In the 2004-05 NBA season, the Phoenix Suns were a sight to behold. They had just acquired Steve Nash, and by surrounding Nash with both players such as sharpshooter Joe Johnson and pick-and-roll stud Amare Stoudemire, they produced the #1 offense in the NBA. This team scored on average over 110 points per game with a league-best offensive efficiency of 114.5. Stoudemire was a primary cog in this machine, as he was able to average 26 points per game on 56% shooting from the floor.
Stoudemire and his 26 PPG average was effectively lost for the 2005-06 season following microfacture surgery.
In the 2005-06 season, the Suns averaged a league-best 108.4 points per game off of an offensive rating of 111.2 (2nd in the NBA). They won 54 games and lost in the Western Conference Finals.
How did the Suns accomplish such a standard of performance despite losing their best big man and his 26 PPG average? I distinctly remember coach Mike D'Antoni speak about the idea that while one guy could certainly not step in and replicate Stoudemire's production, it was not that far-fetched to think that they could replace the scoring piece by piece if each player managed to increase his production by a percentage. How did they do? Take a look:
Which brings us to the Thunder and Russell Westbrook's 23 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, and a righteously nasty (or is it nastily righteous?) attitude on offense. Reggie Jackson is likely going to get Westbrook's minutes, regardless of whether Jackson starts or not. He's the man. However, does Jackson need to replace everything that Westbook brought? Mike D'Antoni would argue, correctly, that the answer is 'no.'
What the Thunder need is the ability to re-generate Westbrook's offensive production, not through one guy, but a collection of players. The task falls to Scott Brooks, who now must figure out how to approximate it. The question becomes, which Thunder players can scale their output production to put the Thunder's league-leading offense together?
What is scalability? In normal terms, it refers to a system or process to proportionately increase its output as its usage goes up. In basketball terms, it means that the more minutes a player is on the court, the greater his production becomes. Let's rank the Thunder roster based on scalability, with 1 being the least scalable and 10 being the most scalable. In other words, for a 1, no matter how many more minutes and opportunities you give him, his output will not proportionately increase, whereas a 10 is a player who steadily produces the longer he is on the court.
How shall we rank the Thunder?
1 - Hasheem Thabeet
Hasheem plays hard, seems to be a good teammate, and is enthusiastic. However, if we see his minutes climb at all, he is the least likely to produce any additional offense. That simply isn't where Thabeet's talents lie.
Perkins is what he is. There are some games when he's going to score 15 points and grab 5 offensive rebounds, and the next when those totals will be 5 and 5. The trouble is, the disparity is dictated more by match-up rather than minutes.
Orton seems like a good hustle guy, but we still don't know enough about him and he's unlikely to get much run time.
If these two guys actually saw any real minutes during the regular season they might have a better case. The main problem is that when they have gotten onto the court, they're still either gun shy or over-aggressive, so their points aren't likely to go up much, nor should we expect them to, until evidence proves otherwise.
Now we're getting into an area where we can actually see some point differentials manifest. Both Liggins and Brewer are defensively oriented hustle guys, and so if they're on the court more, they're likely going to produce something useful. The key is to not require them to do more offensively than the're capable. Collectively, I could easily see these two add an additional 4 points per game to the Thunder's total.
Here we have the Thunder's 2 de facto 3-point specialists. Fisher has not been shy about hoisting the jumper, and to his credit since his lengthy 0-fer, he has gotten more consistent. In Game 1 Fisher hit 3-4 from 3-point range. If he is given an additional 3 shots per game, I think that Fisher can add an additional 3 points per outing.
The same goes for Thabo. He is at a career high in 3-point attempts and has become very confident shooting the baseline jumper. The Thunder could definitely get another 3 points per game out of Thabo if his scoring opportunities go up.
Collectively, I'd look for this pair to increase their overall production by about 4 points per game.
6 - Nick Collison
Early on in the season, Collison was quite notably becoming a featured part of the Thunder's offensive sets. He was given more opportunities to both roll to the rim as well as shoot open jumpers, and I was very optimistic for his chances. However, he seems to have fallen back into his pattern from the past, where anything he gets is out of circumstance rather than by design.
In my opinion, OKC is really missing out on something by not having Collison more featured. If OKC goes with a big line-up featuring both Ibaka and Collison, that means that they have 2 bigs who have shooting range out past 18 feet. They can pick and fade or pick and roll. Collison is averaging only 5.1 per game this season. Give him more minutes and scoring opportunity, and that total could materially increase. There's 2-4 more points.
7 - Kevin Martin
I think that Martin's output is very scalable, but the problem is that he is still not shooting the ball with the kind of consistency that we'd like to see from their best 6th man. Rather than increase Martin's minutes, what the Thunder need to do is set him up in better positions to score. Two back-door cuts from Collison isn't going to quite cut it; OKC needs to get Martin into his good zones (left side of the court) and equip him with open looks. We could definitely see 4 more points from him.
8 - Reggie Jackson
Better Basketball is currently averaging 7.5 points after 2 games, a substantial improvement over the regular season. Jackson is going to get some very real, very good opportunities to score, and unlike a year ago, I think he's ready to sieze the moment. What is working Jackson's favor the most is that the Rockets defense still has a hard time staying in front of other guards, as Westbrook was able to consistently get to the rim. If Jackson can do that as well, he can continue that advantageous trend and likely generate 4-5 more points per game.
9 - Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is the big X-factor. During the regular season, Ibaka shot over 57% from the floor and finished with a career-high 13.2 points per game. However, when he was really locked in offensively, we saw numerous games where Ibaka scored both inside and outside and had multiple 20+ point games. He has the ability and he's done it.
Ibaka is really the guy who needs to sieze on this moment. However, it is up to Brooks to put him in that kind of position. If Ibaka can be used as a primary offensive piece, He should be able to add 5-6 points per game.
10 - Kevin Durant
Durant is the great equalizer, of course. He is fully capable of increasing his scoring output where it is needed. If you do the math up to this point, you can see we're already back to Westbrook's output, but it is foolish to think that the rest of the squad can all increase their output every single game. It is going to fall on Durant to figure out how much more he has to add and where it needs to be added to in order to keep the Thunder rolling.
This is what Brooks has to work with, and of course this is only one component of what Westbrook brings, but it is perhaps the most important. For the Thunder to be seen as an offensively dangerous team, they have to be able to maintain their output. However, even if they fall a bit short, there is one last factor to remember. The Thunder have a ridiculous scoring differential of 9.2 points per game, one of the best in league history. If the Thunder lose some of the top end off of that by reduced scoring, they still have plenty of padding to maintain a winning margin. On top of that, the Thunder can refocus their defense and define themselves that way. If some offense is lost off the top of that differential, it can be made up on the bottom end.
Brooks has his work cut out for him, but as we can see, he has the pieces to move forward. Game on.