Sunday in Oklahoma City the Timberwolves will get their first look at the NBA’s most recent attempt at manufactured success.
Much of the talk as the regular season approached centered on how much talent had moved from the Eastern Conference to the West, a migration that ultimately helped prompt the NBA to change the way All-Star teams were chosen.
That movement included, of course, Jimmy Butler coming to the Wolves. And Paul Millsap going to Denver. Even key support players Jeff Teague, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson had moved West. Chris Paul stayed in the West, but moved from the Clippers to Houston to play with James Harden.
A few weeks into free agency over the summer, basketballreference.com, using the Win Shares analytic that gauges an individual player’s impact on his team, estimated Western Conference teams had added 174.5 win shares, compared with 127.6 in the East.
And that was before Carmelo Anthony went from New York to Oklahoma City.
No team did more than the Thunder to surround its star, reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook, with talent. The Thunder sent Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana for Paul George. Then OKC acquired Anthony from New York for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second-round pick.
Reactions? Mixed. Some praised the idea of providing scorers for Westbrook to pass the ball to instead of having to carry so much of the scoring burden himself. Others wondered whether one basketball would be enough for three volume scorers.
But this much is certain: In a Western Conference where every team is chasing the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder added some horsepower to its engine.
“For whatever reason, it seems the West continues to get stronger and stronger,’’ Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And it’s probably a little unusual. But if you love competition, this is what it’s all about.’’
After Houston made an impressive debut by knocking off Golden State on the road, the specter of Paul’s knee injury (he might be out for multiple weeks) has put the Rockets’ experiment with Harden on hold for a bit. Oklahoma City had a strong debut at home Thursday. Westbrook had his 80th career triple-double while he, Anthony and Paul all scored more than 20 points while whipping the New York Knicks.
One ball was apparently not a problem.
“I use Boston as an example,’’ said Thibodeau, who was associate head coach in Boston when the Celtics surrounded Paul Pierce with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for the 2007-08 season, moves that brought the Celtics an NBA title. “We had Kevin, Paul and Ray, and everyone asked the same questions. And those guys figured it out. They know how talented the other guy is, and they were willing to sacrifice for each other. You see it with Golden State. The Spurs do it that way. If you want to win, that’s what you do.’’
The Thunder’s moves echo what was done in Boston, and what the Miami Heat did, bringing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Florida to play with Dwyane Wade. Will the Thunder have the same results?
“It remains to be seen,’’ said Wolves guard Jamal Crawford.
To Crawford, Boston worked because the three players were different types of players — Garnett was a true big, Pierce was able to play inside and out and Allen was a long-range shooter.
“And with Miami, you put three of the top 10 players in the world at the time together,’’ Crawford said.
‘‘In Oklahoma City, I’m sure those guys wanted to play together, but most of them are on the perimeter. So it will be a little different.’’
Thibodeau said he thinks it will work.
“I believe [Westbrook] will be a Hall of Famer,’’ he said. “Melo is definitely a Hall of Famer. And Paul is well on his way. When you have three Hall of Fame guys, you’re going to be a tough team.’’
How tough? The Wolves will find out Sunday.
“He’s got two talented players,’’ Karl-Anthony Towns said of Westbrook. “I was fortunate to work with Paul George a lot this summer. I think they’re going to do very well.’’