Tell me if you've heard of this before: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are the starters for the team tied with the best record in the west. The Thunder have been using the same starting lineup since they traded for Perk in 2011. Even with the obvious elephant(-sized contract) in the room, it's a damn good lineup and one fit for a contender. Mostly because of a handful of really, really, really good players, but that'll get 'er done.
The flip side of having those exceptionally good players is that they'll sign to big contracts and take up a lot of cap space. Star-studded teams like the Thunder will rarely have the ability to field deep benches.
It comes as a pleasant surprise then that the Thunder have a pretty legitimate bench this season. 11 guys have played at least 150 minutes in the first 27 games of the season. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Nick Collison, Steven Adams, Derek Fisher and Perry Jones have formed a deep and reliable bench for Scott Brooks to reach into this season.
Want to know how much trust Brooks has put into this unit? After the starting lineup, the second-most played lineup for the Thunder is an all-bench lineup featuring Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Jeremy Lamb, Nick Collison and Steven Adams. Those five players have played 86 minutes together and have become a go-to option for Brooks in relief of his starters.
(Note: You could theoretically replace any of those players with Perry Jones, and we have seen PJ3 inserted into that lineup in place of some players on occasion. Here is what Scott Brooks said:
"He’s like the guy that I think about on our team that can be our utility defender"
PJIII has the size and athleticism to play at the rim and on the boards, but also the mobility and skill to play on the perimeter.)
Now, that lineup hasn't been a particularly good one. The 86 minutes they've played isn't a great sample size for conclusions about the overall quality of that lineup, but to date, it's been a mixed bag. Offensively, the bench has been inconsistent with a True Shooting Percentage of only 48.4% and an offensive rating of 95.2. Surprisingly, instead it has been a stout defense, earning a 93.4 defensive rating, that's anchored this lineup so far. The 1.8 net rating is alright, though it's still at a stage where even five minutes of play can influence it considerably one way or another.
Regardless of the early statistical returns, there are plenty of positives to take away from watching the all-bench lineup. Hell, we can start with the fact that this line-up even exists. A lineup regularly featuring three or four young guys and a veteran or two is practically Spurs-ian in its unconventionalism and trust. Those young guys are proving themselves reliable. It's a sign of something to work with going forward for the Thunder.
Let's start with the performance of the bench lineup on defense, because that's where they've been most impressive so far. It's genuinely surprising that they've played so well so far without any standout defenders. Certainly, they don't create an exorbitant amount of steals or blocks like the starting lineup can with Serge Ibaka or Thabo Sefolosha.
Of course, the subs play the same defensive scheme as the starters. The general idea of what they do defensively pertains to the Thunder's scheme of playing conservatively towards the paint when off the ball to protect the inside and rushing out to shooters as appropriate. Watch this video of how the Thunder keep cutting off dribble penetration and running out to their defensive checks until the Spurs are left with a wild almost-a-layup flip shot from Boris Diaw with 6 seconds left in the shot clock.
However, the bench lineup does have to make up for one-on-one deficiencies. While practically everyone in the Thunder's starting lineup is a plus defender (even Perk can throw his weight around in the post!), that's not true for the subs, who employ a bunch of less experienced players and tend to go small. Fisher and Lamb are the most obvious weak links in one-on-one scenarios, and we do see small mental mistakes like Adams playing too high against the pick-and-roll and then getting beaten by quicker guards.
That said, Scott Brooks has found a great way to hide the defensive flaws of his bench players. By using multiple players to double-team, help and rotate over in different situations (especially in the wings and corners), they become really hard to score on. The key to that type of defense is rotating correctly without making mistakes. So far, the mistakes have been kept to a minimum.
You can see it in the video above. When Patty Mills comes off the initial screen from Diaw, Collison comes over to cut him off and eventually trap him further towards the corner with Jackson. Lamb tags up on Collison's man, Diaw, to prevent a pass going to him, and he has time to recover on to Danny Green because of the pressure and the distance on the pass. When Green drives, Collison's there to cut him off too.
While the Thunder don't have such intricately-designed defensive rotations as that of a team like the Pacers, what they do gets the job done very well. One aspect that has helped the unit's defense greatly is that they have big men in Collison and Adams that both position themselves excellently and do a great job as help defenders. In any situation where a ball-handler beats his man and attacks the rim, Collison or Adams will be there to contest the easy shot. One would like to think that Collison's tutelage has helped Adams in this area.
This clip does a good job of highlighting both Collison and Adams' positioning and help defense around the rim. Collison first ventures into the paint to dissuade a rolling Elton Brand when Adams is playing Lou Williams on the pick-and-roll. This feeds into Millsap's decision to stop in midrange, allowing Adams to recover. On the next sequence of events, Adams is the one who has Collison's back as Collison gets beat by Paul Millsap but Adams rotates over perfectly and stuffs Millsap's shot.
