When Jeremy Lamb was sent to the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday and the best return that the Oklahoma City Thunder could drum up for him was cap relief in the form of Luke Ridnour's fully non-guaranteed contract and a 2016 second-rounder, it signalled the dwindling end to an era of optimism.
Lamb was a lottery pick back in 2012 by the Houston Rockets, and one of the core pieces to the James Harden trade of that summer. Nobody was expecting Lamb to be a superstar, but he was a likable guy that danced on the sidelines and had a cool hairstyle. Hope ran high with him and most thought he was made of NBA rotation player material at the least. A silky smooth release and long arms grant young players a lot of upside in this league, and for it, Lamb was almost fetishized as a better player than he was in reality by the Thunder faithful.
Unfortunately, upside has an expiry date. Lamb remains only 23, the same age as some of the older players recently selected in the NBA Draft, but after three seasons of non-development, the Thunder decided to move on. Shedding the $3 million owed to him and clearing a roster spot, by way of waiving Ridnour for no cost, is a short-term win as the Thunder will surely be paying the luxury tax next season.
Making a rotational cog out of Lamb would've been a long-term win, one of much greater value than simple, boring cap relief. However, the odds of that were low, and immediate priorities are more pressing than wishful long-shots. Unnecessary long-shots, we might add.
The Thunder face better chances for now that defensive stud Andre Roberson can find a single viable skill on offense and that restricted free agent Kyle Singler, if they manage to re-sign him, can make use of the diverse skillset that he displayed with the Detroit Pistons for two and a half seasons. Spark-plugs Anthony Morrow and D.J. Augustin remain, 14th overall pick Cameron Payne is joining and 2014 first-round pick Josh Huestis is on call. The Thunder have no need for a prayer upon Lamb.
Remember, Dion Waiters is still around to cash a $5 million salary off Sam Presti's hopes and dreams. Why pay Lamb as well for that?
It'd be wrong to say Lamb had shown zero progression in his three years with the Thunder. A dribble-drive game was beginning to form last season, and though most of his minutes came against garbage-time opposition, the ability to create stuff off the bounce is a valuable skill usually worth harvesting in the NBA. Lamb was smooth enough with the ball to get by a man on the outside, and could turn to a few different moves – a pull-up jumper, a floater, a finger roll – to finish.
In this play, Lamb slips free of two pick-and-roll defenders trying to force him sideline and converts over a third defender at the rim. The ability to take on over half of the enemy lineup and emerge with a bucket is certainly not something you see every day out of a guy who normally rides pine.
Lamb just never emerged with the polish. Last season, most of his stats stagnated or declined from the year before, and he never brought anything consistently, including the aforementioned dribble-drive stuff. The Thunder would especially have liked to see some growth as a defender, where his wingspan and athleticism could've been a valuable asset.
When nothing turned up useful after three seasons, the Thunder elected to stop digging. Facing Kevin Durant's free agency next summer, a win-now team like the Thunder is well within logic to have little patience for a player still trying to put it together on the final year of his rookie deal.
First and foremost, Lamb always had to be a shooter. On a team with high-usage stars like Durant and Russell Westbrook, he always needed to be able to fit in and contribute in another way. His release looked good and his shooting motion was fluid whether coming off the bounce, off a screen or on a vanilla catch-and-shoot. The results just never followed.
The first time he was given a trial run in meaningful minutes, back at the start of the 2013-14 campaign, he was prolific with the deep ball. Through the end of December of that season, Lamb went 41-of-103 (.398) on triples. That's a three-point specialist's percentage on more than three attempts per game off the bench.
But from there, things went south. Lamb's shooting bottomed out almost overnight. Since the calendar flipped to 2014 (a rough estimation of when his play started to decline), Lamb shot a lowly .327 on nearly 300 three-point attempts defined as 'open' or 'wide open' by SportVU, with the nearest defender at least four feet away. That was about 18 months of failing to earn back a rotation spot.
Some blame Scott Brooks for a perceived lack of chances extended to Lamb, another demerit for a coach that all but had a magnetic attraction for them. But how much of a coach's job actually unfolds before our eyes? Training camp, practices, his countless D-League assignments – Lamb had no shortage of opportunities away from the prying eyes of Thunder fans.
Where was his rise from the ashes when the Thunder were starved for bench support, or when injuries knocked out half of the roster last winter? Where was this mythical 3-and-D player when the Thunder trotted out specialists like Roberson and Morrow on the regular? I'm being blunt, but after a point, hope wears thin and so did Lamb's play.
A fresh start in Charlotte is a good thing for him. The Hornets' need for three-point shooting is basically a constant, everlasting flaw, so Lamb should get a fair shake under head coach Steve Clifford, especially amid a fresh makeover at the wing positions for that team.
If he rediscovers his two-month form of 2013-14 as a three-point shooting savant? Great for Lamb and his career. But it bears remembering, especially relative to the Thunder, that Lamb's contract expires after this season. Even if he shoots 40 percent from three next season, re-signing him as a restricted free agent would always have been a pricey affair. Cutting him short now revolved around the exorbitant payroll being committed past this summer in the first place.
Sometimes, wishful thinking is just that – wishful thinking. Lamb possessed the poise, the look and the feel of a NBA player. However, not every spin at the lottery hits jackpot, and at some point, you have to cut your losses short.