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Thunder history: Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, and the OKC lessons of not wasting talent

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The Thunder have always had a plethora of young talent. Developing that talent is not some necessary evil, it is a key ingredient to a successful future.

Lesson for today, a talented young player is a terrible thing to waste.
Lesson for today, a talented young player is a terrible thing to waste.

As I read the lingering debates about whether bringing in Billy Donovan was a good idea or not, there is this indicator light flashing in the back of my mind, like the oil light on your car's instrument panel. There is a subject lurking behind the scenes this season that doesn't look like it is going away any time soon that says that the move was not only a good one but at least a year overdo and offensive and defensive schemes have little to do with it.

After starting the season a tenuous 11 and 8, the Oklahoma City Thunder have steadied the ship by winning 10 out of their last 13. One would think everyone would be celebrating the Thunder's return to the top tier of the Western Conference standings but doubt and concerns about the 2nd team rotations still permeates throughout Thunder Nation and the reasons range from valid to...

In contrast, the Thunder's small-ball lineups have not only produced very good results on the court, but also been met with universal approval from the fan base. However, that success has opened a new discussion about how much small-ball the Thunder can play and who should be on the court and for how long. The argument centers primarily around depth because the Thunder bench is a tad short of options needed to keep a high energy, small-ball lineup on the court too long.

Therein lies the source of that indicator light in the back of my head.

OK, so it's not a light, it's an image. And that image is Jeremy Lamb's face and his per game numbers this season from BasketballReferce.com. Much much more on that later.

The previous image coexists with this next one from last season because there is a subject that was glossed over when Sam Presti replaced Scott Brooks. We don't have to rehash everything about last year but I am going to do a comparison that begins with Perry Jones'  first 5 games of the season, all starts, and here is what he did:

BasketballReference.com

Then Jones got hurt. By the time he recovered, KD was back and the numbers indicate that PJ struggled while redefining his role off the bench. When KD went out again, PJ started 6 more games:

After KD returned to the lineup for a second time, Jones put together a couple of nice outings off the bench, then a couple of poor games and poof, he goes from part-time starter to bench fodder for 5 games. Then KD misses a couple of more games and Jones is thrust back into the starting line-up after playing a grand total of 48 seconds in the previous 4 games and surprise surprise, he is rusty. PJ goes a total 2 for 11 in those starts and for all intent and purposes, Perry Jones becomes a ghost in a Thunder uniform for the next two and a half months.

The final blow came after the trade in February. New faces in the rotation and a desperate need for experience on the floor and who does Brooks decide to start?.... enter Kyle Singler. Check out Singler's game logs as a starter:

BasketballReference.com

Notice anything missing? .... like a decided lack of games in which Singler scored in double digits? (a deficiency that has deteriorated this season) In 18 starts, 1 double-digit scoring game. ONE! PJ recorded 3 double digit scoring games in his first 5 starts and shot 46% from the floor and added 3 more double digit efforts the second time he was put in the starting line-up while shooting 44%. In 13 total starts, including the 2 stinkers, Jones shot a combined 42% and scored 123 pts. In 18 starts, Singler shot 33% and scored 78 points. Three whole points more than the 75 points Perry Jones put up in just his first 5 starts.

Don't misinterpret this as some woeful lamentation about the loss of Perry Jones. He was damaged goods, something always seemed to be missing, I understand that. Most of his flaws were pretty evident; occasional lack of confidence, a little naive, sometimes tentative, and possibly even a bit lazy, but when he got his best opportunity to shine he did ... and then he got hurt. News flash, a lot of Thunder players got hurt last year and I felt like PJ battled just like everyone did with the seemingly endless rotation changes from the time he got back until he was suddenly banished and then was completely snubbed after the trade. It was painful to watch and as far as I am concerned, if breaking a man's spirit was against the law, Brooks would be in big trouble.

PJ wasn't perfect, but here is another news flash, neither was Russell Westbrook, or Serge Ibaka, and watch out!! here comes the lightning, heaven forbid and shut my mouth...... neither was the long lost and forever revered James Harden. Even Kevin Durant had a few kinks he needed to work out during his first three seasons in the league, believe it or not.

Merriam-Webster.com
Merriam-Webster.com

The definition of the word coach is phrased in a specific order because a coach's primary duty is to teach and train the athletes assigned to him, and Brooks had a specific, recognizable method of teaching that included unconditional court time. The definition doesn't say "perfect" athlete or performer and there are no stipulations regarding liking the athlete or not, it simply states a person who teaches and trains an athlete or performer. No athlete is perfect, otherwise they would not need a coach in the first place and some athletes are less perfect than others.