There's no telling how sustainable this level of defense is. As they play more minutes, it's very likely they'll regress at least a little closer to league average. The lineup's defensive rating is an outlier beyond even what the Indiana Pacers do, which is common with lineup stats taken from considerably smaller sample sizes. With OKC's reliance on young players and veterans that are starting to lose their athletic edge, some regression would not be surprising.
On the bright side, there will be progression on offense to go with any regression in defense. There's plenty of reasons the unit has struggled on offense, but most of it can be boiled down to lacking a Durant or a Westbrook to distract the defense from lesser scorers like Jackson or Lamb. Sure, Jackson is great at scoring at or around the rim and Lamb has been money from three, but neither is a true go-to scorer. That'd be fine if the rest of the lineup could help them out, but none of Fisher, Collison or Adams will really contribute much on their own.
It also hurts that the unit struggles to space the floor. Fisher probably has the reputation of a decent three-point shooter by now, but he's shooting 23.7% from three for the season and teams are willing to help off of him. Jackson, noted three-point clanker, is barely over thirty percent. Lamb has overcome his early season struggles and is now averaging 9.9 PPG for December while shooting 40% from 3-point range, but he's just one man and Brooks has also increased Lamb's ball-handling duties. The lineup as a whole shoots 33.3% from three. The threat of a three-guard lineup goes way down when two of those guards are unreliable shooters.
For now, what a lot of the Thunder rely on are Reggie Jackson pick-and-rolls and Jeremy Lamb off-screen or spot-up plays. They are basic plays that work, but leave a lot of room for growth. Jackson has all of the attributes you want in a guy who attacks the rim out of pick-and-roll (hops, touch, speed, strength), and both Collison and Adams have enough touch to be serviceable as roll men. Lamb is a remarkable shooter with a lightning quick release and getting him open shots in any way will be a good thing, whether standing on the wing as Jackson draws the defense in on a drive or by running him through screens. I touched upon a favorite play of the bench lineup recently: a horns pindown for Jeremy Lamb.
It's a good sign that they have those types of plays in their playbook where they get multiple guys in motion (and horns sets specifically have been common with this group), because the same old isolation plays Brooks can call for Durant or Westbrook won't work as well with Jackson or Lamb. Instead, he's been relying on passing and off-ball movement to get the job done. Concepts like passing then cutting, using off-ball screens, and screening the screener have been staples of what the Thunder have been doing with their bench players. There's nothing particularly daring, nothing where we'd ever confuse Scott Brooks with Gregg Popovich. But basic sets to get guys open and on the move have worked, and it's refreshing to see that kind of ball movement when the stars have to sit.
It's hard to say whether or not this lineup can become anything more than average offensively. All of the motion on the floor is nice, but there's very little that can be done about a dearth of offensive talent. Jackson and Lamb will do all they can, but they're not quite talented enough to lead a team on offense for long stretches and they're not exactly helped by the players around them. When defenses can hone in on Jackson and Lamb as the focal points of the Thunder offense, plays ran for them can still end without a particularly good shot.
Here against the Bulls, Reggie Jackson never really gets a good opportunity to score with Tony Snell sticking right on him. Ditto for Jeremy Lamb on the zipper cut with Jimmy Butler right behind him. The play ends with Jackson having to force up a tough floater from the baseline through a double-team.
Interestingly, when Perry Jones III is switched into the lineup, the offense suddenly explodes in its efficiency. Although it's in a very small 53-minute sample size, lineups with PJ3 and any four of the bench lineup regulars have a 56.5% True Shooting Percentage. If you remember from earlier in the post, the standard all-bench lineup shot a TSP of 48.4%. The defense gets significantly better, too – with Jones, they allow a 43.9% TSP compared to 49.8% without him.
It's very surprising that Jones has had such a drastic positive effect on both ends, and it's hard to buy into it as sustainable over a greater period of time. At the same time, he has been really good whenever Brooks has played him. PJ3 is a great fit with Jackson and Lamb in transition, and his jumpshot has been reliable so far, even from three. On defense, he's worked his ass off to stay with players and is doing a great job of contesting shots both inside and outside. Who knows how much of this will remain constant, but it doesn't look like it'd hurt at all to play Jones some more.
With all of these young players on his bench, Scott Brooks now has a very deep group of players to work with in relief of his starters. Though not a particularly outstanding lineup so far, the all-bench lineup has been perfectly serviceable while giving guys like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook much-needed rest. If there's anything the Thunder can do to reduce the chances of another big injury come June, it's by working those guys less.
It'll be interesting to watch how this bench lineup develops as the season continues. Things like chemistry and player development will only help them with time, regardless of how statistical regression plays out. How guys like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb adapt to being used as a go-to option for brief stretches could be fun to watch, as will Perry Jones III if we get to watch more of him. The all-bench lineup looks locked in as a focal point of Scott Brooks' rotations going forward, so we'll see how that goes for the Thunder.
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