What are the Thunder going to look like without the MVP Kevin Durant? It is one of the biggest questions as we rapidly approach this new season, and it is a situation to which Thunder fans are unfamiliar and unprepared.
The latest to take a look at the Durant-less Thunder team is the well-respected David Aldridge. Aldridge talked to a variety of scouts and presented three solutions for the Thunder on playing without Durant.
1) Play the best five players.
In this scenario, the Thunder would start Jackson and Westbrook together in the backcourt, with Lamb or Morrow at the three, Ibaka at the four and second-year man Adams at the five. Don't worry about the impact of starting Jackson on the bench's firepower, and don't worry about size; everyone is downsizing, anyway. (Via NBA.com)
That may seem obvious to most people. Usually you will be at your best when you start your five best players, but the Thunder have simply never done that. They love starting a defensive 2-guard (see: Sefolosha, Thabo) and rely on a scorer to come off the bench and run the second unit (see: Harden, James and Jackson, Reggie).
We may see that change with Durant out. Inserting Jackson into the starting lineup would take a lot of pressure of Westbrook.
If the Thunder also plan on wanting to re-sign Jackson, starting him may give them the best opportunity of bringing the guard back. He has been adamant leading up to this season that he wants to be a starter in this league. This may be Jackson's last chance with the Thunder to prove he can do it.
It is all up to head coach Scott Brooks. His formula for his starting lineup has worked over the years, but he hasn't experienced life without KD either.
2) Keep Anthony Morrow coming off the bench as its sixth man.
That would keep the Thunder's bench from short-circuiting most nights, as it did against San Antonio at key stretches of the Western Conference finals last June. OKC had to start Jackson when Thabo Sefolosha's jumper left him, but the reserves didn't deliver. In Game 5 against the Spurs, the Thunder's bench quartet of Sefolosha, Lamb, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler shot 4 of 17; in the Game 6 Spurs clincher, Lamb and Fisher were 2 of 7, Sefolosha didn't attempt a shot, and Butler was a DNP-CD.
Morrow's shooting would certainly help the Thunder's bench stay afloat when times get rough on offense without Durant. However, Aldridge talked to an Eastern Conference scout who I personally think has the right idea about what to do with the sharp-shooting Morrow.
An Eastern Conference scout, though, thinks Morrow should start with Westbrook, to put better perimeter shooting around him.
"He must initiate the offense for himself and others," the scout said. "Jackson, Lamb and Jones will be key off the bench. They are lacking in depth. I think Westbrook is looking for the challenge. It will be physically tough on Westbrook. (I) worry about injury and wearing down."
Westbrook is the most important Thunder asset with Durant out. We know Westbrook is going to go overboard sometimes and try to do too much. What makes Westbrook great as a competitor can sometimes turn into a temporary weakness. I think coupling him with Morrow will open up the floor more and have someone to bail him out when he gets in the lane.
Also, with Jackson coming off the bench and Morrow starting, Westbrook will know there is someone who can run the second-unit and won't try to do too much if they get down early. He knows Jackson can come in and provide a spark like no one else on the team.
3) Play with more pace.
The Thunder were ninth in the league last season in pace, averaging 95.4 possessions per 48 minutes. But OKC may have to play even faster to get the most out of Westbrook's incomparable ability to push the ball in transition.
Another scout suggested the Thunder use "drag" and early actions to take pressure off of the Thunder's half-court execution -- "which I would think would be lacking," the scout said. (Here is a very simple set of diagrams showing how former NBA player Fred Hoiberg, now the head coach at Iowa State, uses "drag" action to get early shots in transition, either for the point guard -- in this case, Westbrook -- in a quick screen and roll, or for the small forward or power forward off of quick passes set up by spacing the floor properly.
Any time you can Westbrook out in the open floor, good things are going to happen, but remember, this is a guy who has already had multiple knee surgeries. Even though there is no evidence that he is actually a human, at some point a burdensome workload is going to take his toll on him.
The Thunder aren't winning the NBA title in the first 15-20 games of the season. I don't see why they should push Westbrook to the max while Durant is out. It is not best for them long term and I think that is what is most important right now. Being healthy come playoff time is when it really matters.
So what should they do?
I think the starting lineup should consist of Morrow along side to Westbrook would be really effective. Their games compliment each other well. For defensive purposes I think Roberson is a good option at small forward. Then Ibaka and Adams down low.
Coming off the bench you would have Jackson, Perry Jones III, Jeremy Lamb, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison.
There's no doubt that rotation can survive without Durant for 15-20 games.