In the wake of Eric Maynor's unfortunate injury at the end of the Rockets game on Saturday, much discussion surrounds the Thunder's outlook for the rest of the season. It speaks volumes about Maynor's place in the Thunder organization that a backup point guard would be generating so much debate as to the impact on the Thunder's title hopes. Such a perceived dilemma is a double-edged sword, as it speaks loudly to the Thunder's ability to build a carefully crafted team structure, yet at the same time hurts the team greatly since they have come to rely on Maynor so much.
I was invited to join in at Daily Thunder's 3-on-3 panel discussion to consider the Thunder's outlook:
The format used for this panel only provides for some bite-sized analysis, so I think it is worth while to flesh out the argument a bit further.
One thing that is apparent and consistent across the board is that we all believe that Reggie Jackson is the young man of the moment and that the Thunder would not do well to look to the free agency market to replace Maynor's minutes. My biggest reason why is that the Thunder organization has fostered a culture that is very collegial and close-knit. There is a reason why they are referred to as "Thunder U." It reminds me a bit of how the Celtics adopted the mantra of "Ubuntu," or "I am because we are." It is the idea of togetherness and cohesion, that the players brought on board cannot be at their absolute best unless the team is at its absolute best. In the Thunder's case, this means trusting in the blueprint that the franchise has laid out. The front office has worked hard to acquire a consistent type of talent that meshes well together. To a man, the front office has acquired players who work hard, hold each other accountable, care for each other, and understand that the team is bigger than the individual. Since GM Sam Presti has quite a run at getting this exact kind of talent, I would be quite surprised if Jackson did not also fit into the mold.
As I stated in my first answer on the panel, the reason why you draft players is so that you can use them. At the time of his drafting, we speculated that the team went after Jackson because: 1) they were going to need more offensive punch off the bench, and 2) that the unpleasant reality was that Maynor, still on his rookie contract, would probably meet a number of suitors in the near future who would pay handsomely for his services. The fact is, Maynor is too good not to be running a team somewhere. I think Presti was looking toward a future when they would not be able to afford Maynor anymore. Unfortunately for us all, the organization is getting a preview now.
The consensus from our little round table was that Jackson has to be the man to step up, because for the team to look elsewhere for a short-term fix would violate the team's ethos. You simply never know what is going to happen when you acquire a player to be a short-term fix. Last season, the Thunder acquired Nate Robinson as part of the deal to bring Kendrick Perkins to the organization. Even though Robinson was not the reason for the deal, he was still a part of it and had an opportunity to help the team. To his credit, Robinson was a great encouragement on the bench, never rocked the boat, and was often the biggest cheerleader on the court. Unfortunately, when it came time for him to actually play, he was seldom on the same page as everyone else and seemed more interested in boosting his profile for a future contract. It was not surprising when the Thunder decided to buy out Robinson's contract. The Robinson experiment does underscore the fact though that when you introduce a player into the mix who is not a perfect fit for the team's identity, he may end up seeking his own ends rather than the team's.
The remaining question that we still need answered is, can Reggie Jackson foot the bill? When his number is called during a tenuous stretch, is he going to shrink from the situation or will he use his talents and meet it with full force?
Let's take a look back at Coach Nick's early assessment of Jackson, gathered from some time they spent together over the summer.
You can see there is a lot to like about the young point guard. He has a plethora of skills that can translate well to the pro level. What we do not yet know though is, how will Jackson respond mentally in a pressure situation? When he gets rocked by a Dwyane Wade dunk, or gets crushed by a Zach Randolph screen, is he going to come up fighting, or is he going to hear the foosteps?
There are not too many examples I can think of where a championship contending team was rewarded by placing its trust in an unproven youngster. Rajon Rondo comes to mind, as he played extremely well as a second year point guard for the 2008 champion Celtics. However, to his benefit, Rondo was the point man from day one. He had valuable time to learn the job playing along side Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
The other example I can think of stretches back almost 20 years to a Houston Rockets team that featured Hakeem Olajuwon in his prime. During the Rockets' first championship season in 1994, a rookie point guard from an unheralded basketball program named Sam Cassell served as the backup to veterans Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell. Over the course of the season, Cassell's game was fostered by the presence of this veteran leadership and he learned what he needed to provide. When the time came, Cassell was not rattled as he played a key role in that year's championship run and he took on an even bigger role in the following season, when the Rockets won it all again. The Rockets knew what they had in Cassell and put him in a great position to succeed, but Cassell had to prove he was ready to take the big shots.
In the same way, Jackson's immediate future is best projected not by his own skill alone, but by the veteran leadership around him. Playing along side experienced veterans like Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, and Nick Collison, will be a huge component in preparing Jackson for the big stage. When the time comes, we will see if Jackson has what Sam Cassell once had.
Do you know who else from that championship Rockets squad knew what Cassell could do? Cassell's teammate, a young guard named Scott Brooks.