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Sounds of Thunder: Is There a Ceiling for Cameron Payne?

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Cameron Payne made a bold statement on draft night, has he lived up to his own hype?

When you got it... you got it!
When you got it... you got it!

Shortly after the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Cameron Payne with the 14th overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, he boldly proclaimed that, "There is no ceiling for Cameron Payne." The statement drew so much attention that it is very easy to quote, and a simple Google search of "ceiling Cameron Payne" pulls up literally thousands of options with the quote right there in the teaser. No further searching required.

What is a bit harder to find is the entire interview. The best I was able to do was this short clip taken during draft night on Vine:

(audio available by clicking on Vine icon in upper right)

Obviously the words I quoted stand out in that clip, but what struck me most was Payne's matter of fact way of saying it. He was talking about competing in the NBA and with it, asserting he has no limits as casually as he would say he was going to wake up in the morning.

At the time, I remember paraphrasing in my mind the words of "Lucky" Ned Pepper, Robert Duvall's character in the movie "True Grit," to Rooster Cogburn, when told he was about to be shot or hung at Judge Parker's convenience.

I call that bold talk from a skinny Mid Major point guard.

Fortunately, when I misjudged the situation as Ned Pepper had, I didn't end up "shot to hell" and dead from a "bully shot" from the man from Texas, but I have had to start eating those words and doing so with great relish.

The Thunder are currently riding a seven game winning streak, their longest of the season, and Payne's insertion into the rotation has played a big part in that. In these last seven games the Thunder's bench has outscored their opponents 274 to 254, in the last 5 games they have blistered their 2nd team counterparts at a 201-169 clip, and in the last 3 games that included playing a suddenly hot Denver team and sixth seeded Dallas team on the road, the Payne-led reserves outpaced the opposing team's bench, 123-114.

basketballreference.com

Not bad from a bench that WTLC's Chris Hanneke referred to as "The Suck" just over a month ago. While Hanneke's conclusion that the bench should never be fully trusted without some on-floor "starter" supervision still holds, Payne has made it easier for such oversight to be spread out among the starting five rather than falling strictly on the shoulders of Thunder All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

While seven games is obviously a small sample size from which to draw any definitive long term conclusions, there are a few positive trends coming from the bottom part of recent box scores that bode well for the second half of the Thunder's 2015-16 season. For example, in both recent Thunder road wins, the bench has produced the scoring margins that led to those wins. In the Thunder's six point win against the Denver Nuggets, the bench outscored the Nuggets' reserves by seven, and that is nothing when compared to Friday's night's 3 point win in Dallas in which the OKC bench blasted the Maverick bench 47 to 27.

On January 12th against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the first game of the current winning streak, the bench was outscored 29 to 45 but battled to a 47 to 47 tie with the T-wolves' reserves just three days later. Again, nothing totally conclusive here, but a good sign nonetheless.

However, this next trend is the most valuable in my opinion and I hope it continues throughout the season. In the Thunder's January 17th twenty-five point win over the Miami Heat, the bench finished the game at +23. On the surface that may seem like a trivial observation, but I would argue that their contribution against a good defensive opponent, resulting in Russell Westbrook's mere 33 1/2 minutes and Kevin Durant's minuscule 31 minutes floor time is very significant... and even though the bench was outdone by the Charlotte Hornets 39-57 on the 20th, their ability to hold the lead allowed KD and Russell to sit out the entire 4th quarter.

In one of my recent posts, "How Donovan is going to fix the "real" problem," I argued that overusing KD and Westbrook to cover for the bench problem would have dire long term effects in the post season. Clearly something had to be done to correct The Suck, but I felt then and still maintain that it was imperative for Coach Billy Donovan to reduce Durant's average minutes no matter the cost.

Donovan has managed to do that and more.

On Christmas day, less than 24 hours after my "real problem" post was published, I had the unenviable task of writing the recap for the Thunder's nine point home loss to the Chicago Bulls. I had just written that the best course of action was to stay the course and let the bench play through their problems and D.J. Augustin promptly hit the floor the next day and laid a -13 egg. Every other bench player either broke even or was in the black, but I felt DJ's performance had brought everyone down with him, and I wrote this after the game:

What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?

