The Thunder weren't a team that dug deep into their bench for production last season. Certainly, they weren't the Denver Nuggets, a team that was approximately 11-deep in quality rotation-level players. While the Nuggets had nine players averaging at least 18 minutes per game, the Thunder had just seven.
Of course, the Nuggets were a very different team than the Thunder. The Nuggets weren't dependent on any superstars, seeing balanced contributions from everyone without one specific player leading the way. The Thunder, meanwhile, had the benefit of two of the league's best in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and leaned on them heavily–as they should have.
The Nuggets have seen their share of changes this offseason, but the Thunder remain a team that will lean on its marquee players. That will work, given who those players are. However, they will still need contributions from their bench.
The first player that the Thunder will look to is Reggie Jackson. Kevin Martin, who ranked fourth in minutes per game (27.7 mpg) for the Thunder last season, is gone. The expectation is that Jackson will come in and get additional minutes, after stepping up admirably in the playoffs when Russell Westbrook went down.
There was a lot to be learned about Jackson's playoff performance, even though it was just eleven games. It was both his longest and his best performance in the NBA over a stretch of games. He played second fiddle to Kevin Durant in the starting lineup, averaging 13.9 points on 47.9% shooting, with 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. On a national stage, Jackson showed that he was an energetic and athletic finisher in the lane, someone capable of at least reducing some of the impact from losing Westbrook. His pick-and-roll play was very strong, and in many ways, he resembled an early Russell Westbrook.
It wasn't all smiles, though. Jackson's flaws were apparent as well. The first one to rear its ugly head: shooting. While Jackson has learned to finish layups and dunks at a high rate, he still struggles from the perimeter and defenses didn't respect his jumpshot. On three-pointers, he shot 23.1% in the regular season and 30.2% in the playoffs. This was part of the reason why Kevin Durant struggled so much in the playoffs–defenses were completely willing to ignore Jackson on the perimeter and double-team Durant. In the following clip, watch how Jackson's defender completely leaves him on the perimeter as soon as the ball goes to Durant. This plays out exactly the way the Rockets hoped, ending with a missed Jackson three.
One more concern was Jackson's playmaking ability. While he was never asked to be the go-to playmaker for the Thunder, his assist ratio of 23.1% ranked him 72nd in the NBA. His court vision is still a work in progress, and at this early stage in his career, his playmaking is still a step behind when compared to most other NBA point guards. Jackson does keep his turnovers relatively low (2.13 assist-to-turnover ratio last season), which is a good sign going forward.
A sixth man role of 24-26 minutes off of the bench looks very likely for Jackson this season. This is a role that could suit him very well, providing a shot of energy off of the bench against other 2nd units, the way James Harden used to thrive in OKC. Playing behind Westbrook is significantly easier than trying to replace him altogether. Defenses don't respect Jackson as they do Westbrook because of his inability to shoot and his still-developing passing instincts, but in facing a second unit instead of the Mike Conley's and Chris Paul's of the world, Jackson's weaknesses can be minimized. Coming off of the bench to provide energy via his scoring in dribble penetration and pick-and-roll situations fits Jackson's skillset best, and he could average something along the lines of 12 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in his role this season.
Everyone's favorite screener! Once again, Collison projects to be the third big man in the Thunder's rotation after starters Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. He's been hovering around 20 minutes per game for the past four seasons, and there's no particular reason to expect that to change this season.
We know what we're getting from Collison, who has been as reliable as they come. Not every basketball fan can appreciate Collison's game, whose highlights consist of the occasional put-back dunk or the rare but ingeniously crafty play. Nothing jumps at you from the stat sheet (5.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists), but Collison's strengths lie in the subtleties of smart basketball. He sets strong and smart screens, scraps for rebounds, makes the right pass, plays solid defense and can step out to knock the midrange jumper from 16 to 20 feet.
With Collison, nothing really changes going into this season. Because of his style of play, it's easy to fit him into any of the Thunder's lineups that they like to use. Looking at some of the lineups played last season, Collison saw time playing center alongside Serge Ibaka or Kevin Durant in a small ball lineup, which took advantage of Collison's combination of mobility and ability to defend bigger centers. However, Collison also has the range to play power forward and can do a lot of things out of the high post, be it screening, passing or spacing the floor. That versatility allowed the Thunder to use him alongside all sorts of players, and that should stay the same this season.
One thing that might be interesting to keep an eye on is to see if Collison continues the trend of taking more and more midrange jumpers. Looking at his shot distribution charts of recent years, there has been a very gradual increase in percentage of shots taken from midrange for Collison. 26.69% of his shots this season came from between the paint and the three-point line, which was the most in that area since the 2007-08 season. With a poor outside shooter in Reggie Jackson replacing a great one in Kevin Martin, there could be a greater need for spacing from other players. Collison won't necessarily be that guy they go to for outside shots, but he could still see an uptick in those shots. For example, we could see a greater volume in pick-and-pop plays between Collison and Jackson.
Like always, Collison will keep chugging along to do what he does. Roughly twenty minutes per game, with stats that might not seem to match up to them. It'd be a bit of a surprise if he came up with numbers that are particularly different from last season's. However, his true value lies in the intricacies of basketball, and he'll be a reliable and mistake-free role player to plug in alongside Serge Ibaka's shot-blocking and Kevin Durant's scoring.
Lamb is the young and unknown quantity on our bench, Jeremy Lamb was drafted 12th overall last year and came along with Kevin Martin in the James Harden trade. However, he was anchored to the very end of the bench, also seeing a lot of time in the D-League with the Tulsa 66ers. With K-Mart gone this season, Lamb has a serious chance to pick up some playing time.
Sample size is a major factor with these stats and most of them were accrued against garbage time lineups, but we can glean a vague idea of Lamb's skillset from his numbers. Per 36 minutes, Lamb averaged 17.4 points, 2.2 threes and 4.4 rebounds. Those are hardly realistic expectations from him next season, and it's also worth noticing that he shot 35.3% from the field and 30.0% on three-pointers. In the D-League, he averaged 21.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists on 49.0% shooting and 35.2% from behind the line.
What we know about Lamb is that he's a scorer above everything else. He's smooth off of the dribble, and a capable shot-creator with or without the ball. Interestingly, his efficiency from the arc has been mediocre at every stage since college, but he's reliable in the midrange. Outside of scoring, Lamb appears to be still developing in other areas of the game but he does show signs of being a decent defender and rebounder for his position, given his freakish 6'11" wingspan and solid athleticism.
The opportunity for Lamb this season could be as much as 15-18 minutes or more. Obviously, it'll come down to whether he's ready for those minutes, but at the moment, Lamb does seem like the second guard to go to for the Thunder. Additionally, he's one of the few players on our bench that are feasible options in the role of "three-point shooter", a role occupied by Martin last season. After Lamb, the only other options the Thunder have are Derek Fisher and Ryan Gomes. Lamb's efficiency is still a question mark, but it's hard to make an argument for any of the other players over him. Additionally, Lamb is a nice fit for the Thunder's small-ball lineups as one of the taller guards on the roster at 6'5".
Lamb is still on the come-up, and it's hard to know for sure what to expect from him. He'll have to prove that to the coaches during training camp and preseason. With that said, he could take on the role of a much-needed three-point specialist. An year removed from being drafted in the lottery, it's fair to be very excited to see just where Lamb's talent level is at, and if he can help this team win.