When Steven Adams was a rookie, I remember Thunder commentator Brian Davis saying that he had asked Adams what Brooks told him before he put him on the court the first time. The Funaki replied, "He told me to play hard and not worry about anything else."

Simple, and as we saw with Brooks' previous students, to a certain extent, effective. Adams spent most of his rookie season running up fouls and pissing off virtually every center in the league, but in the end, he learned how to play.

Brooks had established a standard in his teaching method. He used the school of hard knocks to expedite a player's development. Does anyone remember Westbrook's rookie season? Harden's? Learn as you play. If you get knocked down, get up and do it again. Enough said about Brooks' teaching style.

Somewhere along the way, Brooks changed...maybe. I remember his first season as interim coach when everyone played. That carried over to the next season, and the next. I remember thinking, this guy really gets it, you have to develop your bench, especially the young players, because you never know when the starters will struggle. The kids you have taught and nurtured along will have to pick up the slack, and taking their lumps on the court is the fastest way for that to happen.

But then Brooks stopped doing that. At least the way he did during his first three seasons.

I first began noticing a change right after the Thunder made it to the 2012 NBA Finals and traded away James Harden. Presti traded Harden in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and a future 1st round draft pick. I am in that minority that feels like it was a temporary upgrade in many ways because K-Mart's experience and versatility made him a very dangerous man coming off the bench, and the Thunder finished that season with a better record and better point differential than the year before. I just wish Mr. Money Bags, George Kaiser, had joined the ownership group sooner so we could have afforded to keep K-Mart a few more seasons. Now Martin is lost in obscurity banished to the American Siberia, also known as the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As we all know, the 2012-13 season was Lamb and PJ's rookie year. What had brought Brooks fame and fortune in the early part of his tenure was developing young players like Jeremy and Perry... quickly... by playing them... no matter what. It was beautiful watching KD, Russ, Ibaka, and Harden blossom in that environment. That somewhat changed after the 2012 Finals. It was like that environment was all a mirage that never existed in the first place. My theory is that when Brooks no longer needed to develop a core and rotation, he abandoned what built that core in the first place unless he was forced to fill a void. Case in point: Reggie Jackson, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams. There was a void, so they played.

Many people point to these three to rebut my claim about Brooks, but I ask you, had Eric Maynor not blown out his knee, would Brooks have allowed Reggie to go through his early growing pains to become what he did? And didn't Reggie ultimately get replaced in the rotation by Derek Fisher come playoff time? The same goes for Steven Adams as well. Brooks needed a back up center, so the Funaki got to play, bumbling and stumbling his way to becoming one of the most hated centers in the league, HA! I'm not going to lie, I loved it!

(Aside: Who will ever forget this?)

I believe that had Hasheem Thabeet turned out to be anything, or if Nazr Mohammed had not been older than dirt, not only would this unforgettable crazy play never happened, we would still be wondering what Adams could do on the court at all.

Which brings me back to Jeremy Lamb.

To save space I will just provide a link to Jeremy Lamb's BasketballRefence.com game log page. The link opens his rookie season, but you can verify my comments about other seasons by simply placing your cursor on the orange highlighted "Game Logs" drop down and pick any year you want.

In this case supporting Scott Brooks' replacement I have already discussed Perry Jones final season at Oklahoma City so I will call that Exhibit A and call the Jeremy Lamb evidence...

Exhibit B

B for brainless.

Jeremy came to us in the Harden trade after training camp was over and he was behind and didn't know our system so a lack of playing time was reasonable...for a while.  So Jeremy spent a great deal of time his rookie season in Tulsa on the Thunder's D-League affiliate, the 66'ers, but what about what the games he was recalled to OKC on 2-4, 2-6, and my early favorites, 2-8 and 2-10-13? All of those Thunder wins by 20 or more points, and Jeremy never even got on the floor, in any of those games, ever. For the real head-scratcher, the eye-opener, the WU-U-UT the %&*@ game... your honor I would like to direct your attention to 2-27-13, a 45 point shellacking of the New Orleans Hornets and what Jeremy Lamb was apparently doing throughout that entire game. Your honor, Mr. Lamb did exactly what he did in the previous examples and the 29 point beat down the Thunder handed the Houston Rockets on 4-21 in the first game of the playoffs. He picked the lint off the suit he was wearing while he sat on his arse on the inactive list!....that's what.

In all, Lamb saw the playing floor for only 147 minutes in Oklahoma City and added 689 minutes during his time in Tulsa for a total of 836 minutes. He was assigned to the 66's 10 times, and recalled 10 times. The drive between Oklahoma City and Tulsa takes approximately 90 to cover, so that means Lamb spent about 64 more minutes perfecting the route between Chesapeake Arena in OKC and the BOK Center in Tulsa than he did honing his in-game skills. I feel certain whoever currently carries Jeremy's auto insurance appreciates that added driving experience today.

