Last night's game against the Kings, aside from it being possibly the last time we ever see the Kings, wasn't a notable affair. We've seen the Thunder dominate the Kings twice before, and the Kings are headed straight to the lottery.
Yet, it might be more important than you think. Because for the first time this year, we got a true look at some of the bench players that never get to see the floor. Their overall performance wasn't tremendous, given that Durant and Westbrook basically carried the team. But when you look at what they did individually, it's clear that they have something to contribute.
Unfortunately, they won't be getting a second look. Going into the playoffs, Scott Brooks will definitely be using an air-tight rotation of 9 players, with potential dashes of Hasheem Thabeet if the situation calls for it. He's been pretty adamant about the rotation all year, with the Thunder only seeing real change when Derek Fisher signed with the team.
Before I start ripping into Scott Brooks, I should make it clear that a consistent rotation has its' advantages. Everybody has a role on the team, downplaying the potential for conflict. We've read articles before about how Kendrick Perkins basically has to play the role of peacemaker in the locker room. I can only imagine how hectic it would be if you switched Scott Brooks for Rick Carlisle, who substitutes players on different patterns pretty much every game.
On the other hand, nobody on this roster has had a real chance to prove themselves. Let's look at it on a case-by-case basis.
Case 1: Daniel Orton
Daniel Orton, after basically sitting out his entire college career and rookie year with injury, barely made the Oklahoma City roster. If the James Harden trade had never happened, it's fair to say that he might not be playing for the team at all. Still, he has looked impressive in his D-League stints, averaging 12.5 PPG on 53.4% Shooting while chipping in 7.8 Rebounds, 1.9 Assists, 1.1 Steals, and 2.2 Blocks during 28 minutes a game. How he played last night only strengthened his case, as he managed to score 10 Points on 4-6 Shooting while chipping in 7 Rebounds and 3 Steals.
Orton isn't a world beater in any sense of the word, but he is looking more and more like a viable backup center option. His rebounding is probably the best thing about him, as he has the best rebound per minute ratio of anybody on the entire team. His offense isn't anything that would set the world on fire (two of his field goals against Sacramento were tip-ins), but he couldn't be worse than Thabeet, who is among the worst of the league in that category. Defensively, he's about par for the course when it comes to bigs. He did a good job of keeping Aldrich away from the rim (only one of Aldrich's attempts came when Orton was in the game), and he did an admirable job guarding Cousins on the perimeter.
All in all, after seeing what he did tonight, I honestly don't see what makes him any worse than Hasheem Thabeet. Sure, Thabeet has the height and length advantage, but beyond that, Thabeet is worse in pretty much every category I can think of. I understand the perspective of wanting to develop Thabeet by letting him see real NBA minutes, but when the Thunder are looking for a championship, you've got to have the best squad on the floor.
Case 2: Ronnie Brewer
Ronnie Brewer was a viable NBA role player for years, playing a valuable role for Jerry Sloan's Jazz and the Chicago Bulls' Bench Mob. That is, until last year, when he landed in New York. Mike Woodson had the terrible idea of trying to use Brewer as a three point shooter. The idea was initially successful, but as Brewer's averages leveled out towards his true percentages, he was reduced to sitting on the bench.
When he was shifted from the Knicks to the Thunder at the deadline, it looked like he might be a viable option for the Thunder, who desperately needed defensive help next to Kevin Martin. Unfortunately, he arrived into town on the same day as Derek Fisher, who would steal all of the remaining minutes at guard. As a result, Brewer is now mainly an option whenever Kevin Martin or Thabo Sefolosha might get hurt.
Last night against the Kings, he reminded us all why he wasn't ever known as a scorer. He blew a couple of gimme layups (which he's done his entire career) and he missed a lot of easy jumpers. However, one thing stands out about his performance.
13 FRIGGIN' REBOUNDS
Yes, you read that right. A swingman was able to grab 13 boards in just over 30 minutes of play. What do you attribute this to? Well, obviously, the numbers are inflated, because the game was played at a relaxed pace and the energy level wasn't at that of a playoff contest. But you still can't deny the sheer amount of hustle that Ronnie Brewer displayed out there. He was able to literally rip rebounds out of other players hands, and showed a fantastic sense of where the ball would land.
On top of that, Brewer's defense is unheard of. He sticks to his assignment on the perimeter like glue, and doesn't generally gamble for steals. In other words, he's a jack of all trades that could be applied to a lot of situations where the opposing team has a great scorer that the Thunder can't stop. Moreover, his offensive ball-movement is excellent, and he could serve as a decent secondary option next to Reggie Jackson, freeing up space for Kevin Martin to score. Honestly, I still don't see why this guy isn't getting time.
