This image, and all images below, are courtesy of William Bennett Berry. Seriously, Czech him out.
It’s been another great week of basketball as the Thunder cruised past the Bucks and mounted yet another fourth quarter comeback, this time against the Nuggets. There’s nothing really strange going on, so here’s some general impressions that I’ve had of the Thunder so far this season. Feel free to steal them and pretend you thought of them yourself next time you meet up with your friends.
1. There’s no James Harden/Kevin Martin replacement, but it’s not a big deal.
This might seem strange to people who have followed the Thunder for years. We’ve had an extremely rigid and top loaded scoring system for years. It’s extremely rare to see anyone but Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook at the top of the scoring list, while Ibaka and Harden/Martin would usually slide in at third and fourth, while the rest of the team toiled in the single digits. This type of hierarchy exists on every team to some extent, but very few have as consistent and rigid of a hierarchy as the Thunder do.
But this season, that hierarchy has shifted a bit. Durant and Westbrook still dominate the scoring column, while Ibaka has his nights. But behind them, there’s three players who are capable of being a serious X-Factor on any given night. Reggie Jackson can nail mid-range jumpers against bigger guards with ease, Jeremy Lamb is a three point bomber, and Thabo Sefolosha is expanding his game beyond the “Three and D” style that he’s played for years. The result is mixed. There’s definitely the odd night where the starters have to carry the load, but in general the Thunder are a lot more flexible. Because more players are involved, the late-game lineup can have a bunch of different combinations, and Scott Brooks has more room to experiment. Plus, it’s more likely that one of the three “X-Factors” will have a matchup advantage against the opposing team. The best part about the whole situation is the Jackson and Lamb are still young, so their performance is only going to improve.
2. Steven Adams is a nice surprise, but he won’t start this year.
First thing’s first: I’m SHOCKED that Steven Adams is playing at all. He was considered extremely raw coming out of college, and had only played organized basketball for four years. Even the most hardcore of his followers in New Zealand probably expected him to spend the majority of his time in Tulsa. But if there’s anything that rings true about Steven Adams, it’s that he’s a quick learner. His rise into the basketball scene over the past two years has been meteoric. If you watch his first few games at Pitt, seeing his game today is like watching an entirely different person.
Still, I really doubt that he’s given the starter’s role. Despite being promising and actually making an impact in a few games (See: Detroit), he’s still prone to getting lost in the offense and making tons of mistakes. Obviously, no matter how he develops, he’ll supplant Kendrick Perkins at some point in his career, but as of right now, Perk is more essential to the team. Adams does certain things better, but Perk possesses a better knowledge of the team’s offense and provides more consistent defense. He can’t score or rebound, but on most nights he’ll still hurt you less than Adams will. (If you’d like a more detailed breakdown of the situation, I wrote a novel about it here.)
3. Derek Fisher is regular season dead weight.
It’s hard to hate on the 39-year-old man who’s still on his grind, but honestly, I wish we had just signed him in April. The Thunder are regularly playing 11 guys, and Fisher is easily the most underwhelming of the entire group. Sure, he iced the Denver game with some good free throws and had a few key fourth quarter points against Phoenix. But for every one of those nights, he has about 3-4 nights of negative impact. Poor shooting, poor distribution, poor defense, you name it. When guys like Perry Jones or Jeremy Lamb are sitting on the bench, you just shake your head and wonder why. I have no doubt that he’s going to cost us more games than he’ll win us in the regular season, but as long as we can get a taste of that post-season sweet wine, I guess it’s a necessary sacrifice.
4. Russell Westbrook is pretty rusty.
You have to admire how heroically Westbrook has returned from his off-season surgery. He’s basically stepped into exactly the same role that he had previously and performed it well. Most importantly, he’s done wonders for increasing the offensive pace, which is key to the Thunder’s success. But it’s apparent that he’s still not 100%. Now, I’m not making any assessments about whether he’s fully recovered or not, since that’s impossible to determine. But he’s still not in basketball shape. He’s slipped on the floor a lot, shot low percentages, and turned the ball over too many times. It’s something that will no doubt disappear a few months from now, but it’s something to keep in mind if you ever get frustrated. The key thing to remember is that his explosiveness and athleticism are still there, and those are two of the most essential traits to value in an NBA player.
5. The Thunder only have three true starters.
Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka. Those are the only three players guaranteed to be on the floor when the game is on the line. Everyone else has to earn their spot in the final lineup. Basically, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins are only starters because they’ve worked well with the aforementioned three for years.
To break it down, look at Scott Brooks’ rotations in an online stats database called the Popcorn Machine. You’ll see that he has two distinct lineups, where he’ll put in the starters and the bench wholesale, with very little mixing in-between. This allows both lineups to generate chemistry with one another, and perform well regardless of if somebody’s having an off-night. But by the end of the game, he sees who’s performing well and inserts them along with the Big 3, so that the Thunder have a truly optimal lineup when the game is on the line. I included a link to the Denver game above, where you can see that Fisher and Jackson were having good nights, so Brooks left them in when the fourth quarter rolled around.
This style is in direct contrast to that of other coaches. Rick Carlisle of Dallas will constantly mix and match, throwing in players at random and seeing what works. Erik Spoelstra of Miami, on the other hand, will space out his lineup so that the team never plays without Dwayne Wade or LeBron James. All styles have their merits, but Brooks’ style is the most conducive to youth development and fourth quarter comebacks. Luckily for us, both of those are very good things.
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