We have had several days to allow the Reggie Jackson draft pick to simmer. The Thunder are a championship puzzle, and Jackson is a piece. They are a work in progress, and Jackson is a brush stroke. Our duty in this long off-season is to speculate what piece or brush stroke he might be for 2011-2012.
What do we know?
As I can only speak for myself generally (although I know many of you are fluent in your understanding of the college game, so we invite you to share your thoughts), right now the player Reggie Jackson is more of an idea than a reality. We can certainly consider statistics, and 18.2 PPG, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 50% shooting from the field and 42% shooting from three is nothing to sneeze at. His skillset and statistics say that Jackson may have a shot, but in what capacity?
Here are a few different scenarios that I can conceive:
1. Jackson is added as a 4th point guard, nothing else changes.
I think this scenario is probably least likely, for any number of reasons, a few of which are: a) Nate Robinson is probably not part of the Thunder's future; b) it would tie up too much money into too few minutes in the backcourt; c)James Harden has made any need for even a 3rd point guard redundant. If there are five players competing for minutes in the backcourt, I think that there is great risk of other roster needs not being met.
2. Jackson is the backup point guard.
This scenario is a direct off-shoot from all the rumors that suddenly began swirling on draft day. As soon as we saw the rumor drop that the Thunder might be shopping Eric Maynor in order to move up in the draft, there was a collective sense of confusion and disapproval. Why would they suddenly trade a player who was a critical regular and post-season contributor, who was a great teammate, and was also still on his rookie contract? Fortunately, this scenario did not play out. The Thunder have not traded Maynor, they did not give up assets to move ahead in thisdraft, and as of today Maynor is still Russell Westbrook's backup. At least for today.
While I can make the argument that a trade of Maynor to acquire future future assets is at least defensible; (i.e. keep the backup PG salary low, acquire talent via trade commensurate with a potential starting PG) it is certainly not seen as a positive. I know, we need to trust Sam Presti's judgment, and he has earned the right to demand it, he is very smart, he is an insider and we are not, etc. Put all that aside for a moment. I don't pretend to know as much as the inner circle as far as what makes the Thunder tick, but I do know that what I see when Maynor is on the court is a very good thing indeed, and the team should not give him up unless they absolutely have to.
Maynor still has two years on his current contract. We know that Presti wants to look both to the present and the future when he makes personnel decisions, but in the case of Maynor, I think too much would be given up if they were to trade him away now. He is essential to the 2nd unit's success.
3. Jackson is the backup shooting guard.
Now we're getting into the meatier territory. If Reggie Jackson the player is somewhere close to Reggie Jackson the concept, we may have something worth boasting. The problem with our initial thinking about Jackson is that he was immediately juxtaposed with Maynor, and I think that sent us down the wrong rabbit trail. Instead of thinking of Jackson as a new point guard being added to the fold, we really should have been looking at two other guys instead.
- Thabo Sefolosha - Sefolosha is a quality bonus piece to a championship puzzle. He is a team-first guy, works hard on defense, does not take bad shots, and had received high praise from coach and teammate alike. Unfortunately for him, he may be getting squeezed out of the rotation. While I do not think it fair yet to say that Sefolosha's minutes are going to immediately go to Jackson, and let us not forget that coach Scott Brooks has been firmly committed to Sefolosha over these past two years, the fact remains that he is still mostly a one-dimensional player who has earned his minutes due to his defensive play.
With James Harden likely replacing him in the starting line-up, Sefolosha moves to the bench still with a talent that can be utilized. However, that defensive talent no longer mixes well with the rest of the 2nd unit. With Harden no longer coming off of the bench, the 2nd unit loses its offensive punch. Maynor, Nick Collison, and Daequan Cook can still formulate set plays, but those plays work predominantly because Harden was on the court as a constant threat to score. Harden's presence opened up everything else. Without Harden playing along side this second unit, offense is going to be a struggle. If there were still an offensive focal point, Sefolosha could still be valuable. Without a focal point though, Thabo is a liability - a hesitant shooter who cannot create his own offense.
More so than Eric Maynor, I do believe Thabo Sefolosha is the man who may soon be without a country.
- James Harden - Harden is going to be the man with all eyes on him next season. For certain, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the fuel that makes the team go, but the reason why Harden in a sense matters more than both is that he possesses the ability to make both of them better than they are now. With Harden moving to the starting line-up, there will be greater freedom for Westbrook to slide occasionally into the two-guard role (like we saw in Game Five against the Mavericks). If those two can swap in and out of the point and shooting guard positions seamlessly the way we saw the Mavs do with Jason Terry and Jason Kidd, a simplistic offense will be made more complex immediately simply by virtue of personnel.
As noted above though, the Harden shift leaves a hole in the 2nd unit. I think that this is what Presti saw unfolding during the playoff run, and this is the hole he is looking to fill. While it is true that sweet-shooting Jordan Hamilton was still on the board during the 24th pick, I think that Presti must have been looking for more. I think he was looking for a more complete and multi-faceted player, who could shoot, pass, and defend. He needed to find another James Harden.
Just as Harden was given plenty of time to grow into his role last season (often to our frustration, because he was still finding his own path), so too Jackson will be given ample time to learn what the 2nd unit needs. The reason why the 2nd unit worked so well together is due to the chemistry and trust that existed between Harden and Maynor. Now, Jackson has those two excellent teachers at his dosposal, but he too must earn that trust.
Balance the court.
In conclusion, Reggie Jackson the concept looks to be an effort for the team to bring balance to its offensive attack. During their post-season run, and especially against the Mavs, there was one primary limitation in the team's personnel that was exposed. If the Thunder wanted to play their starting five of Durant, Westbrook, Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins, offensively they were playing three on five. The Mavs (and to a lesser degree theGrizzlies) ignored Sefolosha and Perkins and did not consider them offensive threats. Sefolosha and Perkins did little to challenge their defensive gamble. What happened then was that the defending team worked hard to take away Kevin Durant, which left the bulk of the offense on Russell Westbrook's shoulders. For as much criticism that was heaped on young Westbrook, precious few critics bothered to consider that the predicament the Thunder found themselves in was purposefully driven by smart defensive coaching. It was intentional and it worked because Sefolosha and Perkins did not have the ability to make the defense pay when they over-committed to stopping Durant. The dynamic was drastically altered when Harden was in the game for Sefolosha, because Harden knew how to make the defense pay for this risky tactic.
It stands to reason that the Thunder realized (too late, perhaps) that they have to figure out a better way to balance out their offense because sound defensive teams can do to them what Dallas did. The easiest way to do this of course is to start Harden, but that gets us back to the role he vacates in the 2nd unit. If the 2nd unit becomes comprised of Maynor, Sefolosha, Collison, Daequan Cook, and Nazr Mohammed, the threat of imbalance rears its head once more. Sefolosha and Mohammed cannot create their own shots, so the team would be at a disadvantage if a team like Dallas committed itself to forcing the ball out of Maynor's hands.
The counter to this weak spot is to have a player like Harden who can handle the ball, make good decisions, shoot efficiently, and distribute the ball when the defense commits. In other words, a player exactly like the concept of Reggie Jackson. The Thunder don't need a lead guard or a shooting guard. They just need another James Harden.
All that remains is the question of whether Jackson is that kind of guy.
To close, I'll quote the late, great Ralph Wiley:
"The question in the NBA, and in life, isn't whether or not you can shoot. The question is, can you get your shot?"
Time will tell whether young Mr. Jackson can get his shot.