When the Oklahoma City Thunder played the Chicago Bulls on Christmas day and ended up with a loss, I've noticed several common mistakes that the Thunder had been committing and struggling from since the departure of Kevin Martin. For instance, lack of production from the shooting guard spot, unreliable secondary unit, scarcity in offensive creativity, and the absence of a dependable offensive unit that could diminish the offensive pressure on the Thunder's superstars.
Despite the presence of these issues, the Thunder are yet an elite team and a championship contender ranked third behind the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors in the Western conference. However, when it comes to defeating teams such as the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavaliers on a seven game span, there are indeed certain issues that should be fixed or else the Thunder will probably fail defeating the following teams. Obviously, all the concerns that I've listed above cannot be solved immediately and the majority of them will take time in order to be solved. However, there are specific solutions that could be addressed immediately as the Thunder are highly anticipated to win a championship in 2016.
The first solution is that Serge Ibaka needs to fulfill his role as a part of a big three. That way the team would have a reliable offensive unit that would reduce the offensive pressure on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Unfortunately, Ibaka isn't living up to these expectations and is inconsistent both offensively and defensively. You might disagree with me on this point however if you compare both his offense and defense with his past two seasons, you are going to notice the difference. Sustaining a stable level of performance from OKC's big three is crucial to win a championship, and if Ibaka cant maintain that stable performance, it is going to cost the Thunder a lot championship wise.
Moving on to the second solution, a productive and a reliable secondary unit could vastly elevate the team overall level of play and help accomplish their goals in the playoffs. I believe the key for that solution is Cameron Payne. His performance against the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks indicated that this kid has the ability to spark the bench consistently and deserves to be the back up point guard of the team instead of DJ Augustin. On Sunday night against the Nuggets, Coach Billy Donovan used Payne as OKC's back up point guard, playing him over DJ Augustin for the first time. He played for 12 minutes dishing out a pair of assists and hitting two big threes as well as spreading his energy all over the floor. Donovan also played Payne as the back up point guard in their next game against the Bucks for 15 minutes where he finished with 16 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 5-of-6 shooting from the field and 2-of-3 from the 3-point line, and 4-of-4 from the free throw line.
These numbers show that Payne has a great court vision, ability to shoot the ball from behind the arc, and defensive rebounding. He played 77 minutes this season and hand out 15 total assists. He is 6-of-10 in December from the 3-point line and 3-of-3 in the past two games. Also, he had a total of 7 defensive rebounds in the past two games. Other than that, Payne is alert, aggressive, energetic, and aware of the ball movement that is happening on the floor. Furthermore he had already established a good chemistry and connection with his teammates especially Enes Kanter who is averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds. The following aspects indeed bolster the Thunder's bench productivity.
"I really like playing with him," Kanter said. "If he gives me an assist, he looks at me like, 'You're welcome.'"
"He's aggressive. He's never nervous." Kevin Durant said. ''He saved us tonight.'' Kevin Durant added, "He's a natural point guard, been that way his whole life. I could tell when I first seen him play. He's looking, his eyes are always moving up the court."
"Payne definitely sparked us," Steven Adams said. "He got the bench hyped up."
In contrast, the under-sized Augustin is going through a shooting slump. He is shooting 27% from the field and 30% from the 3-point arc in the month of December, which had been impacting the bench lately. Based on that, I believe Payne deserves to be in the edge over Augustin when it comes to acquiring the back up point guard spot not only because he sparks the bench, but because he is the future of the Thunder.