Not one Thunder starter finished on the plus side. However, three of the five rotation players did with another breaking even. The exception was DJ Augustin. In 30 games, Augustin has only finished on the plus side 10 times. He is the biggest problem the Thunder have. Even Kyle Singler has 10 games on the plus side. It's time to expand the rotation to eleven and get Cameron Payne's 17.9 PER some playing time.

I do not presume to have any sway over coach Billy Donovan's decision making, but apparently he saw the same thing I did and acted upon it. Cameron Payne was added as the eleventh man in the Thunder rotation against the Denver Nuggets on December 27th, claimed the back up point guard spot, and hasn't looked back.

In the fifteen games since the Yuletide debacle against the Bulls, the Thunder have won 13 times. Prior to Payne's inclusion in the rotation, the Thunder were winning at a respectable 69% clip. That winning percentage jumped to 81% over the next 15 games, increasing the team's season percentage to 73.3% and the best part is that Kevin Durant's playing time has only increased by 12 seconds per game in the process. Russell Westbrook's minutes have actually been reduced slightly.

In the "real problem" post I calculated that in Durant's first 21 game, Donovan had deposited 67.2 minutes in the "KD Playoff Minutes 'Patch' Account." I.e. regular season minutes being saved for the playoffs. That number climbed to 91 minutes, a modest 24.8 increase in the following 17 games, but Durant has averaged just over 33 minutes per game in the Thunder's last 5 games.

Obviously promoting Payne to back up floor general is not the only adjustment that Donovan has made, but his presence has allowed Donovan to be much more flexible with which starters' minutes increase to shore up the various issues plaguing his bench. The overall result is the bench is beginning to show better results even in those times there is no starter out there with them. That was evident last night when Collison was taking Adam's starter rotation with the bench players on the floor. On any normal night, that is pure bench on the floor and that was the lineup entering the second quarter with the Thunder up 2. That pure bench lineup was on the floor until Westbrook replaced Payne at the 7:49 mark and the Thunder still held a 2 point lead.

Replace Payne for Augustin and Singler for Morrow and you are looking at Hanneke's The Suck. The group with the atrocious -22.6 net rating holding a western conference playoff quality foe, with two of their starters still on the floor, to a draw, on the road.

Payne says his job is to make everyone around him better. So far he is doing just that. Again, we are talking small sample size, but I feel completely comfortable saying that Kyle Singler has played better in the Thunder's last 5 games than in any other 5 game stretch you can put together this season. Dion Waiters is finding it easier to be the player he needs to be on a much more consistent basis, and we are beginning to see the pick and roll Payne was famous for at Murray State beginning to surface with Kanter. All of this has transpired in only 332 total minutes. That is roughly ten games when put into starters' minutes. That is an amazingly low amount considering what we are seeing on the floor every night.

Clearly Cameron still has work to do, but you can add my name to the passenger list on the "Payne Train." When he said "there is no ceiling for Cameron Payne," I thought he was bragging. Now I wonder if he was short changing himself.

At this point, you won't find Cameron Payne's name on any Rookie of the Year short lists, and that is reasonable considering his late start to the season. However, I can see him being included in those discussions soon if he continues improving at anywhere close to the rate we have seen this past month.

Soon after Payne's promotion, he made his presence felt in a big way in a hard fought match-up with the Milwaukee Bucks. After the game Kevin Durant had this to say:

"He saved us tonight," Durant said of Payne. "The second unit saved us tonight. The first unit didn't play so well and the second unit came through and played well for us."

and added...

"He's a point guard, a natural point guard, been that way his whole life, I could tell when I first saw him play. He's looking, his eyes are always moving up the court when he's in transition. He's not trying to score; he's looking for everybody else and that's good to have on our team."

When asked if there had been indications of Payne's ability during training camp and practice Steven Adams responded:

"Actually seen a lot better, to be honest with you..." then added, "Not trying to put expectations on him, but he's good, man. He can play."

So I will ask again, "Is there a ceiling for Cameron Payne?"

Well of course there is....the problem is that I just can't see that far.