Kevin Martin was outstanding that season, but Presti didn't trade James Harden primarily for K-Mart! Good grief! That was a well known and now infamous one year rental. He made that trade because, at the time, the Thunder could not afford to pay James Harden what he wanted, and it came with Jeremy Lamb and the draft pick that brought us Steven Adams. In essence, two for the price of one. Prior to Kaiser's billions becoming a part of the Thunder ownership group, we couldn't afford K-Mart long term any more than we could afford what the Beard was demanding. Lamb represented the future, and Brooks squandered multiple opportunities during the first year of Jeremy's rookie contract.

Lamb wasn't the only rookie Brooks neglected, either. Take a gander at Perry Jones' game log from his rookie season. His insurance company is also happy today.

Same thing. Now I ask you, how nice would it have been to have more options off the bench after Russell Westbrook injured his knee in the 2012-13 playoffs? Granted, there are usually no guarantees in life, but here is one. By not developing those two youngsters like he had every talented young player he had coached before them, and when game situations clearly dictated some time and investment in them, Brooks guaranteed they could not help the team in the playoffs.

Fast Forward to Lamb's 2013-14 game log.

K-Mart is gone as expected and with his hand being forced to do it, Brooks starts playing Lamb, no matter what. The Brooks School of Coaching in full effect and the game log early in the season reflects just about what you would expect from a talented player with only 147 minutes of NBA level playing time under his belt. Lamb was inconsistent but promising, and the Thunder started the season 14 and 4. (One game of note is game 2 on 11-1-13 in which the previously mentioned K-Mart and his new team, the Timberwolves, sent the Thunder home with their tails between their legs after a 19 point spanking.)

Jeremy then began gaining traction during the next sixteen games. The Thunder were now 27-7, winning at a sparkling 79% clip, so opponents began adjusting how they were defending Jeremy. They had film on him now and started forcing him away from his comfort spots and he began to struggle. The wheels didn't come off completely, but the early season inconsistencies returned. The hammer finally came down, this time from within, or from behind depending on how you choose to look at it, when the Thunder picked up free agent Caron Butler.

Nothing against Caron, who was a warrior while he was here, but Brooks committed what I consider two of the unforgivable sins of coaching. Brooks immediately gave Butler regular rotational minutes, despite previously explaining away Lamb's lack of playing time during his rookie season by saying Lamb came in late and didn't know the system. Now that the roles were reversed, Lamb knew the system and Butler didn't , and yet Butler essentially absorbed a great deal of Lamb's playing time. While I understand that Lamb was not the best defensive player on the roster and didn't have Butlers experience, Caron was 34 years old! Lamb still represented the future and cutting his minutes appeared to be a double standard. Especially when you consider this. Caron and Jeremy posted identical defensive ratings of 105 that season and in Caron's time in OKC his PER was 11.9. Jeremy's PER was 13.4.

I have always believed that the cut in Lamb's court time after the team acquired Butler damaged Jeremy's confidence, and more importantly, delayed his development. I also think it damaged Brooks' credibility as a coach. I don't think Jeremy ever trusted Brooks as far as he could throw him ever again.

The result? In the short term, Jeremy once again wasn't fully prepared for yet another playoffs run when injury dictated a need for depth.  In the long term, Brooks may have lost Lamb permanently.

The proof of that last statement is written all over Jeremy's 2014-15 game log. He got a few chances to play, but he was never really the same. Oh, his numbers were fine early on as a starter in that injury riddled season and even perked up with 5 consecutive double-digit scoring efforts from the bench when Russell returned from injury, but then began to fade when KD returned to the lineup and Lamb's minutes began to decline. By Christmas, Lamb was an afterthought. When Brooks continued sitting Jeremy after KD's injury sidelined him for a few games in late January and then opted for the new guys after the trades after KD was sidelined for the remainder of the season, that sealed the deal.

Lamb was done. Brooks or no Brooks, he wanted a new start and personally, I don't blame him. There are some memories even a new voice can't erase.

After watching how Brooks handled PJ and Jeremy in 2013-14, I started calling for a coaching change. Then after the February trade and a handful of wins but seeing virtually no PJ and Jeremy in the rotation, I was done. I really don't think I could have stood another season of Brooks, and the X's and O's had nothing to do with it. In a small market, young players are the lifeblood of the future and I had completely lost faith in Brooks on that critical front. Evidently, so had Sam Presti, at least to some extent, but unfortunately in Jeremy and PJ's case, he waited a year too long to do something about it.

