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The Curious case of Jeremy Lamb

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Jeremy Lamb was having the kind of season Thunder fans were hoping for, but now he's not. Why the rapid regression?

Jeremy Button
Jeremy Button
Chris Hanneke

When Jeremy Lamb came over in the James Harden trade, he was meant to be a key piece in the Oklahoma City Thunder's championship puzzle.

""He has great length," Sam Presti said in his press conference following the trade. "He's a very smooth athlete who is getting a lot done. It's just easy for him, the way it looks. He's giving you maximal effort he's just very graceful. He'll be a work in progress. We've been down this path before. ... At only 20 years old he has the prospect of being very good in this league. We feel like by adding Jeremy Lamb to Perry Jones and Reggie Jackson, we really feel good about some of the young players we have in this program."

That's exactly what Lamb has been, too. Every step of the way Lamb, just as basically every other player the Thunder has drafted has done, has trusted in the growing process and followed the Thunder organization's steps to one day have a chance at contributing to the team's success. That opportunity came this season. After bouncing back and forth between the D-League and some short runs in Thunder games last season, Kevin Martin's departure, along with Russell Westbrook's injury, meant the time was now for Lamb to take the next step.

It's been a gradual process, and Lamb still has yet to start in an NBA game, but his performance up until March 1st was more than serviceable. 9.6 points/2.7 rebounds/1.6 assists in 21.6 minutes per game. Not winning any Sixth Man of the Year honors with those numbers, but definitely a steady hand to Durant, Ibaka and Jackson while Westbrook healed his knee.

That was to be expected, though, as OKC had a specific need and Lamb was filling it. What did the Thunder need out of Lamb coming into the season? Ability to knock down open threes? He had the second-most 3-point makes in that span behind Durant. Ability to handle and protect the ball along with Jackson? He averaged less than a turnover per game. Ability to affect a game outside from just hitting open shots? His per 36 assist numbers were fifth on the team, and his rebounding was effective as well.

None of these things jump out, and yet not of them could be even remotely disappointing given Lamb's expectations coming in.

So what happened on March 1st? Caron Butler joined the team.

At its core, the Butler signing was smart. The Thunder needed a veteran 3-point shooter, as well as someone that could give tough minutes, particularly in playoff situations when young, unproven guys like Lamb may struggle. Butler getting minutes, and Lamb losing some, wasn't just to be expected, it was welcomed. Again, not because of anything Lamb did wrong, just because Butler provided another change of pace, and another weapon on the perimeter.

With Thabo Sefolosha down with an injury, it seemed even more likely Lamb would continue to see time.

Yet, here we are. Since March 1st, Lamb has seen his playing time dwindle to just 3.8 minutes per game. Butler? 26.7. That's already five more minutes per game more than Lamb was getting. 12 years of experience gets you a lot in the Thunder's rotation, apparently. With those extra minutes, you would hope Butler would at least be putting up better, or at least comparable numbers, right? Wrong again.

In his seven games with the team and, again, in 26.7 minutes per game, Butler is averaging 8.7 points/3.7 rebounds/0.9 assists with field goal percentage and three point percentage both at 36 percent. Basically, he's scoring less, distributing less and shooting 7 percent worse from the field overall - seriously, the Caron Butler long contested 2-pointer has replaced the Derek Fisher toe-on-the-line 3-pointer as Most Infuriating Thunder Shot. To Butler's credit, he is grabbing an extra rebound and shooting a percentile better from 3-point range than Lamb.

It's a conundrum Thunder fans have gotten to know all too well. It happened with Reggie Jackson, who was forced to give up valuable minutes to Derek Fisher - despite proving more than capable of carrying the second unit for stretches of time - simply because Fisher had more NBA experience. Now, it's happening with Jeremy Lamb.

When Sefolosha returns, it's likely Butler's minutes will come down. It's looking more and more, though, that if Lamb can't get minutes without him in the lineup, he certainly won't have a spot when the starting shooting guard returns.

There's no good explanation for it. Lamb has done his job up to this point, even providing a spark in key moments like in the first Miami game when he went off for 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting and played a key role in the comeback victory.

To his credit, Lamb hasn't voiced any displeasure and, though you could never tell from his traditionally sleepy face, he hasn't showed any real signs either. Just as Jackson waited for his moment to come - which, thankfully, it has - Lamb seems to be doing the same.

Presti and the entire Thunder organization brought in Jeremy Lamb because they believed he could be a key component to a championship team. Only, even as he has shown capable of being just that, Caron Butler - who was brought in for the same reason - has replaced him almost entirely, without any justifiable reason beyond his experience.

Why? That's a question only Scott Brooks has the answer to. That won't stop Thunder fans from wondering why Jeremy Lamb's minutes have dwindled down to nothing.