Case 3: DeAndre Liggins
DeAndre Liggins is another surprise out of training camp. He wasn't re-signed by the Magic, and it looked like he was headed for a stint in the D-League. However, his sheer amount of hustle and quickness convinced the Thunder to hire him. Along with some rather successful runs with the Thunder starters while certain players were injured, Liggins has torn up the D-League stat sheet. At last check, he averaged 11.6 PPG on 45.1% Shooting, 6.9 Rebounds, 4.3 Assists, and 1.7 Steals.
He's an extremely quick defender to excels in both pressure and sticking to his defender. He's also a decent ball handler, able to dribble through traffic and pass out of pressure. All in all, he reminds me most of Kyle Weaver, a similarly energetic defender who got spot minutes for the Thunder during their first and second seasons in Oklahoma City.
However, he does have a number of flaws. His shooting is downright terrible sometimes, and he really can't create space on his own. He's also too small to be any sort of factor down low, so it's hard for him to get to the rim or pull any fancy moves.
He was pretty much the defensive stopper option before Ronnie Brewer rolled into town, and even today there are those that would argue for him in a debate. Some might say that his shooting is better than Brewer's, or that speed beats bulk. In any case, he's definitely a player worth consideration, despite the fact that he's gotten nothing but mop-up minutes since the deadline.
Case 4: Perry Jones III
Perry Jones III was drafted out of Baylor with the
30th 28th pick. The league had considered him to be a viable lottery option, since he was the size of a forward but had the offensive skills of a guard. However, his draft stock completely fell when questions surrounding his work ethic came up, along with a degenerative knee condition that could limit his long-term playing time.
In contrast to his draft stock fall, Perry Jones dominated the pre-season. Hype on him was so high that Scott Brooks actually promised him regular minutes, roughly the 10-12 that exist when Kevin Durant isn't on the floor. Unfortunately, those minutes never materialized, and Jones was reduced to mop-up duty for the vast majority of the season. He has been somewhat impressive in the D-League though, averaging 14.3 Points on 45.1% Shooting, 7.3 Rebounds, 1.7 Assists, and 1.2 Steals.
It's hard to know whether he's really qualified to get regular minutes yet. Obviously, he's a diverse scorer, but other than some decent rebounding ability, he doesn't bring a whole lot more to the table. He'd be a nice weapon to have, but does he really warrant taking away touches from Kevin Martin? Still, with the trouble the Thunder's bench unit has scoring, it's hard to deny that he might be able to give them a boost.
Case 5: Jeremy Lamb
Jeremy Lamb is the strangest case of them all. Draft 12th out of UConn by the Rockets, he came to Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade as a bit of an enigma. We all knew that he could score and shoot, but what really separated him and put him on an NBA level?
Unfortunately, we still don't have the answer to that question. However, in the D-League, this guy has really, really torn it up. 21 Points a game at nearly 50% shooting is nothing to sneeze at, especially when coupled with 5.3 Rebounds, 3 Assists, and 1.2 Steals. He was also really impressive last night, showing the ability to weave his way down low for a few easy baskets. Though he was 0-4 from three, he also had a lot of confidence from beyond the arc, teeing up from 2-3 feet behind the line and missing it narrowly. Defense isn't his forte, but he was impressive there as well, using his long arms to intimidate the offense.
It appears that Lamb could be the solution to a lot of the Thunder's immediate problems, but he's still pretty young and prone to bad decision-making. Though his talent is probably above that of anybody else on this list, I can see Brooks' reasoning in sitting him. Still, maybe if he had been given a role in the first place, I'd be eating my words and he would be a significant contributor at this juncture.
At the end of the day, all I'm saying is that, like everybody, the Thunder are a flawed team. They struggle on the offensive boards, they can't defend the perimeter, they don't have enough bench scoring, and they can't defend bigs who shoot. These sound like problems that need to be addressed in the off-season, but they're problems that can be addressed right now. Heck, they could have been addressed two months ago. The solutions are sitting right on the Thunder bench.
I know, counter-arguments can be made. These are minor players fighting for minor minutes, and I don't see these guys play every day in practice. Heck, the Thunder could win the championship this year, and I might have to shut my mouth. But if we're sitting there in the playoffs, looking at the disaster that our bench unit is turning out to be, I'd like you to remember one word.
It's what Scott Brooks used to describe the reasoning behind playing Derek Fisher despite his consistently atrocious shooting. I know that Derek Fisher was a huge factor in the playoffs last year, providing a cool head and scoring when the Thunder needed it most. But this year, the Thunder have a more legitimate option sitting at point guard right now, and there's guys better than Lazar Hayward waiting in the wings for a chance to play shooting guard.
Moreover, it's even harder to justify the use of Hasheem Thabeet, who has been his usual self over the course of the season. Aside from brief flashes, he's been the exact same player he was when he was drafted, and has been abused by some centers in the past.
I know, it's too late. The Thunder have to roll with what they have at this point, come hell or high water. But if they make an early exit, you've got to look back on this season and wonder why none of these five guys were given a shot.
I'm sure Thunder management will be wondering the same thing.
What do you think of these potential players and Scott Brooks' lineup management? Let us know in the comments!