It is quite possible that Perry Jones' future may have been doomed from the start. His general on court demeanor indicated he had a starter's mentality and with Kevin Durant on the roster that just wasn't a realistic option.  Lamb by contrast produced whether he started or came off the bench. Exactly what a team needs from the 6th man role.

In Lamb's time in OKC he started 9 games and scored in double figures 5 times. As a result of erratic playing opportunities, the only way to get a sense of what he might have done here is by looking at the adjusted numbers such as his OKC career 16 pts/gm per 36 minutes or 22.4 pts/gm per 100 possession stat lines. Not bad, and he did it in less than optimum conditions compared to the young players that proceeded him in Brooks' system.

Maybe Lamb's defensive struggles explain Brooks decisions regarding Lamb's playing time but was it any worse than this:

Additionally, weren't there serious doubts about whether Enes Kanter would ever shows signs of developing a defensive game? Enes still has work to do, but he is clearing working to improve and on that subject of improvement, a final stat from Jeremy Lamb this season. His defensive rating is 102. Andre Roberson's rating is 104. I am not saying Lamb is a better defensive player than Roberson, I am well aware there are variables to account for, but when Lamb played in OKC, his career defensive rating was 106. More untapped potential?

In the final analysis, when you consider Caron and Jeremy's 2013-14 defensive rating and Fisher taking Jackson's playoff minutes you realize that Brooks did not trust his young players enough to allow them time to grow at the most vital times unless he had to. Trust is a two-way street, Brooks demonstrated he did not trust them so in turn, they lost trust in him and now they are gone. Such a waste.

I can't help but wonder how Jeremy would have fared had Presti brought in Donovan a year earlier. I think Lamb would be doing exactly what he is doing in Charlotte right now, maybe better, and so do a lot of others. Where we part ways is who we feel Jeremy would have replaced on the current roster. Dion Waiters is the name I hear most in those debates, but all the numbers point at Singler. Heck, the numbers indicate we would be better off with PJ, because for whatever reason, Kyle has not clicked in a Thunder uniform. A 43% shot-maker at Detroit is shooting just 24% this season, is foul and turnover prone, and has yet to record a single assist. NewOK's Anthony Slater reported that Singler's current PER is -1.3, the lowest in NBA history for any player that had appeared in at least 150 minutes of any particular season. The league average PER for a NBA player is 15.

Jeremy Lamb's PER this year? 17.91, currently 9th among active NBA shooting guards. Singler's PER even makes Dion's 10.94 look good. Who am I kidding? Singler's PER makes PJ's 6.9 look good!

I don't blame Singler for any of this. I think if he ever gets a chance to play in a system more suited to his skill set, or somehow finds a way to adjust to the speed of this team, he will be successful. But considering how the Thunder could use additional depth for a pretty salty small ball line-up and ball handling skills, I remember how Lamb stepped up and ran the backup PG spot against the Lakers when we were short handed last year and shake my head. What a senseless waste of time and talent.

I want to make it clear that my conclusion that the Thunder needed a coaching change was not a knee jerk reaction to missing the playoffs last year. Prior to the 2012-13 season I was as big a Scott Brooks supporter and apologist as you could ever find and defended him against his X's and O's detractors as hard as I later called for a replacement, but once I realized that developing young players took a back seat if any other option presented itself I was convinced a change was necessary.

I also concede the possibility that a change in circumstances could explain the changes I saw, but then the problem falls to a failure to communicate that effectively and that is worse and again leads to trust issues.

In conclusion, young talent is the key to maintaining success in Oklahoma City so don't think for an instant I don't have my eye on the Cameron Payne game log. Let CamPayne miss playing time in a blowout or two and I will notice, but thus far Payne has played in every 20+ Thunder win and even seen PT in a few tight games. I know DJ Augustin is the current backup point guard, but Payne is the future, as is Mitch McGary.

Donovan hasn't been here long enough for me to gain a full grasp of his development methods and the installation of a new system team -wide is delaying that evaluation, but whatever precedence he sets needs to stay consistent. It is critical that he apply that with all the young players or risk losing their trust.

Let us hope that "Coach" Donovan is a student of history and more importantly, doesn't let history repeat itself. Otherwise I will be on him faster than you can say sic'em, and giving all of Anthony Morrow's minutes to a player sporting a -1.3 PER  against Cleveland when you have a lottery level draft pick that needs to be developed sitting on the bench is just the ticket to make that happen. Payne may be a rookie, but that small-ball depth issue isn't going to just disappear and the last time I checked even a weak PER of 8.9 is better than -1.3.

Let's go Coach.