they probably felt the offensive upgrade Anthony and George could provide would be enough to offset whatever they lost on the boards.
It’s a similar tradeoff the Golden State Warriors have chosen to make. They have been a
mediocre to below average rebounding team over the last few years, mostly due to their small-ball lineups. They’ve still been wildly successful, though, in large part because they’ve remained elite defensively despite their struggles on the glass.
But while the Thunder likely won’t return to being a great rebounding team as currently constructed, they still need to see some improvement in that part of their game. They can’t afford to have Anthony grab just six rebounds in three games, especially since he also takes away some of his value with his overall subpar defense.
The Thunder obviously have more than enough talent to be successful. They just need to do it without the elite rebounding they’ve been accustomed to having.